In ‘Nessa’ Durcan introduces the reader to a speaker who has been drawn into a relationship, and almost drowned, by the aura of his lover, Nessa. She has consumed his life, and he feels he is better for it. The poem speaks on themes of love, power, and eternity.
‘Nessa’ by Paul Durcan is a lyrical love poem that compares, through natural imagery, the speaker’s lover to a powerful whirlpool.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he met and was sucked into a relationship with Nessa. He goes on to describe how he and his lover are at one another’s side at all times. They fall together into a field, symbolizing their unity. He feels as though they’ve always been together and that her power, represented through a whirlpool, is so dramatic that he’s coming close to drowning.
In the second stanza, he elaborates on their relationship and asks his lover a series of questions. The poem concludes with a repetition of the “whirlpool” line and the re-expression of his overwhelmed sense of being.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Nessa’ by Paul Durcan is a two-stanza poem that’s separated into one set of six lines and another set of eight. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They also range in length from two words up to ten. Durcan does make use of several poetic techniques that help to unify the text. These include anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, and repetition.
The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. The speaker repetitively says the name of his lover, “Nessa” throughout the text. This is most evident in the first line of the second stanza. There are other examples, including the seventh line of the second stanza with the phrase “Oh you are a whirlpool, you are a whirlpool” and the fifth line of the first stanza, “She was a whirlpool, she was a whirlpool.”
Anaphora is another kind of repetition. It is seen when a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The second and third lines of the second stanza begin with “Will you” and the fourth, fifth and eighth lines of that same stanza start with “And” (as do lines two and six of stanza one).
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “fell in the field” in the first line and “lain” and “life” in line three of the first stanza.
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. There are a number of examples in the text, including the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza, as well as lines five and six of the second.
Analysis of Nessa
I met her on the First of August
And I very nearly drowned.
In the first stanza of ‘Nessa,’ the speaker begins by describing where he was when he met “her.” The “her” he’s referring to is, without a doubt, the Nessa who the title references. They were at the Shangri-La Hotel, a chain of hotels founded in Singapore and now located around the world.
She was immediately able to wrap him into her world. It was like a “whirlpool” that sucked in him and resulted in him “very nearly” drowning. The woman, for some unknown reason or reasons, was overwhelming and addicting. He was soon doing whatever she needed.
Take off your pants, she said to me,
And I very nearly didn’t;
Would you care to swim? she said to me,
And I hopped into the Irish Sea.
And that was a whirlpool, that was a whirlpool,
And I very nearly drowned.
The second stanza uses direct, list-like sentences in order to describe what it was like after he first met her. She ordered him around and, through simple words and interactions, dragged him into her whirlpool. He tried to resist her at first and very nearly did, but he was unable to.
The poet uses anaphora in this stanza, repeating the word “And” at the beginning of four lines. It’s clear their relationship is very sexual and that Nessa was everything that this speaker would’ve ever wanted.
On the way back I fell in the field
And I very nearly drowned.
The speaker is entangled with Nessa and is experiencing an all-consuming love. The first two lines describe a moment in which the two fell down beside one another “in the field.” They are following one another into the depths of this relationship, side by side, as equals.
A reader should also take note of the fact that the speaker says “the field” not “a field”. He is thinking of somewhere specific.
Continuing on, he speaks broadly on how the relationship has impacted him. Now that they’ve been together for a period of time, it feels as though they’ve always been a couple. Their position in the grass, side by side, seems eternal as if the speaker has been there “with her all [his] life.”
There is an interesting transition between the third line, the fourth, and the fifth. The fourth line concludes the third, but at the same time, with the colon, starts the fifth. Here, the speaker makes use of a refrain that is echoed again in the second to last line of the fourth stanza. He describes Nessa as a “whirlpool”. He’s been sucked into her, and the repetition emphasizes how utterly entire this experience has been. There is no getting away from her, even if he wanted to.
He speaks in the last line of the third stanza of how he is “very nearly drowned”. He has almost lost himself inside her as he’s been beaten by the waves and sucked under the water. Despite the violent imagery, this is not a painful or uncomfortable situation. The speaker wants nothing more than to dive deeper and experience all the power the “whirlpool” has to offer.
Oh Nessa my dear, Nessa my dear,
Will you stay with me on the rocks?
Oh you are a whirlpool, you are a whirlpool,
And I am very nearly drowned.
The final stanza of ‘Nessa’ is eight lines long. It begins with another example of repetition. He addresses his lover directly, making use of a technique known as apostrophe. This is an arrangement of words addressing someone who does not exist or is not present in the poem’s immediate setting. “Oh” is often utilized as a means of beginning a line of speech addressed to that person.
He continues on, speaking directly to her, asking if she will “stay with” him “on the rocks.” While this image connects well with that of the whirlpool and the field, it also refers to the generally rocky periods all couples go through. Will she, he wonders, stay with him when times are not as good as they are now?
The next lines begin with the same words, “Will you,” this is an example of anaphora. Here, the speaker considers whether she will come “for [him] into the Irish Sea.” These lines place the poem in a specific location, making it easier to visualize.
Line four alludes obliquely to intimacy. Women’s hair has always symbolized sexuality and, when let down, the freeing of a woman’s sexual desire. He asks that she “let [her] red hair down.”
The imagery becomes more mundane in the next two lines as the speaker places the couple in “Dublin City / In a taxi-cab.” As the poem concludes, the speaker makes use of a variation of the phrase used in the second to last line of the first stanza. He again calls her a “whirlpool” and expresses his state of being “very nearly drowned.”