Bugs by Anthony Dunn. Carcanet / Oxford Poets

Bugs is Antony Dunn’s third collection and it is a deeply impressive one.

On the purely technical side, Dunn shows a versatile mastery of metre, phrasing and syntactical pacing that barely if ever falters. At a time when the mere ability to hammer out a metrically consistent line and to use rhyme are enough to win praise for technical achievement, the fluency, delicacy and inventive assurance of his versification are a pleasure in themselves. They are matched by his skill in other respects. A number of the poems seem on first reading to be sheer entertainments, made delightful by the elegance of Dunn’s art, by his inventive wit, his sensitivity to the multiple meanings and resonances of words coupled with lightness of touch in deploying them, his powers of cinematically vivid description, his flair in the handling of implicit and explicit metaphors and similes, his deft shifts of tone, and his imaginative fecundity. We see these qualities in a whimsical fantasy like the train manager’s announcement which begins

We apologise for the delay 

but two miles up the line
a freight train has broken down

and is weeping diesel
into the shushing snow

and ends with the seal-skinned, polar-furred manager driving his dog team through the aurora in search of help. We see them in “Bread Line”, a powerful meditation on the Bosnian cellist who played to Sarajevan bread queues in full exposure to Serbian snipers. We see them in “Flight”, swerving ambiguously between entertainment and horror:

He would ease these fingerprints off
with razor blade or Stanley knife,
flight them free like bees’ wings to hang
looping, bodiless on the breeze,
while he alights on you with these
untraceable and unringed hands.

What a rich and thought-provoking miniature that is, with its shimmering overtones of psychopathic violence, but also (through “unringed”) teasing us with the idea that this is “only” the description of a married man’s dream of freedom. Amid all the brilliant play on and between words and tones in that poem, I want to remark on the way “would” hovers between being an archaic synonym for “wants to” and being an indeterminate conditional, suggesting how fantasy might harden into inevitability given the right circumstances.

In some of his lighter poems Dunn will elaborate a comparison through various points of similarity in a way that seems like a poetic exercise till it suddenly incandesces into a really striking, haunting metaphor, like the description of the spider in “Kitchen Sink Drama” as “restless heart / of its own rose window”. Such powerful moments can reverberate well beyond their immediate contexts. In the case of that particular poem, I found myself thinking that its ecclesiastical images are part of a web of connection with religious references in other poems. One link is to “Bread Line” with its references to the crucifixion and its ironical superimpositions of images of church architecture onto the ruins of Sarajevo. Another is to “Ichneumon Wasp”, in which Darwin’s Christian faith is seen as paralysed and devoured, like the brain of a caterpillar hosting an ichneumon wasp, by knowledge of nature’s cruelty. In these poems the darkness of the world poses a challenge to belief in a God of Love, but there is also a connection to the final poem of the volume, which declares a tentative faith in love (whether human or divine is not clear) :

O

And yet a light is coming in from very far away
My Love, O love come soon
Even at the last, stop with a kiss this faithless mouth
No, I will not be afraid

The way the title of the book embraces poems about bugs in different senses of the word – insects, germs, glitches, listening devices, terrors – seemed to me at first like a rather tenuous unifying device, but now I am not so sure. The more I read Bugs the more compellingly suggestive interconnections between its poems I find, and the more I feel that its ease of approach conceals complexities and depths of meaning that are a matter of taking the work as a whole.

(This is part of a review I wrote for Acumen 66, and I am grateful for the chance to reproduce it here.)

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