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Difficult to Explain by Finuala Dowling, reviewed by Moira Richards

I fell in love with Finuala Dowling back in 2002 when I read To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair in her first collection, I Flying. Simple uncomplicated poetry that, nevertheless, found words to frame the ineffable.



Three years on I grumbled to discover a male protagonist in What Poets Need, but halfway through the novel I forgave the un-sisterliness; John Carson really is rather sweet and a neat device to focus the women-centred narrative. A few years, a second novel, and lots of poems later, a friend told me how she drew herself a hot bubbly bath and wept as she soaked as she read from cover to cover, Dementia Ward, Dowling's third book of poetry - which has just aced the 2010 Oliver Schreiner Prize for Poetry!


So, like many other readers, I'm greedy for my fingers to get flipping the pages of Difficult to Explain which does explain itself as "An anthology of poems by my students and a brief memoir of poetry teaching". You'll find here, a sort-of sequel to Dementia Ward, bits of autobiography, and a peep through the windows of a Kalk Bay front room at the Saturday afternoon poetry workshop "scheduled to run until six p.m. - drinks time. Students who don't have commitments to rush back to, stay for a glass of wine and continue the conversations poems have a tendency to start."


Finuala introduces nineteen of her students - just a line or two about each, enough to draw a sketch - and explains her approach to the writing of good poems. Not only does she create poetry that's easy to read and looks deceptively easy to write, but she's generous in her sharing and encouragement that yes, you too, can write poems. I'm reminded of Anne Schuster's Foolish Delusions which weaves memoir and memoir-writing prompts into a multi-layered novel that also says, Look! You can do this.


Many poems in Difficult to Explain are tagged with foot-noted scraps of workshop discussion or tweakings that helped polish the piece into final form. Others are prefaced with the writing prompt or exercise that inspired them; prompts ranging from the sublime, "Write an elegy to an abstract concept (for example, "Elegy for silent afternoons")" to the wtf, "Construct a poem around the use of irregular past participles".


Some of the poems will be new to readers, some familiar from earlier appearances in local literary journals. Four students have produced enough quality material to attract publishers for their own full-length books this year, and I'm betting it'll not be long before a couple more collections appear in the book stores.


Like chocolate with coffee, the book ends with a new poem from Finuala Dowling. A poem which may have been inspired by an injunction to "Write a poem about a supposedly fun thing you'll never do again." Or not.


Lus for one chocolate more? I'm told there's a new FD novel due out sometime soon.


Difficult to Explain, edited by Finuala Dowling

Publisher: Hands-On Books, 2010

review by Moira Richards

First published in print, Cape Times 24 December 2010

First published online IOL Tonight 24 December 2010: http://www.iol.co.za/tonight/books/book-review-difficult-to-explain-1.1004870