Ian Duhig has been, to use Lawrence Sterne’s own phrase, “Shandying about” in Yorkshire for Digressions, his collaboration with artist-printmaker, Philippa Troutman. In 2013, the tercentenary of Sterne’s birth, they set out from Shandy Hall, Coxwold in North Yorkshire where The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was written, to celebrate Sterne’s great work through their own poetry and visual images.
The novel is ostensibly Tristram’s narration of his life story but he makes constant explanatory digressions to add context and colour. In similar fashion, Duhig and Troutman follow trails from the novel and along the by-ways around Shandy Hall, allowing themes for their collaboration to arise.
So there are poems and images of meteor strikes much like the one witnessed in Tristram Shandy; the land-art maze near Shandy Hall called City of Troy which reminds them of Sterne’s labyrinthine writing style; and local roadmaker, Blind Jack Metcalf, who built the road from Duhig’s hometown of Leeds to Shandy Hall. This process of connection and digression is described in the poem, “Which Reminds Me”:
Which reminded me of that medieval hunting book,
its raptor hierarchy that gave the merlin to the lady,
which reminded me in turn of Le Roman de Silence,
lost for centuries, anonymous, its narrator unreliable.
While it certainly helps to be familiar with either the novel or Shandy Hall and its environs, the digressive poems about landscape, history, people and traditions largely stand on their own.
In addition, Philippa Troutman’s fifteen beautifully reproduced prints and drawings echo these strong themes and are intrinsic to the book. There are powerful images of the minotaur, a hobbyhorse, Blind Jack Metcalf and other motifs which pick out and intensify the colours and textures of the poems. There’s also a useful prose “Afterforeword” by Duhig which describes the context for and process of the collaboration.
The poems themselves range from free verse to contemporary ballads. The rather ethereal modern-day “psychogeography” of the collection is set out in the early poem, “Lochean Keys”:
The signal box at Coxwold
serves a line that isn’t there,
connecting nothing with nothing,
thin air with thinner air
but its trains of ideas
(the phrase is Locke’s)
take you to – & – &-
past Coxwold signal box.
Several of the poems in Digressions are written in rhyme forms. “The Ballad of the Blind Man’s Road”, featuring Metcalf, explores different “lines” in the landscape as metaphors for life – straight roads, the end of the line, lines of poetry:
…round Sterne’s home folk thought a man
whose impulse was to straighten
showed the signs by ruling lines
of being ruled by Satan.
So like Sterne’s book, they made a maze
to leave their fiends behind;
but if they found it hard to leave,
it’s harder now to find,
as if a maze outside this maze
held bigger fiends in turn
which tried to keep me from this place
then kept me here to learn.
Duhig is an extremely versatile poet, both in the range of his imagination and in his use of different poetic forms. The final poetic piece in the collection, “Lost Chapter”, opens:
Philip José Farmer would trace these mutant lines
to when the Wold Newton Stone had struck Earth
on the grounds of the real son of imaginary Didius,
who launched Sterne’s writing career as the target
of the pulped History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat,
as the groundbreaking meteorite targeted this Wold
to explode the Ptolemaic model of our solar system…
Digressions, with its prose, poetry and visual images, is a grand celebration of Shandy country.