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The idea of any existence before ‘me’ often seems rather weird- a try out for death without the sorrow and fear. For what was I doing and where was I when I was not? And then whilst I was busy not being me, and not being me for a very long time, my mother was living her own life happily without me, enjoying the freedom of youth, and having adventures!
Sometimes a spot of mindfulness puts our current world in perspective!
I do like this poem. It exudes humour and fiercely tender affection. Duffy is enduringly proud of her mum and it shows at every turn of this poem. She announces her mum on the stage of her remembrance as a true star and this sense of precious recognition of all that her mother was even before Duffy came along, makes the poem a most uplifting and fulfilling read.
It is highly and resonantly selective of detail that communicate Carol Ann Duffy’s respect for her mother May, and conjures up a human being vital, exuberant and attractively individual. Duffy opens the poem with a gesture towards time and space, an arch gesture and one that is suggestive of time travel being a form of healing resurrection.
AND I do feel that childhood is full of corners somehow, literal and metaphorical. Dickens loves corners. He likes writing about awkwardness and spying; he loves perceptual bewilderment and wonder. He also loves covert tension, rank emotions such as envy and jealousy and these are easily accessed and represented through visits to the odd corner!
Corners suggest social reticence too ; observation and ‘hanging back’ and the child’s desire for secrecy and privacy aside from the rest of their routine.
Maybe the experience of corners and being ‘cornered’ should be discussed in more depth another time? I suppose that stories have the power to corner us too? We can be bewitched by tales or trapped into negative versions of our lives and identies.
‘You did this to me!’ Always involves a corner or two. For blame necessitates a certain type of inflexible perspective. Like craning your neck around a corner and seeing but half a view!!
We share stories with those we care about. Our stories become enmeshed within our relationship and are in many ways, the relationship. Of course some stories are harsh and destructive, but here Duffy’s recollection of her mother through her mother’s own tales, captures a lightness and brightness that reminds me of a sort of golden age of cinema-a nostalgic time where laughter and youthful delight reigned!
Duffy says on her site Sheer Poetry that she found the poem suggestive of a photograph album. We turn the pages and remark upon different images and feelings. As If we have to find the best photographs, our favourite photographs where mother was in the midst of some ‘famous’ escapade with friends.
The positioning of Duffy’s narrator ‘away from the corner’ still gives the reader the sense of the poet watching her mother from just out of direct view; shyly enjoying the confidence and expressiveness of the younger version of her mother. Like Gillian Clarke’s brilliant question in the final stanza of ‘Cold Knap Lake’ where memory becomes a matter of possibly unstable storytelling: ‘Was I there?‘ Well the answer in this poem as in that, seems both a resounding YES and NO!!!
And many days of course as we drift in and out of involvement and concentration, the answer may be quite similar.
I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on
with your pals, Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff.
The three of you bend from the waist, holding
each other, or your knees, and shriek at the pavement.
Your polka-dot dress blows round your legs. Marilyn.
I’m not here yet. The thought of me doesn’t occur
in the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows
the right walk home could bring. I knew you would dance
like that. Before you were mine, your Ma stands at the close
with a hiding for the late one. You reckon it’s worth it.
The decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?
I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes, relics,
and now your ghost clatters toward me over George Square
till I see you, clear as scent, under the tree,
with its lights, and whose small bites on your neck, sweetheart?
Cha cha cha! You’d teach me the steps on the way home from Mass, stamping stars from the wrong pavement. Even then
I wanted the bold girl winking in Portobello, somewhere
in Scotland, before I was born. That glamorous love lasts
where you sparkle and waltz and laugh before you were mine.
The Old analysis.
Carol Ann Duffy is a time traveller. Her poetry frequently steps to one side of an experience and redraws its ostensible shape, smudging away at any exclusive edges, so that the supposed fixity of an experience or relationship becomes more plastic,more malleable. I love this creativity in Duffy, this capacity for the ‘what if’ or ‘reframe’ in Carol Ann Duffy. For like all great writers, she is prepared to renegotiate experience and the past. She believes in resurrection through remembrance, and is prepared to play with remembrance(and I am aware of the seemingly dangerous and dismissive triteness of this term ‘play’ ) in order to discover the potential for reconciliation and even redemption.
One of Carol Ann Duffy’s recent poems as the new Poet Laureate is entitled ‘Premonitions’ which tries to renegotiate the shattering numbness of losing your mother, through a cinematic reversal of the progresssive destruction of a loved one through terminal illness. ‘Before you were mine’ is an earlier poem and celebrates Duffy’s mother from a very different viewpoint, though both deal with concepts of death in very different ways. The death before birth in ‘Before you were Mine’ and the role of writing to reanimate those lost literally to us through death.We talk about ‘going on’ but perhaps the direction of this platitude is more open to question than custom would have us belive. For where is the future direction and journey which will lead us ‘on’ tfrom the numbness of despair? Perhaps time travelling is the only secular resurrection available for an atheist like Carol Ann Duffy?
The poem above captures the daughter’s wonder at the time before she was born when her mother was ‘free’ of responsibility for her family. All the images and escapades fed into this tender, joyful portriat of her mother seem a conglomeration of most likely repeated family tales, ‘Marilyn’ all woven into this resonant elegy to lost time. The synasthaesia of ‘ I see you clear as scent’ underlines the delight and intimacy of this time travelling act of teasing love. It is as if one can remember what one has never literraly experienced but has stilled experienced vicariously through loving attentiveness to the details of another’s stories.
We are the stuff of anecdotes. Story telling is not a second hand substitute for ‘real’ life. It is the very stuff of life itself!
How to write a good essay!
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