Dennis O’Driscoll, Dear Life, 112 pp, £9.95, Anvil Press

Dennis O’Driscoll’s death casts a shadow over this book and often seems to be anticipated within it. It’s striking and admirable then that so many poems crackle with a wit that is mordant but full of life.

Full of life partly because his language is so vigorously contemporary. This allows him to speak directly to the reader, including, I would imagine, the reader who rarely looks at a poem. It gives everything he writes what Thom Gunn called “the sniff of the real”. But full of life also because O’ Driscoll is steeped in learning, however lightly he wears it. Shining through his use of the clichés of the pub, the newspaper article or the bureaucratic report there’s a rich play of allusions and an immense sensitivity to the accumulated resonances of words.

We can see how these opposite qualities complement and strengthen each other by looking at the beginning of “Fabrications”:

God is dead to the world.

 But he still keeps up
 ……………..appearances. Day after
day he sets out his stall.

This uses one of O’ Driscoll’s favourite devices, that of exploding clichés into fresh metaphor and multiple meanings. Pauses and spacing separate these meanings out to brilliant effect. For example, the flippant cynicism of the phrase “dead to the world” brings God down to earth with a comical bump. But in “God is dead” we also hear the cry of the madman in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, articulating the metaphysical crisis of the nineteenth century. The white space after “he still keeps up” fills with thoughts of all the other things God might be said to keep up (the universe?) before they’re reduced to “appearances”. “Keeping up appearances” suggests empty snobbery, but within it we feel the stirring both of the sense of ghostly appearances (another joke) and of the serious religious idea of an epiphany (“appearance” in the sense of a manifestation of God). Ideas go on spooling out. Within “sets out his stall” lurks the stable of the Nativity. I don’t know whether O’ Driscoll believed in God or not, but if he did he subjects that belief to an extraordinarily stringent testing by doubt. If he didn’t, he leaves us with sobering thoughts about the implications of disbelief. The point is not the conclusions he comes to but the questions he raises and the complex, conflicted feelings he displays in the process.


Even those poems that seem repetitious on the page, would, I think, go down a storm at readings, where having quickly got the main point the audience would relish the wit and skill with which O’Driscoll spins out puns and metaphorical conceits.

His humour is haunted by darkness. Sombre intimations of mortality are everywhere – the ‘I’ of several poems contemplates the idea of his own death and the long title poem itself takes stock of a life under the shadow of a visit to Radiology. There’s a very moving last poem (“Nocturne Op. 2”) that looks death in the face, but I think O’Driscoll’s view of life and his moral honesty are best summed up by a stanza from (punning title) “Admissions”:

Before you do down life again,
badmouth a world that never lives up
to its billing, recall how glorious it seemed,
your unwillingness to let go, that evening
you were driven to Admissions.

I wrote this for The North 50 and would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post it here.


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