Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan is a little known American poet, he was a friend of Thom Gunn and remembered in Gunn’s poem “Duncan” in Boss Cupid (2000). Gunn says of him:

“While the pen wrote, and looked beyond conclusion”

I am a bit haunted by metaphors about conclusions of late; Lorna Shaughnessy in “Sacrificial Wind” has Euripides say:

“and nothing I write seems to dock
in the safe harbour of conclusion.”
(also from Torching the Brown River(2008)

and I recently read a poem by Daniel Galvin called “To Joe” in which during a in-the-night conversation with his friend Joe, they struggle with their thoughts:

“along odd uncharted corridors
away from the boredom of present
the thick cloying stale of room
until some fragile conclusion could be constructed”
(my italics)

What is it about conclusions that makes them so discussed? Why are they a “safe harbour” or why should we want to go “beyond them” ? Why does “fragile conclusions” suggest a sort of precariousness, the uncertainty of the young?
And then we have the expression, “the outcome was inconclusive”; implying an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

When I think of “inconclusive” events I also think of loss and the absence of closure; the burial place that can not be found of the dear person or the body drowned that doesn’t re surface. The awful experience of the person that just goes missing like the lover in Torch Song Trilogy or the child who goes to the corner shop and is never seen again.

I am reminded of at least two close friends who wanted to talk to me over and over again about the circumstances of a relationship break-up because they could not understand what had happened in some way and of course in the absence of the lost lover no conclusion could ever be reached and I could not help other than point out the complete uselessness of speculation; it becomes torment.

And finally there is death itself, the ultimate conclusion of life. I am having a conversation at present with a monk in the Benedictine Abbey at Glenstal. We were discussing “atonement” as a concept in Christian thinking. He was saying that the life of Christ and its obedience to the father was all the atonement needed to free us from the debt of sin and that the death on the cross was not a necessary act as far as this atonement was concerned. The Christian concepts here don’t matter too much in this context but I want to add that I disagreed somewhat in this view of Christ’s death. His death was the conclusion of the life (I say this because I don’t believe in the resurrection I suppose, forgive me all you who may believe in it) and it seems to me that if death is to be wholesome, that is conclusive in some way, it has to show an obedience to life.
This is I suppose what Lorna’s Euripides was looking for; the “safe harbour” of his own death, The “beyond conclusion” of Thom Gunn’s poem perhaps. A transcendental rising above the very need for conclusion: why do we need conclusion?

This brings me to the very beautiful poem of Robert Duncan’s “We Convivial In What Is Ours”. I will reproduce it here and hope you see some of the points I make above:

We Convivial In What Is Ours

O Lovers, I am only one of you!
We, convivial in what is ours!
Out of what fund–your reading,
my giving of “me”? –but this
our zealous liberality. Friends,
in every giving radiant!

O Friend who has turnd away from me,
friend in the turning away,
imprinting memory with the image
of the gift, of this
turning away that in my life
most usefully radiates,
turning my heart and mind from me
so that I am of two hearts,
two minds, O

Friend who has enduringly loved
what’s best in me and tended yet
the rest, of this
giving that in my life most comely
imprinting the memory with the image
of the gift, restitution
of my self from every loss of me;

O Friend who has distaste of me,
consumed in hatred or envy of what
I am you know not, this
giving out that radiates, this
urgency in language in duress
so that I am estranged from me
to know in each other
what we cannot confess might be,

imprinting the memory with the image
of the gift, what else demands

our ever singing out to try again
your heart in ours?

Robert Duncan, 1919-1988

This inefficient low technology will not keep the beautiful format and metrical shape of the Duncan a thousand apologies Robert I have tried for an hour.

2 thoughts on “Robert Duncan

  1. This is a lovely piece and the poem of Duncan’s though requiring a good few reads fully expresses a yearning for ending and of continuing which is often what happens if the ending is not of your own choosing. I think I see the ‘conclusion’ as a conclusion of peace; one of not striving, not yearning or hoping. A conclusion is like a pause; it is like the moment when a dog dog jumps for a ball and is for a moment in a place of satisfaction and suspended animation; but that conclusion is all so fleeting as the dog lands back on the earth. Conclusion is a place of both upward victory and downward peace; it is not a place of peace though, conclusion is the end. The ultimate polarity. Life and Death.


  2. I very much like Max’s reading. The ultimate conclusion for an individual is, of course, death. But the image (and sometimes even words) of that individual, even when he/she is gone (though it might sound trite) will still live on in the hearts and minds of others. In addition, we are the accretion of multiple past experiences which involve others–lovers, family, friends (not necessarily in that order). I do not believe that when a relationship ends, it “concludes” because it will live on, often painfully, in our own memories, until we and, consequently, those memories are gone. While we are alive, of course, sadness lingers in our memories of lost joy (God, I’m sounding like a bad version of Wordsworth.) But we (and our friends, lovers, etc.) once did know that joy. Is this enough of a consolation? I doubt it. But of course, I am a skeptic, so I cannot buy that death is not a conclusion but a glorious beginning of a new life. However, to quote Max, “upward victory and downward peace” is perhaps enough.


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