REVIEW by Elsa Hammond

NWR Issue 100

Speak, Old Parrot

by Dannie Abse


Quick, quick
speak, old parrot,
do I not feed you with my life?

Published on the cusp of his ninetieth birthday, Dannie Abse’s beguiling collection, Speak, Old Parrot, is spread widely to include grief, cricket, guilt, childhood, bluebell-gathering, seduction, and, inevitably, old age.

The above quotation from ‘Talking to Myself,’ the first poem in the collection, speaks both of the life that is ebbing away, to be fed into the poetry, and of the memories and stories arising from a life lived to the full. A successful career in both medicine and poetry – represented by the white and purple feathers of the ‘ventriloquist’ parrot – ensures precision, variety and depth in Asbe’s poetry. This collection brims over with life, but ‘the mildew of age’ needs first to be faced – and is always waiting in the wings, ready to make other momentary appearances.

Age frames the collection, although Abse’s approach to it changes from the first poem to the last. Time is running out in ‘Talking to Myself’, and is therefore something to hang on to, to make the most of:

I, old man, in my new timidity,
think how, profligate, I wasted time

– those yawning postponements on rainy days,
those paperhat hours of benign frivolity.

Now time wastes me and there’s hardly time
to fuss for more vascular speech.

‘Quick, quick,’ writes Abse, hastening to bring the poems to the page while there is still time to do so. There is a touch of desperation in this first poem which has transformed into something calmer in ‘Gone?’:

Bird, your cage is empty. Will you come back?
I see no feathers in the wind.

The final two lines of the collection accept that if there is more to follow, it is not yet on the horizon.

‘The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym’ sequence is a wry, humorous addition to the collection, in which Abse invokes the persona of the fourteenth-century Welsh bard. The reader follows Dafydd’s vain attempts to satisfy his lust with increasing delight – in each of the first three poems a distinct situation is built up before revealing Dafydd thwarted. In ‘Dafydd and the Brecon Deacon’s Wife (Storm),’ Dafydd attempts to seduce the Deacon’s wife ‘in the dark Ceredigion wood’; she wavers, but finally leaves him unsatisfied:

Gentlemen, my feelings I’m sure you understand.
Like trying to open a heavy jammed door
and the damned knob comes away in your hand.

Another poem in the sequence reads as a parody of the lover-poet. On finding out that his former sweetheart, Morfudd, has joined a nunnery, Dafydd vows that he will remain true to her throughout his life, ‘…well, more or less.’

Humour of a sort is also evident in ‘Cats’ – a simple enough story, but one that is very human, despite the title. The narrator witnesses a muscled ‘poster-hero’ throwing stones at a pair of copulating cats in Istanbul; at first the narrator attempts to defend them against their attacker, but soon finds that, ‘the more I stared the more he grew / more muscular.” Changing his mind, the narrator quietly retreats
without valour
and soon, as if by appointment,
we encountered an unjudging beggar.
Gratefully, I dropped a few coins in his cap.

The guilt of the cowardly ‘Good Samaritan’ is empathetically evoked, encouraging the reader to question their own charitable intentions while still smiling over the difficulties of the narrator.

In the final poem of the collection, Abse addresses the ‘oneiric’ parrot of the title. There is something in this collection of the old man dreaming. It is bursting with colour and variety, each poem leading seamlessly and intuitively onto the next: the childhood memories in ‘Last Visit of Uncle Isidore’ are also evident in ‘Bluebells’, and the floral theme is carried over to the ‘twining shrub’ in ‘Scent'. Abse crams his poetry with humour, grief, and the awed contemplation of the ‘beautiful side-effect’ of 'his Earth unbalanced and spinning among the stars.’

There is much that could be said about this inspiring collection, and all of it positive. It should be bought, read and re-read.

Elsa Hammond is an NWR print and online contributor

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previous review: RS Thomas: Poems to Elsi
next review: Gwilym Prichard: A Lifetime’s Gazing


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