Dannie Abse, poet and GP, read at Dundee University at least once, in the early 1980s. He was an imposing figure, and a fine reader. He exuded modest energy and drive, and quiet achievement. Now that he has entered upon his tenth decade and has suffered major losses, the keenest that of his beloved wife of many years, and also that of his brother Leo, maybe life has diminished him. That, indeed, is the rueful posture of many of the poems in this strong, coherent collection, which bears comparison with Douglas Dunn’s Elegies and Christopher Reid’s A Scattering. Rueful or not, his Jewish tenacity will out, not to mention his bardic Welsh hwyl, that high love of the poetic for its own sake.
The “ventriloquist bird” of the collection’s title appears in the opening poem, “Talking to Myself” (allegedly a habit of the old). It reappears from time to time, including in dream in the final poem “Gone?”,
Always I wanted to hear the heartbeat
of words and summoned you, oneiric one.
I changed your feathers to purple and to white.
It’s an odd muse to make the subject of one’s appeal. Proverbially garrulous, all such a bird does is . . . parrot. You can dress it up as majestic, but nothing changes its ungainly charm. Given its habits, it can’t help repeating certain sounds. It’s as awkward and tenacious as one’s grief. Many birds mimic. The parrot is just the best known; and in some homes until recent times, housebound, and comically humanised. But if grief is itself domestic, how will it be domesticated? Abse’s well-developed distancing and sense of the absurd are here in full play. If like an old parrot, he repeats himself, there’s comfort in it. In his epigraph, and at various points, he is a secular Dante, longing for Beatrice. He knows about Hell and Purgatory, though not Paradise, and resorts to poetry, as an ordering of feeling.
Abse’s bedside manner has been, again and again, the subject of numerous poems in past collections. Eloquent on his own helplessness, and on the triteness of his consolations, he combines in himself (as all general practitioners must do, and as Chekhov and Carlos Williams had done before him) compassion with a clinical eye. That eye belongs to a trained diagnostician. No detail is beneath notice; there’s no fixed border between the merely contingent and the symptomatic. Certain flower scents and colours; cricket; gathering woodland bluebells in childhood; eccentric relatives; familiar paintings and music; the Hebrew Bible; Jewish funerals; the old Olympian gods; one’s wife who can never return; one’s dead brother; Welsh stories and landscapes; the poetry of Vaughan; one’s former medical practice – all are drawn in and valorised in homage to themselves, and to Abse’s art. The underlying, fearful prospect, and the collection’s valedictory note, is that the cage will be empty once the parrot has flown. If that should happen, from where will comfort come? On the evidence of this deeply felt, frequently ironic, often painfully literal sequence, there’s no prospect of Abse losing either the solace of verse, or his sense of humour. He is grimly funny on the absence of sex. In ‘Perspectives’, ‘A waitress bending forward to pick up a spoon / bothers me in more ways than two.’ Second adolescence thinks about sex all the time, but doesn’t do it. Where thinking on lost sex is also the reliving of lost love, humour is palliative.
Auden said of poetry written in God’s praise that it must be insincere, because poets want to make good poetry as an end in itself. Something similar might be thought of all confessional verse. Abse is wryly aware of the problem. His hard-won honesty extends to admitting that, having lost his wife and much else, it would be a grief too far to lose poetry.