Within ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ Durcan delves into themes of fatherhood, marriage, and emotional turbulence. The poem takes the reader into the heart of a troubled marriage and the different ways the married couple looks at the world and considers their relationship. The mood is contemplative and sometimes solemn. At other times, there are moments of genuine humour that lighten the mood significantly and are common within Durcan’s writings.
The poem takes the reader into the troubled marriage between a man and a woman. The man is about to leave for Cork when his wife asks him to carry an axe on the train with him. This tool should be delivered to her sister. He has no desire to take the axe with him and thinks the request is absurd, but he does give in. As he rides, passengers move away from him and he’s left to consider the state of his marriage and what is left for them after the green fields have left them behind.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ by Paul Durcan is a fifty-nine line poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are all very different in length, ranging from four words up to around twelve. Despite being written in free verse, Durcan does make use of several poetic techniques. These include epistrophe, alliteration, and enjambment.
The first, epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, “axe”. It appears at the ends of lines three, nine, thirteen, sixteen, and fifty-one. (It is also repeated within the lines throughout the poem.) Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “neighbours noticing” in line eight and the repetition of the “s” sound in lines eleven and twelve in words include “simple,” “saw,” and “she”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transitions between lines four and five and thirty-three and thirty-four.
Just as I was dashing to catch the Dublin- Cork train
Dashing up and down the stairs, searching my pockets,
The taxi was ticking over outside in the street,
All the neighbours noticing it.
In the first lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ the speaker begins by noting his own actions. He was rushing to get on the Dublin to Cork train and having a conversation with his wife. Just when he was about to leave, she told him that her sister would like to borrow his axe to do some gardening. This might be easy if they lived next door, but that’s not the case. Plus he has trouble with the request considering the size of the object. While he’s speaking with his wife about the difference between the axe and the very alliterative “simple saw,” there is a taxi waiting for him.
He feels the pressure of the cab outside. Everyone can see it, all the neighbours know by its presence that something is not quite right. It’s been waiting too long. At this moment it represents the trouble at the root of the relationship.
‘You mean that you want me to bring her down the axe?’
‘Yes, if you wouldn’t mind, that is –‘
‘A simple saw would do the job, surely to God
The axe – all four-and-a-half feet of it –
Was leaning up against the wall behind the settee –
The fold-up settee that doubles as a bed.
The speaker is concerned about bringing the four-foot axe on the train and tries to get out of it. Durcan uses dialogue in these lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ to convey his concern as well as his wife’s constant nudging to take the tool to her sister. He’s imagining what it’s going to look like for a man to get on the train with an axe in his hands.
Finally, he gives in. The pressure is still on and he feels the judgement of everyone outside. The “whole world [is] inspecting” the cab wondering why it’s there. The phrase “all four-and-a-half feet of it” is separated out by em-dashes. It is also further emphasized by the repetition of the “f” sound. There is the first mention of the fold-up settee that doubles as a bed in the nineteenth line of the poem.
She handed the axe to me just as it was,
As neat as a newborn babe,
Tied in a bow round its head.
I decided not to argue the toss. I kissed her goodbye.
In the next lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ the speaker is handed the axe on his way out the door. It’s a simple transaction, but one that shows how different he and his wife are. Their priorities and way of understanding the world are separate and the axe is just a symbol of that. It also symbolizes his willingness and desire to make the relationship work. He decides to do what she asks but is still bothered by it.
He compares the axe through a metaphor to “a new born babe”. It is bare, and he has to carry it onto the train just as it is. He would’ve liked to have had something to disguise his form and cover its truth.
The whole long way down to Cork
I felt uneasy. Guilt feelings.
It’s a killer, this guilt.
By my coarse advances,
Two weeks of not having to look up from her plate
And behold me eating spaghetti with a knife and fork.
The speaker kissed his wife goodbye and finally made it onto the train in these lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’. The whole way to Cork he felt “uneasy”. It was guilt that shook him and he couldn’t keep it to himself. He felt bad about leaving his wife as he always did. “But this time,” he adds, “it was the worst”. There was something about their interaction that bothered him and he knew that she was glad to see him go. The fact that his wife would rather spend the next two weeks by herself troubles him. He is aware of his actions and what he does that bothers her, even simple things like how he eats.
Our daughters are all grown up and gone away.
Once when she was sitting pregnant on the settee
As much as she used to, can you explain that?’
The passenger’s eyes were on the axe on the seat beside me.
He goes deeper into his personal life in the next lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’, explaining how their children are “grown up and gone away”. But, the memories are still there. Even in the memories though, the two are different. He remembers one particular memory, involving the settee. It snapped shut on her. She was unbothered but he “nearly died”. This shows that their reactions have always been very different. Durcan uses hyperbole to emphasize the difference between how the speaker and his wife felt.
In the next lines, it is as though the speaker can no longer keep his struggles to himself. He ends up talking to the “passenger sitting opposite” of him. He tries to explain his problems, without giving details about why he’s feeling guilty. This phase only makes his accompanying axe all the stranger and more worrisome. This should be a humorous moment in the poem amongst the speaker’s angst and concern.
‘Her sister wants a loan of the axe..’
As the train threaded itself into Portarlington
All the green fields running away from us,
All our daughters grown up and gone away.
The passenger he was speaking to got up and quickly moved away from him. They were unnerved by the axe and in their flight symbolize the difficulty of the entire situation and the action that the speaker is most afraid of, being left. At one point, when the train is passing Portarlington, the speaker says “Cúl an tSúdaire,” Irish for “nook of the tanner,” referring to the original name of Portarlington, Cooletoodera that they were just passing.
Finally, in the last lines of ‘Father’s Day, 21 June 1992’ the man is alone with his axe. He’s there, with his thoughts, worries, and fears accompanying him to Cork. These things stick with him and come to symbolize his relationship as a whole and all its struggles. The next lines transform the axe into a symbol for his wife. Everything, moving beside the train, is leaving them behind. Their “daughters” are grown up and moved away. The speaker alludes to the possibility that all the good times they had and the love they had between them is gone too.