Book Review: The Presence of Love, by Michael Duffett

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cv_the_presence_of_love.pngMichael Duffett is a USA-based poet born in the UK. He has been a teacher, academic and minister, and is currently a professor in a Californian university. A new selection of his work spanning 40 years, The Presence of Love, is edited by Wellingtonian Mark Pirie. I say with great admiration that Duffett is a good old-fashioned poet who thinks deeply, but who knows how to phrase his thoughts in a way the common reader might clearly understand. These are good, solid poems, as the poem ‘The Corrective Lens’. Here

A man without a magnifying glass
Can certainly bear no blame
For not concentrating the rays of the sun
Nor missing in small print his name

To skip to the end of the poem:

So men without the corrective lens
Of intellect sharp as a knife
Must earn our compassion and not our ire
As we cut the bread of life.

Duffett moves deliberately and meaningfully through the issues he sees from his seat at home, those of global warming, violence and war, refugees, Syria and political strife, as he worries that ‘The pen is no longer mighter than / The sword’. ‘Jesus at the Border’ is reminiscent of Baxter’s ‘The Maori Jesus’. Polar bears and daisies huddle together against approaching visions of darkness.

Duffett views a future and often scary world through the eyes of old-fashioned values. Despite everything, he approaches life with generosity and positivity. He also celebrates the simple and immediate joy of ‘a clean shirt’. And the blue jay, who with great gusto consumes ‘the bulbous fruit’. Duffet reflects on his own life – the house in which he sits, the difference between youth and age, and how, as an older man, his adventures consist of sailing inner seas. These are easy-to-follow poems, written for himself rather than for the market, and they don’t seem to make any bold claims about his own literary greatness. They are enough in themselves.

The titular poem, ‘The Presence of Love’, comes about halfway through the book and calls the reader to remember, above all, love:

All that matters is the presence of love.
I may or may not have been promoted.

[…]

We may have to get rid of one of the cars,
Eat my favourite mushrooms less frequently,
Cut down on the expensive sparkling
Cider I enjoy to accompany food.
I’ll buy books less often but you will be there.
All that matters is the presence of love.

We should all be cutting down on cars whether or not we have money, but the basic message Duffett gets across is a timeless and necessary one that too many of us dismiss. This, then, is a collection of quiet and simple truths and thoughts which anyone can approach.

At the same time, Duffett’s poems show that he is a man of learning. His poems make reference to Newton, Aeschylus, Edward Said, but there is also his little dog and Socks the cat (a great name). He has clearly been touched by New Zealand poetry. Near the back of the book are a cluster of poems that feature, and indeed in a couple of instances are dedicated to, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. An appendix details his own meeting with Glover in the late 1970s. He himself spots a mixing and melding of cultures in the Indian cup of tea brewed for him by his American son.

The Presence of Love gives a flavour of Duffett as a poet and a person. The poems are crafted but easily accessible. They give a warm, personable and conversational sense of Duffett’s concern for the world and human condition.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

The Presence of Love
by Michael Duffett
HeadworX
ISBN 9780473469153