Here is a small but beautiful book I want to sell to all you readers out there: “What Poets Need” by Finuala Dowling (Penguin Books). It is close to my heart for many reasons. Firstly, it’s set in my favourite city Cape Town, but more specifically in Kalk Bay, a place where I spent many happy hours as a student drinking beer in the sun instead of studying. I even had my twenty-first birthday party there.
This is a first novel, written by a poet, and while the book is poetic, contains poems, is about a poet and talks about the writing of poetry quite a lot, it is also completely accessible to those who don’t have much interest in poetry. This is because it is funny and is about love. I took a poetry-writing course once, while I was pregnant with my second baby, so I don’t remember too much. But I do remember the teacher (he too was a poet) pointing out that successful poems often juxtapose things oddly, creating fresh images. The author does this often and amusingly. For instance:
He remarried almost instantly, a very thin woman – Lilian – who always asks me solicitously whether I’m tired, by which I understand that I look hung-over, dishevelled, or unshaven and/or that my private love of butter has taken on a public dimension.
How I just love that “private love of butter”! I’m not even sure what she means (perhaps that he’s got some smeared on his face) but I find it so quirky, especially as it never gets mentioned again. The man who is married to Lilian has a number of irritating habits, one of which is saying “at the end of the day” often, which is my worst cliche. I loathe it to distraction, probably unreasonably. If anyone ever says it on TV (which since we watch BBC Prime is often), I roll my eyes and groan, usually causing my husband to leap to its defence. He says it’s not such a bad phrase, just over-used; I say it’s an abomination.
So what do poets need? Well, this poet is writing letters to his married lover, whose husband has discovered their affair and understandably banned it. He writes in a state of longing, which colours the whole book with melancholy, but which makes him very prolific. As well as writing and editing, he lives with his sister and niece, has some mad poet friends, hangs out a lot with the mothers of his niece’s classmates, and gets some human relationships spectacularly wrong.
I got the feeling while reading it that the author was writing the book to amuse herself and a small audience of her closest friends. As a reader you are let in and warmed by the fire of her wit and style. The scope of the book is domestic – a man, his family, a winter, some letters – yet it covers broad themes of love and loss. It is full of the quirks and strangenesses that play themselves out in everyday life. Read it, and be delighted.