Dannie Abse the infinite

Paxman Abse Mort crop May 2014 Jeremy Paxman, Dannie Abse, Helen Mort judging the Forwards.  © David Secombe


On Tuesday this year’s Forward Prize winners will be announced, and the entire auditorium will be in a hush of sorrow. There will be a hole where one of the judges was to have sat, and most of the people in the auditorium will be feeling bereft. A light has gone out.

I use this expression without cliché or melodrama. It’s literally true: Dannie Abse has died. The Welsh Jewish  doctor poet: a man of whom every word in that barest identity speaks of culture, words, thought, care. I only met him once or twice, but over the years, whenever he was present at a poetry reading or gathering, I’d see him talking to someone or other and he always gave off an amazing glow – a sort of aura – what was it? Not exactly visible, but something as obvious as sunlight. This seemed to me one of the chief things about him.  For me, it’s a measurement of what’s been lost with his premature death at the age of only 91.

In 2007 I wrote about the launch of an Oxfam poetry CD, ‘Life Lines 2’, at St-Giles-In-the-Fields Church; one of the best things about the event was Dannie Abse. Here’s what I wrote about him then:

Dannie Abse started the evening off, reading in his beautiful voice – one of the beautiful reading voices that seem to be disappearing, as no one any more seems to have the particular tone necessary for that kind of modulation. Anyway, he stood there all small and handsome and white-haired and really very old now, with the largest pair of reading glasses I have ever seen, and to be honest by the end of his first poem I was all choked up. It was a lament for his cousin Sidney who lied about his age to join the Army in 1940, & was killed… but also much more than that. Stunning poem, and a wonderful beginning to the evening. Especially after the speeches. And most of the rest of his poems were very sexy…

The other thing I mentioned was how lovely it was to sit behind him and see him laughing away merrily during Attila the Stockbroker’s set.

Parrot AbseAbse’s last book came out last year: Speak, Old Parrot (the old parrot in question being his ‘inspirational self’; I want a parrot too) dealt with old age, the loss of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, and life. Life! Dannie Abse had more of it even in his frail old age than many people ever get. The book deals with many things – sorrow, grief, love, sex,  the dailiness of things… A lot of it is very funny. He ate a lot at a little Italian place called L’Artista, and it figures in many of the poems. You grow to love it: there he is again, doing his thing, taking you with him… I especially like the one called ‘Perspectives’, which bears the inscription, ‘5 paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’ (& n.b., I hope that under the circumstances no one minds me quoting the whole poem; buy the book, you won’t regret it.):

I sit in L’Artista, our local Italian restaurant.
Outside, a rain-thrashed queue waits for their bus.
At an adjacent table, a man with liquorice hair
is shouting to himself; but soon I discover
he’s phoning someone. At 1.50pm I order
Fusilli all’ Ortolana and their house-red poison.

A waitress bending forward to pick up a spoon
bothers me in more ways than two.
She moves with such grace and femininity
the very earth is richer where she stands
It surely makes all the clientele forget
their ‘nostalgia for the infinite’ and to understand,
perhaps for the first time, ‘the nostalgia of the infinite’.

Umbrellas pass by the window as I eat my pasta.
Some of it spills onto my trousers, dammit.
Why does this make me think of how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they  most despise?

At 2.23 p.m. I drink my cappuccino and glance
at the TV that’s flitting behind the counter.
The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.
It could by Syria. Could be Afghanistan.

At 2.40 p.m. the Renoir beautiful one
brings me the bill (£15.10p). She squawks. Pity
her voice like a very active yak makes me shiver.
Outside the rain’s gone North. A 2.41 droplet
of pure silver falls from a high tin roof.

Now, clearly, the whole thing pivots on one little preposition. And the poem plays a bit of a game. For any of you who may have momentarily forgotten about Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ manifesto, here’s a bit of context.

The poem, of course, is about more than just pasta and the waitress and the TV. First, it is the poem of an old man, addressed to a man who never became old. Specifically, an old man reflecting on time, marking time, knowing he hasn’t got an awful lot of it at his disposal, addressing a colleague who never had half the amount. It’s about the present. The ever-rolling present.

Dannie, in the poem, is a very much living man – a man who minds about the state of his trousers – writing to the instructions of a long-dead one. The poem oozes with love of the immediate, sensory detail, the possibilities of everything. It’s an homage – not just to the moment, and not just to Frank, but to their common ground. In fulfilling the rules of the Personism manifesto, Dannie addresses Frank – and, more tellingly, what is also clear, Frank addresses Dannie. He has addressed him in the Manifesto (and in his poems), and Dannie is listening.

Abse and O’Hara shared a world and a generation; they were were young in that sense together, in a time that had its own chaos, but when you’re young(ish) the world is full of possibility and constantly making itself, in the same way that it must be unmaking itself if you’re 90, even though the waitress is beautiful and the man has liquorice hair.

‘The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.’ In addressing Frank, this once, far down the poem, in such a register – by coming out of the poem (though inside the rules of the game) to comment on the news of this day – he makes the poem rise above itself and leap across time. It does this neatly while literally marking off its minutes: affectionately, or warily, or in memoriam.

Dammit. ‘Nostalgia of the infinite’. It’s so clever, so light,  so delicious. It makes me want to stay and be in the restaurant with him, but he’s paid the bill, he’s leaving, nothing lasts forever, he’s out the door, a droplet of silver falls from the roof.

PS, A NOTE ON THE PICTURE:  My other half took the photograph above, and I not only love it, I feel somehow really proud of him having taken it. I can’t help it. It was exciting to find this sequence when he got home with the pictures in the camera and we were looking through to see what he’d got. This one is already in use by the Forward Foundation, but I was saving it for the announcement of the winners, only two days from now.  It’s so much about Dannie Abse, though, I’m using it today in a much sadder way than I had thought I would have to. And it’s such a happy picture.


PPS, as I’ve been writing this the Forward Foundation has written that the prize ceremony will, of course, be held in memory of Dannie. There is a lovely account of his activity on the judging panel.


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