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The Flying Trapeze

Duncan Bush
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
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One of the most significant voices of his generation from Wales, a new book by Duncan Bush is an eagerly awaited event. The Flying Trapeze, his sixth poetry collection and the first to appear after his notable ‘Midway’, is characteristically unsentimental, tough-minded, and fiercely lyrical. Many poems are inspired by places he has lived in or travelled to including: Australia, Greece, Germany, France, Luxembourg and the United States. In ‘Avedon’s Drifters’ he chronicles marginal lives as portrayed in masterly black & white photographs: vagrants, gypsies, minor criminals, the burnt-out, the bereft. In contrast there are poems like ‘A Blood Rose’ steeped in the full-blooded colours of the tango, and ‘Golden Girl’ in praise of superlative athletes. There is also a touch of bitter political satire in pieces like ‘Mitterand’s Last Supper’, ‘A Season in Sarajevo’ and ‘Lahore’. There are some fine, unexpected nature poems, which pinpoint the tension in his poetry between a sensual rapture and a knowing cynicism. The Flying Trapeze is an excellent new collection, never less than subtle, smart and true.

Duncan Bush creates a resilient dignity from individual acts of endeavour against the obliterating rapids of history

– Poetry Wales


Review by Allan Kellerman, Winter Planet

Monday, December 1, 2014

Duncan Bush's The Flying Trapeze is parcelled out into four sections. The first, very much potpourri, contains the bulk of the pastoral work in this collection, a dialect poem an mediations on both poetry and the tango. We visit his 'Abandoned Orchard', 'its rot-collasped goose-ark,/ the gate-bolt rusted hard into its keep'. In 'Interregnum, near Worcester' we transit the gap between summer and autumn in which 'thick-leaved oaks/ Look braided, flat, archaic/As old tapestry' on our way to Argentina where the narrative voice watches the tango and the woman with the hair 'drawn so close to the skull/ You cannot dream the dark/ Cascade of its unpinning' ('A Blood Rose').

Sections two through four are defined by place. Two of the more satisfying pieces are to be found in section two, which is focussed on Europe: 'Mitterand's Last Supper', which as one might expect of a poem laying up a lavish feast, reads as if the poet relished the writing of the 'rooms lit too late/ and by too many bulbs'; and the vivid 'Wear' which brings the reader to Rome, where we come to rest on an image of a statue of St Peter and the 'patina of/ Kisses yellowed on/ His hallux'. Sadly, 'Still Living At Sixteen', masquerades as narrative poetry. This is prose in a corset, as the following illustrates:

But Luxembourg was growing in 

wealth and population, many

of the incomers highly paid employees of the new E.U.

institutions or of the banks

and finance houses (the old tale -

nothing makes money like money).

And the result of all this was a housing boom; and this village 

was convenient to drive to the city from

   This could stretch from margin to margin for three pages without the encumberance of incidental line breaks grinding it out to eight. 

   Section three contains the Australia poems. The first of the four, 'Golden Girl, 2000' - mis-sold by the back cover blurb as 'in praise of superlative athletes'  - is more sinister. Considering the narrative voice suggests - 'he' refers to unnamed man in a dive bar - that sprinter Cathy Freeman  is 'just one or another of these/ little black girl athletes he'll later wank to', the poem exposes the nefarious effect of marketing. It's unclear whether 'Motel Pool Gossip Party' recounts the poolside discussion of a rape ('a not-/ so jolly rogering') or robbery, or rape and robbery, but its arguably the wrong poem but it's arguably the wrong poem in which to incorporate a piratical conceit, especially as the poem is also loaded with an overwrought punchline.

   The fourth and final section's poems are set in America, and - oddly, though not inappropriately - Greece. 'Avedon's Drifters', for example, is a mediation on Richard Avedon's photographs of miners, blue-collar workers and drifters. 

However, the remarkable section is 'Telemachus', built from a young relationship's missed opportunity. There is a greater pathos and humanity in the poem than any other in The Flying Trapeze

   Overall, the collection lacks the polish a reader should expect from a lauded and widely-published writer. Despite its billing as 'fiercely lyrical', The Flying Trapeze contains more than the odd cumbersome passage. 'Flat sun's slant hazy/ On the wood's full crowns: August's/ Days gleam mellower' from 'Interregnum, near Worcester' falls wide of the mark hit by the music in such liens as 'hard-faced Poles/ in earflap hats, eyes tight as buttonholes' from 'East Side Story'. In the following two passages from 'The Young Man on the Flying Trapeze', compare the chimes in 'their folded-back wings fledged like olivetrees [sic]' to the tongue-twisting 'the date-palm trunk's bark's/ diamond-checked like a pistol-grip'. 

   It's not often an idiosyncrasy is deployed to such an intolerable extent as is hyphenation in The Flying Trapeze. Hyphenation occurs in thirty-one instances in the first four poems alone. It's so ingrained that Bush even extends it unnecessarily to, among others, such quotidian adjective-noun pairings as 'bowling-ball'  (Interregnum, near Worcester'), 'lime-pit' ('In Memory of Basil Bunting'), 'dodgem-car' ('The Rom out of Romania'), and 'not quite' ('Telemachus'). The overuse gives the poems the quality of having been read in the way-back of a horse-cart on a gravel-lined road.

   The reader can be forgiven for having expectations of a writer with a Welsh Arts Council Prize for Poetry, A Welsh Arts Council Prize Book of the Year award and a Poetry Book Society recommend collection. I can't say I had any before beginning Duncan Bush's The Flying Trapeze, and am relieved that I didn't.

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