Kettillonia, 2009. £4.50 inc P&P
Reviewed by William Bedford, Sue Butler & D A Prince
Gordon Dargie’s a tunnel of love is a sequence of sonnets exploring the ambiguities of sexual love, an ambiguity hinted at in the indefinite article of the title. From a brutal upbringing in Lanarkshire to the “midsummer dim” of Shetland, the poems reflect on and reflect the anguish of being caught in a cultural context where ‘nothing happened’ but the deepest human experiences went on unacknowledged.
It is the muscularity and vigour of the language which both voices and contains—gives form—to the violence of the experience. The third sonnet of the sequence, ‘Nothing happened’, dramatises a boyhood encounter in a public lavatory. The incident is described in conventional English—‘the man just puts his thing under his raincoat / and he steps over and smiles down at me’—which in its very inappropriateness emphasises the awkwardness of the situation. When the poet switches to a mixture of first person English and Scottish dialect for direct speech the scene comes alive:
and then the man says Are ye a poof, son?
and I don’t know and I say What’s a poof?
and he doesn’t say and he says to me
Where’s your mammy? She oot there waitin for ye?
and I’m going to say Yes and I say Aye
and the man says Just you go to your mammy
and the other man is looking all the time
and I go outside and say I managed fine.
There is a whole cultural history in that dilemma over choosing between Yes and Aye, and a sexual dilemma resolved in the rhyming of time/fine.
Some of the most successful poems in the sequence use Scots and the difference is extraordinary. Translate “Ye wear short troosers jist tae let the farts oot” from “Boys must wear short trousers” into polite English and you lose the force immediately. It is a force which is both funny and political, placing the humour in a grim urban impoverishment: “An when he taks his troosers aff at night/ it stinks the place.” More than this, as I said above, the distancing effect both expresses and gives form to a reality which almost defies what we think of as ‘poetry’. This is most powerfully the case in the poem ‘The hole in the wall,’ where the awfulness of encounters in public urinals is given a rough and moving beauty.
This is a fine collection, most powerful when Dargie depends on the resources of his own language, though there are traditional and wonderful rhythms and images throughout:
The dusty bluebells done, rhododendrons
in their turn bloomed to a savage harvest
torn from dirty branches that hid the dens
and paths where we were not to be alone.
Occasionally, he allows himself to use conventional metre—as in ‘Nothing happened on the way to school’—and the failure highlights the difference between metre and rhythm. But on the whole, the rhythms of a tunnel of love are absolutely right, and compelling, not least in the remarkable group of love poems called ‘Maggie’s shoes.’
I know we should read poetry with ear not eye, but there was something about being faced by four sonnets after four sonnets every time I turned a page, that wore me down in a way this pamphlet definitely doesn’t deserve.
The more open (but still a sonnet) format of ‘A midsummer dim’ was very welcome. While I’m hugely impressed by so many well-crafted sonnets, a variety of formats would have added to their power. I was going to say it would let in the light but I think I mean let in even more dark; because some of these sonnets are very dark indeed. As in the sonnet simply called “O”:
Two uniformed policemen filled our hall.
The blackness drained the colour from the walls
and they told Granny Davy killed himself
and all she said one soft phrase was O.
Davey, “my big cousin paratrooper” who “found the Coast Brava/ before the package holidays to Spain” meanders through these sonnets, “kind . . . shy and slow/ in a family with no time for softies”. Davey likes men. He likes them a lot.
I suspect, Dear Reader, you won’t need smelling salts to revive you at this news. But Gordon Dargie writes about a time when such things were kept hidden. Compassionately and uncompromisingly, he bears witness, recording the real, vital, passionate experiences that couldn’t be acknowledged.
Not flinching from the truth, Dargie sometimes uses Scots to great effect as in ‘By the way’, which begins:
. . . thae men were nice, well once
or twice a nasty kind, ye’ll aye get that,
but aa the rest were really nice, though no
as nice as you. I’m married by the way.
The wife’s a decent woman—I respect her—
And as this dark, powerful sonnet sequence moved from Lanarkshire to the midsummer dim of Shetland I felt exhausted but exhilarated by the journey—one I began with trepidation but thoroughly recommend you don’t miss.
D A Prince:
Sometimes you can read a collection of poems and know, instantly and deeply, that this will change the way you look at all poetry collections in the future. Gordon Dargie’s collection is one of these. His thirty-nine sonnet sequence (the larger, and most significant, part of this pamphlet) sets a standard against which you will measure your future reading—for structure, for narrative control, for language, for new ways of writing about being human.
Let’s begin with the narrative: Dargie is exploring sexuality and what love might be within the timescale of growing up in Lanarkshire, and into adulthood. Life is ordinary and bleak; he knows “the pleasantness of boredom” and five of the sonnets use the phrase ‘Nothing happened’ in their titles. The fact that this leaves you reading fast, waiting for what is happening, is a mark of Dargie’s skill; everything is happening, but not spelled out. The opening sonnet, hesitant and entirely natural in the language of its first line, about a boy asking where he comes from—and getting an unexpected account of his adoption, which overturns all the family relationships—then overturns the reader’s expectations: the adoption is accepted, sidelined. “I wanted/ to know about birth and sex and death”, he ends—and this is what the sequence develops. The sexual approaches come from men, and are taken for granted: the family’s stoical resistance to talking about anything except mundane routine leaves him finding out on his own about sex, then hesitantly about love, and then the rich pleasures of marriage and children.
Now to the poetry. This collection is proof that the sonnet isn’t dead, and that it is capable of great variety. Seven rhymed couplets suggest apparently simple school days, variations in rhyme (and half-rhyme) schemes keep the sonnet shape flowing and moving, but all in a subtle un-showy way. This language is the everyday, the language of working class families in the 1950s that avoids saying anything to shock; he describes “listening/ for what they would not say in the pauses.” It’s “the sense of being outside inside out”.
Some sonnets are direct speech, the characters unnamed, in Scots. The lack of naming suggests the casual sexual encounters, furtive, and not spoken of, though the family knows about homosexuality, and Dad warns of it obliquely through collected newspaper cuttings. There are uncles and cousins (all male) who appear, are ambiguous, and vanish.
The layout is regular: two sonnets per page, and then, in the thirty-fifth sonnet, ‘A midsummer dim’, the fractured lines of the sonnet fill the whole page as he uses language to show the nervous edging into love, the two people who (in the next sonnet) share their “weight of narratives”.
This is a first collection, but doesn’t feel like it: the style is mature, the handling of speech rhythms and syntax so varied and supple, the multi-voicing so sure-footed, that I wonder how many unpublished poems Dargie has, the practice pieces that were the foundation for this. Kettillonia has presented them perfectly: a traditional layout, paper and cover that convey substance and old-fashioned values, so that the innovative handling of form and language is even more striking. I will be carrying my copy around for a long time; it’s a book I want to live with.