Sinéad Morrissey & Douglas Dunn, hosted by Vona Groarke; Martin Harris Centre, 9 October 2017.

At the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, under the Cosmo Rodewald Theatre’s star-filled ceiling, two very special stars themselves – Sinéad Morrissey and Douglas Dunn – recited poems of undeniable truth and sheer honesty from their new collections, On Balance and The Noise of a Fly. Of course, it was only fitting that our brilliantly engaging host, Vona Groarke – first introducing the evening and then Douglas Dunn – would recite a line from Dunn’s poetry about the extraordinariness of the cosmos: “The back of my hand / With its small network of veins / Has changed to the underside of a leaf. / If water fell on me now / I think I would grow”. It is this growth which, Groarke insisted, led Dunn to bridge the gap between poets of the Movement and the contemporary poetry world.

Beginning by reading an excerpt from a sermon by John Donne, Dunn revealed to the audience that the title for his new collection originated from reading this particular sermon on the imperfectness of human beings. He spoke firstly on the importance of distractedness, and how human beings devoting themselves wholly and fully to one thing fall short, because of distractions like the noise of a fly, before reciting one of his new poems, Wondrous strange. Taking inspiration from a scene between Hamlet and Horatio in the play Hamlet, in which both characters contemplate the wonderment with which Heaven must be filled, it is with great conviction that Dunn delivered the opening line, “Now it can almost be heard. But not quite / Almost”. It is nothing short of spectacular to say that the audience was waiting and listening for something.

Dunn’s poem touching on the wonder of such things was mesmerizing to listen to, as when Dunn described “the scent of one who is no longer / here”. In all of its simplicity, this line struck me the hardest, as Dunn has effortlessly combined this feeling of love with loss, without having to tell us that the scent is like ‘musky smoke’ or ‘heady roses’. The line was simply real, and engaging.

Thursday was recited subsequent to an anecdote that Dunn revealed to the audience about the humdrum life of a university professor. His charming wit and timely dry humour in this poem had the audience quietly laughing to themselves, as lines which revealed how professors are in the habit of “however-ing and therefore-ing” and “boredom snoredom” is what they guarantee, not a foreign concept to a theatre hall half filled by students. These sneaky neologisms which Dunn incorporates into his writing are effective; he is able to change the entire meaning of a word by applying it to a situation which would relate most to his audience. Poem for a Birthday also held many accounts of this quotidian humour which Dunn infuses throughout his poetry beautifully. The lousy conjurer who was present at his son’s birthday party was at the very least laughed at, if not laughed with, as Dunn described his act as “All thirty quids’ worth of rank incompetence”.

Class Photograph dates back to 1956, the year in which Douglas Dunn had his high school class photograph taken. The opening line is nothing short of terrific and thought-provoking; “We were Elizabethan girls and boys, / Too young for politics, too old for toys”. The closing lines were even more terrific, “And the scarcely visible orthodoxies / All still in place, plus global urgency, / Destructive wars abroad … And yet, God bless / Democracy, dissent, and the NHS / Which underpins our civic decency”. I can write this down, but it is something entirely different having Dunn fiercely articulate these words to you, and reciting them to yourself in your room after having heard the former. The rhythm is undeniable as is the polemical message. As Dunn’s poems usually center on the business of modern day-to-day living, it was especially thrilling to hear his voice move from eloquence and elegance, to one of passion and fervour, as did the end applause celebrate this.

Groarke introduced Sinéad Morrissey as enthusiastically as she did Douglas Dunn. As well as focusing on the topic of engineering, Morrissey’s poems meditate on the finer tuned and calibrated relationships between human beings in On Balance: we are the engineers of our own complicated and mechanical selves. Morrissey began the second half of the night by reading her first poem from her new collection, At The Moscow State Circus. “Our kids are so bored and sugared up / they’re about to froth with tears, like soda fountains”; the sounds especially, throughout this poem were spectacular. The mention of kids, namely Morrissey’s own children in her poems, brings a welcome and youthful take on seemingly ordinary circumstances. This perspective is furthered in her poem, My Life According to You, in which she sped up her voice and the narrative of the poem, taking on the voice of her six year old daughter.

Of course, it would be remiss if I were to not address or comment on Morrissey’s response in her book to Phillip Larkin’s poem, Born Yesterday. To be brief, I loved it. In fact, I think I loved it a little too much. This poem spoke volumes about female empowerment, so much so, that I could feel a certain buzz of triumph in the air where I was seated amongst my other fellow classmates consisting of mainly girls. “You rarely mention women, / except to stress our looks / or what we cannot do, / though ‘girls’ persist / in separate, lit-up boxes”; Morrissey’s challenging and direct tone – as Vona Groarke would put it – ‘flies in the face of’ controversy. Her clear and concise diction only further serves to empower young girls whom look to her, to get educated about the importance of young women expressing themselves as honestly as they can. “My brilliant daughter – so far, in fact, from dull, / that radiant, incandescent / are as shadows on the landscape / after staring at the sun”. The final lines in this poem which speak about Morrissey’s daughter coincide with a similar message in Dunn’s, Poem for a Birthday to his son; be true to who you are, regardless of the world telling you what you can and cannot be.

My favourite poem of the night, The Mayfly, recorded how Lilian Bland, on being told that she couldn’t join Louis Bleriot on his next flight because she was a woman, responded by designing and flying her own plane: “what sudden / lift of bones and breath / allowed you to stand up straight in mechanic’s overalls / (skirts are out of the question) and plot / your escape route into the sky?” I had to remind myself, by the end, that I was indeed sitting in a theatre hall and not on the sidelines cheering Lilian Bland on for being a hero in her own right. “You ran the finished may-fly, / may-not fly still missing its engine”, there is something very uplifting and hopeful in Morrissey’s tone in this poem, it is extremely beautiful.

Groarke wrapped up the night with a few questions of her own, and then turned it over to the audience, one of her own questions being, is anger a useful starting point in poems? To which Dunn replied, “You can’t go on being angry all your life… you mellow out when you’re older” and to which Morrissey replied, “It is quite hard to write a successfully angry poem, and it is on occasion that you can say what you want to say”. She finished by describing herself as a more “exuberant poet” than an angry one. A particularly intense question came from one audience member: “How could the response poem to Larkin be written by someone who thinks Larkin is wonderful?” Morrissey replied gracefully, “Poets aren’t black and white, and neither is what they say black and white”. But the absurdity of the question is worth a stronger response: when did the concept of liking a poet suggest that we cannot be critical of one’s work or even write response poems to their poems. Poets do not agree on everything, and neither do human beings.

The Manchester Literature Festival continues until October 22 in venues across Manchester. This piece also appears at Chapter & Verse, the Manchester Literature Festival blog.

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