Dubious Delights – of ageing and other follies is the seventh collection of poetry by nimble-witted wordsmith, Gus Ferguson, well-known poet, publisher, cartoonist and Cape Town-based pharmacist. Whatever his subject matter – from the ageing of the title to issues spiritual, temporal, interpersonal or writerly – Ferguson is characteristically pithy and playful. His writing is full of verbal surprise, witty allusion and disarming humour. It is in its very unexpectedness that the appeal of the work lies.
Inevitably, ageing is accompanied by the loss of physical and mental agility, personal reflection, a heightened consciousness of mortality and the contemplation of things either final or infinite, depending on one’s persuasion. In a number of compact little poems, Ferguson visits these issues, seldom with the bleak outlook they customarily evoke, except perhaps fleetingly, as in the neat Triolet, which hints at the depression which might lurk in even the most apparently satisfying of lives. The poem is – however tenuously – reminiscent of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning.
In other poems, Ferguson’s allusions to writers are conscious and their names are listed, along with other references, in a facetious index at the end of the book. Philip Larkin’s poem, Church going, for example, is hinted at in Ferguson’s Cloisters; John Donne haunts the tolling bells of Aubade 1; and Milton’s Paradise Regained emerges as Ferguson’s Paradox gained.
A number of poems deal with the business of writing. Ferguson raises the ever-pertinent issue of plagiarism; suggests that should writers ever outnumber readers they would seal their own doom; satirises those that specialise in obfuscation; and exposes the limiting Western view of the haiku as simply a form poem requiring nothing more than the mastery of a prescribed seventeen syllables.
In the recent publication, Birds in Words, edited by Ferguson and Tony Morphet, Ferguson omitted any avian offerings of his own. The current collection boasts some, including Voël Vry, which bemoans the absence of the battery cock from bird books, despite birders’ interest – albeit gastronomical – in the fowl.
While the future might only be “a lovely life for worms” and while we “inadequately trained / are bustled to the front” (of the mortality queue), there is nevertheless absolute – not dubious – delight in Ferguson’s word-wielding.