Lucy and Todd

Archive for January, 2016|Monthly archive page

Blizzard 2016. Edinburgh.

In Stuff We Like on January 24, 2016 at 3:58 pm

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Carol Ann Duffy — Collected Poems

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 24, 2016 at 2:01 pm

There are over three hundred poems here and most of them are hum-dingers – Carol Ann Duffy is nothing if not a bang-beat bell-ringing rip-roaring Poet Laureate of the first water. In terms of the intelligence and artistry with which she has discharged the duties of that appointment, she’s the best ever to fill the job. It even says POET LAUREATE in big letters on the jacket of this volume, in case you’d forgotten or didn’t know.

The trick to it is, of course, that she’s a great poet. She’s brave, witty, wry, depressed, political, lyrical, erotic, frightened and furious by turns, and it is fascinating to note how these qualities developed over the course of her writing life. She deals with a huge number of themes and one gets a sense, in looking through the Collected Poems, of how much control she exerts over the ebb and flow of them. In turning to one subject to scrutinize, in a run of poems or a book, she draws many other cherished things closer to her.

In The World’s Wife, a scalpel-sharp look at the women of various real and mythological males, she gave voice to females you never would have thought existed, or else they were so studiously ignored by history that it was time to do something about it. But not just poetic voice – witty, superior voice. Mrs Midas tells you what it really was like to have that touch: impossible and very sad. It broke up their marriage, like those couples who win the lottery. Mrs Pygmalion decides to become a red hot lover – punished for that of course. At the zoo, Mrs Darwin whispers to her hubby that a certain chimpanzee looks like him.

One thing that makes Duffy a great poet is her intimate connection with all of poetry. The spirits of many writers flit through her work. And as a defender of poetry, and of the idea of education, she’s something of a superhero. There are quite a few poems about the abysmal experiences of school, and an equal number about a favourite teacher or book or hour by the fire: transformative moments in the lives of children that are surely diminishing. She’s also an expert on repression, something she returns to often. ‘Mouth, with Soap’ is an anatomization of a mother or aunt: “She was a deadly assassin as far as words went. Slit-eyed, thin-lipped, she bleached and boiled the world. No Fs or Cs, Ps and Qs minded, oh aye. She did not bleed, had Women’s Trouble locked in the small room, mutely.”

Duffy is a British poet in a heady way. Her poems are full of the traditional English subjects: rain, coal smoke, tobacco smoke, poverty, train journeys, loneliness, puzzling and angry fathers, seasides and sudden funerals. Politics is one of her strongest suits (although one of her best recent poems, ‘Democracy’, isn’t included here). She can be very sexy, viz. ‘Stuffed’, in which it’s tantalizingly unclear if the narrator is talking about taxidermy or erotic games. And she has a real way with occasional verse, like ‘Valentine’, where the lover is given an onion instead of a card.

The release of a Collected Poems like this is perhaps the most important milestone in a poet’s career. It should be cause for rejoicing and a little festivity, but this book is too plain, too severely designed to be such a landmark. It is unnecessarily large and too heavy to enjoy easily, with a flat spine that doesn’t fit the hand, and has quite nasty sharp corners. The layout and type are uninspired and the sections are separated by inept fuzzy calligraphic pieces that show through the paper, which is too thin. A book like this ought to be sumptuous, no? Instead it’s kind of obnoxious. Prickly. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the author wants it like that.

Duffy likes writing about Christmas, and ‘Mrs Scrooge’ is one of the best of these. Now a widow, she and society both have benefited from Ebenezer’s transformation from Cameronian to Bennite. That’s Tony Benn, folks. She’s like a Guardian reader – she takes buses, is a vegan and forager, and buried Scrooge in an eco-coffin. But it’s deep: Duffy’s reanimation of Dickens’s characters and atmosphere is quite moving, and that is a power for which many historical novelists would pay with their souls. In ‘Bethlehem’ she describes the place on the night in question in terms of smells, food and sounds. But even a great re-imaginer like Duffy still fails to explain why there were no rooms available. Was there a convention in town? It wasn’t like it was Christmas or anything.

TMcE

(This review appeared in The National, Dec. 21st, 2015)