Friday poem: 'The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf'

12 February 2016

This weeks Friday poem comes from Ian Duhig's collection The Blind Roadmaker. Ian also spoke to us about the local heroes who inspired his new collection, the real blind Roadmakers . 


on the unveiling of his statue in Knaresborough

 

Verse by the numbers, numbered years
   summing up the dead;
small fingers feeling headstone faces –
   how young Jack learnt to read.

A man, he read behind their words
   how men and women felt,
like faces, suits and numbers stamped
   on tavern cards he dealt.

Sharp dealer, traffic was Jack’s gift,
   in fish and flesh he’d trade;
a soldier, smuggler, fiddler, guide –
   roadmaker, when that paid.

He'd spin his tales and webs of tar
   as dark as all he saw;
he was our Daedalus of roads,
   we’re each his Minotaur –

Asterions, his starry ones,
   we travel by his lights
a hundred thousand miles each day,
   his thousand and one nights.

Still dark in bronze on Market Square,
   he hears the high road snarling
who heard them sing the Bonnie Prince –
   but traffic’s still Jack’s darling.

His waywiser beside his bench,
   around his metalled hat
his secret tale’s picked out in braille
   and what it says is that . . .

From Ian Duhig's The Blind Roadmaker. Ian spoke to us about the blind roadmakers who inspired his new collection. 

Frost said he never started a poem knowing how it would end and for me that is also true of books. For a long time my new one was going to be called 'Ashtrayland', after the name the Leeds gang in Bernard Hare’s study ‘Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew’ have given to “England”, its history, culture and politics remote to them, their term foreshadowing Tory MP Mark Garnier’s speech before the last election in which he described “dog-end” Northern constituencies. 

My father knew a lot of irish proverbs and 'Is minic a bheir dall ar ghiorria', a blind man often caught a hare, came to me when I found out the main road from my house into Leeds, as many more in the North, was made by a blind man, Jack Metcalf. He became a kind of Yeatsian anti-self to me, multi-talented, always knowing where he was going like the old song while I stumble along in the light. Other blind roadmakers in my book include refugees or migrants like my parents making their way in strange new worlds; love itself, blind but always finding a way and me, "wandering abroad" as the Vagrancy Act had it. 

Interesting projects tempted me to digress, including a site-specific project honouring Sterne's Tercentenary at Shandy Hall. Byron described ‘Don Juan’ as “a poetical Tristram Shandy” and a long ottava rima piece here, an anthology commission, is an hommage to and parody of his outrageous style and includes a fight between Geoffrey Hill and Jeremy Prynne. The elegy for Manuel Bravo is virtually a cut-up of the Book of Job for this devout Angolan Christian who hanged himself so his son could stay in England, sacrificing his soul as well as his life according to his deeply-held beliefs in the most devastating example of love I know. The book opens with Kafka’s love Dora Diamant, herself a refugee several times, who told a charming story about Franz that became as Kafkaesque as the asylum seeker regulations by the time I’d finished with it: an updated measure from a Ben Jonson masque is all about being wrong-footed while trying to express affection.

I hope there is a broad sense of unity through patterning and thematic echoes that holds these different elements together. I take the view that if I find something interesting, there's a chance I might be able to communicate my enthusiasm to a reader in the future. There's a famous image by the Polish poet Norwid about coal, ashes and diamonds: I want to share the diamonds I found in 'Ashtrayland' among other wonders, like how a blind man can catch a hare.

The Blind Roadmaker

The Blind Roadmaker

No poet today writes with such a sense of political and social conscience, and The Blind Roadmaker affirms Duhig's belief in poetry as a means of commemorating those who least deserve to be forgotten.

Out now in Paperback and as an Ebook.

Read extract