Emma Lee appreciates the new points of view offered by John Duffy’s poetry

The Edge of Seeing 
John Duffy
The High Window
 ISBN 9781326984267
 109pp            £10

John Duffy’s poems are focused observations on humanity and the natural world from the perspective of community and interaction. ‘The Boy’ could be both an observation of another child and something from the poet’s memory:

His body trots
through rooms,
weaves round
big people, trails
his brainy head
which is carried along
by his private

The adults have long lost their childish sense of wonder in the everyday, but the boy, who is experiencing most things for the first time, still has it and holds on to it by keeping it private from the adults.

‘Glimpsed’ also contains the idea of a private observation. Here the narrator has earlier seen a rat noticing him and deciding he’s not a threat. The poem ends

Pale grey and bright in May
sunshine, the convertible,
roof retracted, slows down for the lights;
the driver talking, his passenger
nodding, her hand caressing 
and shaping his nape;
his eye in the mirror takes me in.

Readers aren’t just being invited to draw a simple comparison between the rat and convertible driver, but also to note that the driver hasn’t seen the narrator as a threat and will continue trying to impress his passenger. It’s left to the reader to decide what happens next. It should be noted though that the interactions between driver and passenger are passive but the driver seeing the narrator is active.

Another poem, ‘Fulcrum’, looks at a power balance. It starts by describing “An event’s a cloud /overhead” and ends

A baby gulps
for sobs, frets
from itch, stinks,
squirms from rage
of thirst; the mother,
tired and tethered,

looks to the other woman,
tired and sweating 
from her strapload
of explosives. It balances
between them;
the baby draws breath.

A crying baby and tired mother is commonplace, but the bomb is a surprise. The implication is that the other woman is not an active suicide bomber but the pair are hostages, each carrying a cargo that has to be handled with care. One represents a future, the other death. Both options only kept open as long as the women can find the energy to do so. The rhyme-echo in “mother” and “tether” in the first quoted stanza and alliteration in the final sentence are deliberate, underlying the women’s roles, their tension and their trust that neither will give up. Trust between parents and children is a theme picked up in ‘Tensile Strength’,

Bees always get it right: people don't.
You'll grow, stretch for things to touch, taste,
test. Trust has tensile strength like bees' wings,
spiders' thread, a cotton sheet to hold you,
cradle you safe from cuts and hurts and stings.

Your mother's feet are coated with dust
of other countries; your father walked
the same roads. At a point they met. You
became possible. I've heard them sing at night,
in a field, wrapped in a honeyed candlelight.

‘In the Pakistan Kashmir Welfare Association’ lunch is shared after reading poems by Raymond Carver,

These terminal words fill us with hope,

with joy, or something like it, something
to treasure in depression. I am asked to stay
to eat lamb with roti. The men eat in silence,

in the unheated hall, pass bread and water,
dishes of meat. The lamb is hot with spices.
I dip my bread in the gravy, a rich mixture.

The silence of eating is both a contrast to the lively discussion beforehand and a suggestion that eating is a serious business. There are no surprises here, just a companionship between people of different cultures drawn together through sharing experiences and finding they have more in common than first assumed.

These are poems that draw readers to their quiet observations whilst not telling them what to think or what to conclude. They show their craft in carefully chosen textures of words, pulling together layers of meaning and sound-patterns. Through The Edge of Seeing, John Duffy aims to pull the periphery into view and invites readers to think in a new way about what looks ordinary.


Emma Lee‘s most recent publication is “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, 2015) and she was co-editor for “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.