Sunday Poem – Ian Duhig

I’m writing this on Friday and am hoping to use the wonders of modern technology to get this to post on Sunday, all by itself, whilst I’m busy swanning around London.  The husband and I are making a weekend of it – we’re going to see Richard II or possibly Richard III on Saturday night (can’t remember which!) 

We are going to London because it’s it’s the Forward Prizes on Monday night. I’m looking forward to it – it will be lovely to meet people and see some familiar friends, but I am quite nervous as well.  In fact I felt sick with nerves last night but I’ve been just the normal amount of nerves today.

I found out last Thursday night, in the middle of soul band rehearsal that my poem ‘In That Year’ which is the one currently shortlisted for the Forward Prize is going to be published this weekend in the Financial Times, which is very exciting.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this week finishing off admin chores in regards to the various residential courses that I’m running.  I spoke to the manager at Abbot Hall Hotel yesterday and there are only 4 places left on the December Poetry Carousel, so if you have been thinking about it and not doing anything, now is the time! If you would like to book, please ring the hotel directly to do so, but if you have any questions about the course, then just give me a shout!

My other news is that I’ll be running a monthly writing workshop in Barrow.  The first one will be at the Hawcoat Community Centre, Skelwith Avenue, Barrow in Furness on the 14th November.  The cost is £15 and the workshop will run from 10am till 4pm.  If you are really keen, you can even hang around and come to my evening gig with the fabulous Soul Survivors, the nine-piece soul band that I play with.  We will be performing at Hawcoat Park Sports and Social Club later that same evening.  Please contact me if you would like to book a place – spaces are limited!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by one of the tutors that I’m lucky enough to be working with during the Poetry Carousel, the one and only Ian Duhig.  I’ve chosen ‘Flooding Back’ from Ian’s latest collection Pandorama, published by Picador.  The first thing that attracted me to this poem was the story on the surface of the poem from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which as you all know I’m obsessed with).  Baucis and Philemon offer hospitality to two gods, and when the gods take their revenge on the townsfolk who didn’t offer them hospitality, Baucis and Philemon are spared.  The only reward that they ask for is that they can die together, and eventually, instead of dying, they are turned into two conjoined trees.

The poem tells this story in a much better way than my rough paraphrase – Ian’s lines are much more beautiful of course:

‘To save them from the pain of either’s loss,
they’d begged this gift from gods they’d taken in’

There are some lovely lines in the poem as well: ‘when dead fish perched like scaly birds in trees’ is one of my favourites.  There is however, another story going on beneath the surface level of this poem, signalled by the epigraph ‘i.m. David Oluwale’.  I looked up David Oluwale, although I did know a bit about him, it’s a really sad story.  David Oluwale was an African immigrant to Britain whose death in 1969 was the first known incident of racist policing allegedly leading to the death of a black person.  Oluwale came to Britain from Nigeria by hiding in a ship in 1949.  He made a new life for himself in Leeds but was arrested in In 1953 Oluwale was charged with disorderly conduct and assault following a police raid on a nightclub. He subsequently served a 28-day sentence. In prison it was reported he suffered from hallucinations, possibly because of damage sustained from a truncheon blow during the arrest. He was transferred to Menston Asylum in Leeds where he spent the next eight years. When he eventually got out, he was unable to hold down a job and became homeless.  He was constantly harassed by the police and this eventually led to his death in 1969.

Floooding Backhas a real anger about it and I think it is functioning almost like a parable – the townsfolk did not welcome the gods in disguise, and the gods sent a great flood to wipe them all out.  Setting this story against the story of David Oluwale, who was also not welcomed or shown hospitality (an understatement really) makes me as a reader ask who are we and what happens to us if we don’t offer help, which again seems timely when we have the awful refugee crisis going on. It’s is a really effective way of writing a political poem, without looking like you are writing a political poem.  I also love the fact the poem has these two different stories that are set next to each other. One is silent of course apart from a name, but the other sheds light on it just by standing next to it.

A former homelessness worker, Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, three of which were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize as well as the Whitbread and Costa Poetry Awards. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition and was a joint winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for one of his short stories. A Cholmondeley Award recipient and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has taught at all levels from beginner to post-graduate and his university posts include being the International Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.  If you would like to order any of Ian’s books, you can buy them direct from Picador here

Anyway, here is the poem – I hope you enjoy it!

Flooding Back
i.m. David Oluwale

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VIII,
he hangs fresh wreaths on branches of the trees
that Baucis and Philemon had become
at the same moment the old couple died.
To save them from the pain of either’s loss,
they’d begged this gift from gods they’d taken in
when every other door was closed on them.  But masked gods walk among us as a test,
for hospitality’s a sacred duty
binding all who claim morality;
on their high ground, Baucis and Philemon
were safe in their dilapidated home
when judgement visited the town below,
and neighbours tears, withheld for homeless gods,
now swelled a tidal wave that rose and fell
on mansion as on hovel, bank as church
a flood as levelling as that first great flood
when dead fish perched like scaly birds in trees
or wreathes left by respectful votaries,
while underneath, waves billowed like blown wheat
on wheatfields yielding only anchor holds,
as if the Aire became that element.
It sounded always destined to become,
a change to take the breath away from men.

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