Review: “Duality” by Dannie Abse

Shortly after I was attacked at 16, I read a poem in a high school creative writing class by Dannie Abse called “Duality.” Instantly I knew the poem was about me. I had no idea at the time I would end up with a diagnosis of DID, but since then, I’ve wondered if he’s got a touch of the dissociation as well.

Twice upon a time,
there was a man who had two faces.
two faces but one profile …
At signposts, he must wear the both.

Dannie Abse

Dannie Abse

Dannie Abse is a handsome man, his face honorably molded; a countenance of both kindness and painful experience. He was born in Wales in 1923, and over his life became both an accomplished physician and poet. His first major accomplishments in both fields occurred within 2 years of one another; having his first book of poetry published in 1948 and qualifying as a doctor in 1950.

He wrote of his Jewish ancestry, although he remains a secular Jew. He spoke of reaching freedom after never stepping foot inside a synagogue after his Bar Mitzvah at 13. Freedom to find the “sweet mystery of life” without the need for religious orthodoxy. [Isaaman]

From the earliest, the theme of duality has described his life.

But it also fed his 80 years of rage. [Isaaman]

Dannie Abse found his rage after the holocaust and has contemplated the duality of rage and kindness; generosity.

“[Y]ou rage, rage about people and their prejudices, rage that people can still be chauvinistic, as they were during the Falklands war, rage at what’s going on in Iraq. We read daily newspapers, how can you not rage?” [Isaaman]

Many of his writings address this duality: “You rage against the dying of the light.”

Abse’s exploration of dichotomies grew to be based on “personal and professional, love and loss, scientific and artistic” elements of his life which create[d] tension that [ran] throughout his poetry.” [enotes] To study the capacity of good and evil in the human race. [ Rosenberg]

For much of his life as a doctor and poet, he kept this aspects separate in his writing until it became no longer possible to separate the dichotomous elements of his life and experiences. As both are essentially inseparable; to live both at once.

I am that man twice upon this time:
my two voices sing to make one rhyme.

“I have always loved Freud’s favourite joke about Itzig on his horse. He had never been on a horse before and as he is riding along someone asks, ‘Where are you going Itzig?’ And Itzig replies, ‘Don’t ask me, ask the bloody horse’. “Freud liked that because he recognised the horse is one’s unconscious. And this is what takes us in a direction, in my case in two directions.” [Isaaman]

At signposts, he must wear the both.
Each would go their separate ways
as the East or the West wind blows –

Like life, his poetry explores not only duality, but the cyclic nature of life itself, reflected through the creation of poetry and the ephemeral nature of writings that challenge both the author and reader to contemplate.

“That’s one of the things in poetry. You don’t make rounded characters. You make silhouettes.”

“One of the reasons poetry exists is because it has to ask questions to which there is no answer. So there is the quest, but you are not conscious of it.”

Although he states with conviction,

“If I was not able to write, I would probably die.” [Naish]

“Words are sacrosanct, you have to write, and sometimes you almost have to have a neurosis of leisure, almost a feeling of being dead, and you have to write a poem to be alive again. It’s just as springtime has need to come back.” [Naish]


Duality
– Dannie Abse

Twice upon a time,
there was a man who had two faces.
two faces but one profile:
not Jekyll and Hyde, not good and bad,
and if one were cut, the other would bleed –
two faces different as hot and cold.

At night, hung on the hooks on the wall
above that man’s minatory head,
one wants brass where one wants gold,
one sees white & one see black,
and one mouth eats the other
until the second sweet mouth bites back.

They dream their separate dreams
hanging on the wall above the bed.
The first voice cries: “He’s not what he seems,”
but the second one sighs: “He is what he is,”
and one shouts “wine” and the other screams “bread,”
and so they will all his raving days
until they die on his Double-crossed head.

At signposts, he must wear the both.
Each would go their separate ways
as the East or the West wind blows –
and dark and light they both would praise,
but one would melt, the other one freeze.

I am that man twice upon this time:
my two voices sing to make one rhyme.
Death I love and Death I hate,
(I’ll be with you soon and late).
Love I love and Love I loath,
God I mock and God I prove,
yes, myself I kill, myself I save.

Now, now I hang these masks on the wall.
Oh Christ, take one and leave me all
lest four tears from two eyes fall.


References

Abse. “Dannie Abse”, accessed from http://www.dannieabse.com/.

enotes. Abse, Dannie | Introduction,” accessed September 7,2008 from http://www.enotes.com/poetry-criticism/abse-dannie.

Isaaman G. (2003). “The doctor poet and his 80 years of rage,” Camden New Journal, September 25, 2003, accessed from http://www.camdennewjournal.co.uk/archive/f250903_1.htm

Naish J. (2008). “Poet Dannie Abse on how writing helped him through grief”, The Times, August 16, 2008, accessed from http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article4538690.ece

Rosenberg R. (2003). “A Swedish Novel Brings out the Hyde in a British Dr. Jekyll”, The Jewish Daily Forward, Jun 27, 2003, accessed from http://www.forward.com/articles/7575/

Advertisements

4 Comments»

  davidrochester wrote @

Thank you for sharing this.

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

Thank you. It has been a personal dark pearl I have carried for years, only recently accepting it as a positive affirmation of myself, rather than a secret fear inside.

Emily

  burl brooks wrote @

Where can I find the full text of this poem? I read it when I was in high school years ago. I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Do you have a copy you are willing to share?

  Emily’s Camigwen wrote @

Hi Burl

I had trouble finding the poem as well, until I was digging around in very old diaries and found a (probably) 25 year old hard copy. Here is the text:
—–

Duality
– Dannie Abse

Twice upon a time,
there was a man who had two faces.
two faces but one profile:
not Jekyll and Hyde, not good and bad,
and if one were cut, the other would bleed –
two faces different as hot and cold.

At night, hung on the hooks on the wall
above that man’s minatory head,
one wants brass where one wants gold,
one sees white & one see black,
and one mouth eats the other
until the second sweet mouth bites back.

They dream their separate dreams
hanging on the wall above the bed.
The first voice cries: “He’s not what he seems,”
but the second one sighs: “He is what he is,”
and one shouts “wine” and the other screams “bread,”
and so they will all his raving days
until they die on his Double-crossed head.

At signposts, he must wear the both.
Each would go their separate ways
as the East or the West wind blows –
and dark and light they both would praise,
but one would melt, the other one freeze.

I am that man twice upon this time:
my two voices sing to make one rhyme.
Death I love and Death I hate,
(I’ll be with you soon and late).
Love I love and Love I loath,
God I mock and God I prove,
yes, myself I kill, myself I save.

Now, now I hang these masks on the wall.
Oh Christ, take one and leave me all
lest four tears from two eyes fall.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s