What’s so great about Finuala Dowling?

In a sentence: In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy, poet and novelist Finuala Dowling’s work is outward oriented. She makes it her business to have an audience. Her poems talk about what is most painful to us, publicly and privately without inviting voyeurism and she’s not afraid of politics beyond slogans. And she enjoys performing her poems. They are not internal monologues.

By know, Dowling is well known – for a South African poet. Perhaps her best-known poem, To the Doctor Who Treated the Raped Baby and Who Felt Such Despair, dealt with a topic that seared the public consciousness, to the extent that it exists in South Africa.

 

I just wanted to say on behalf of us all

that on the night in question

there was a light on in the hall

for a nervous little sleeper

and when the bleeding baby was admitted to your care

faraway a Karoo shepherd crooned a ramkietjie lullaby in the veld

and while you staunched

there was space on a mother-warmed sheet

for a night walker

and when you administered an infant-sized opiate

there were luxuriant dark nipples

for fist clenching babes

and when you called for more blood 

a bleary-eyed uncle got up to make a feed

and while you stitched

there was another chapter of a favourite story 

and while you cleaned 

a grandpa’s thin legs walked up and down for a colicky crier 

and when finally you stood exhausted at the end of her cot

and asked, “Where is God?”,

a father sat watch. 

And for the rest of us, we all slept in trust 

that you would do what you did,

that you could do what you did. 

We slept in trust that you lived.

Looking at the poems in her latest book Pretend You Don’t Know Me – a selection from previously published volumes as well as new poems – and after hearing her speak at a reading at Love Books I was reminded of an observation by George Santanyana: “Nothing is so poor as art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” Dowling’s poetry is the opposite.

Her work is, as author and editor Helen Moffett has pointed out, hyper-local, which in an era of writing, fiction and non-fiction, that exists in a kind of deracinated, globalized sphere, is not only welcome but fundamental.

Her poems have a playfulness of someone who loves words and what they can do, the essence of poetry, alongside an ability to conjure in verse the wonder and awkwardness of being truly alive to the love of people and places and ideas.

The collection includes the Dementia Ward poems, one of which illustrates perfectly the humour she can employ in examining life’s difficulties.

Widowhood in the dementia ward

‘Oh my God, I’m so pleased to see you,’

she says from her nest of blankets. 

‘I’ve been meaning to ask – 

How is your father? 

How is Paddy?’

‘He died,’ I say, remembering 1974.

‘Good heavens, now you tell me! How lucky he is.’

‘You could join him,’ I suggest.

‘I didn’t like him that much,’ she replies.

To be sure, I did once or twice wonder if a particular poem was a poem or notes for a future novel, and muttered to myself, “More art, less matter.” But this was rare and forgivable in the light of the poet’s formidable talent.

The only problem with this new volume I foresee is that it will entice others to write verse, and as Billy Collins – who reminds me of Dowling – has observed, poetry leads to more poetry. And we need more readers as much as we need more poets.

I won’t belabour this: buy Pretend You Don’t Know Me if you appreciate poetry at all and especially if you wonder whether you still enjoy poetry. Buy a copy for a friend who enjoys poetry. Buy a copy for your book club. Just do it.

Pretend You Don’t Know Me is published by Kwela Books.