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This report is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Touch and Mourning
Part 2: That Small Word
Anthony Vahni Capildeo
‘Are you hungry?’ Sujata Bhatt asks, in The Stinking Rose (Carcanet, 1995). How hungry are you? It is said that we hunger for touch. ‘Stinking rose’ is a name for garlic. Bhatt’s question hints at this hunger for touch. Yet the enticement is by odour and taste. What we cannot see – for the papery bulb of garlic tells us nothing, till cut, crushed or heated – leads towards what we can touch, what we can eat, what becomes us, what perfumes us. Hunger for what is invisible, yet tangible, is not the same as mourning. Yet it is akin: an intensity, transformative, teased away from the possessive, classificatory sense of sight.

Touch is a small word, but it is the leading sense in Ian Duhig’s ‘The Ballad of Blind Jack Metcalf’. Touching the tombstones engraved with words about the dead – the dead, near but not-themselves; rendered unhugged, unseen, by burial – becomes a way into a whole world of language and people.
Verse by the numbers, numbered years
   summing up the dead;
small fingers feeling headstone faces –
   how young Jack learnt to read.
The grim social comment, between the lines of The Blind Roadmaker (Picador, 2016), is that this boy has stones for teachers and school friends. Being without company is not the same as being in a state of mourning; but if the reader wishes, they can mourn the loneliness of Jack’s childhood. Fingers meet stone. The warm tracing in the poem makes us shiver, as the child apparently does not. Entering the world of ...

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