The older we get, the more memory befriends our consciousness or even hijacks our thoughts away.
If youth seems all about hurry and impatiently wishing for freedom from the regulations of childhood, from our lives seemingly ‘owned’ by others; then as we grow older we start to notice how things fall away from us, resting quietly perhaps in the recesses of memory, resurrected from their slumbers through nostalgia and sensory recollection.
It seems to explore the way in which we try to make ourselves noticed and remarkable; to leave our signature somewhere within our lives. So the school and the pen and the signature, all combine here as a sustained metaphor for the fragility of being human, for our fear of mortality and the shades of lurking horror that mock our inevitable walk towards the end.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins as T S Eliot once avowed at the close of his epic poem, The Wasteland.
The power of Duffy’s opening line is palpable. Read it again and imagine its resonance for us all.
It is dusk when I enter the classroom,
the last of the chalky Latin verbs going out on the board.
I sit at a desk at the back
and dip my first real pen into blue-black ink.
My jotter is dusty pink.
I rule a margin, one inch wide,
then write the names of the lost, the dead,
in a careful, legible list.
I memorise this, stand up,
recite it word-for-word to twenty shadowy desks.
The tall windows blacken and fill with night.
But I can see in this blurred school,
my carved initials soft scars on the wood,
and when I open the lid of my desk
there are my books, condition fair,
my difficult lessons.
I must not run in the corridor,
but walk at the speed of smell
to the hall, to the empty stage,
along the silent passageway to the gym
where my hands grasp the hanging rope that brushes my face.
Dark school. I learn well; the black paintings
in their burnt frames; all by heart –
the lightless speeches in the library,
the bleak equations, the Greek for darkness.
Above the glass roof of the chemistry lab,
the insolent, truant stars squander their light.
I found this by accident on the web and I was immediately struck by the Dickensian aspect of this gloomy revisitation of the past. What is the ‘school’ the poet has elected to revisit- if indeed any choice was involved?
Everything means something else in this tribute to the displacements of life and like Dickens’ Bleak House and Blakes’ Songs of Innocence and Experience there is a weariness of tone which underlines the emotional cost of experience and perhaps the failures of education to prepare us for the rigours of existence.
However despite the weight of loss the poet finds an acknowledgement too; ‘soft scars on the wood’. Experience testifies to our survival and forebearance. And then the ’insolent truant stars’ can ‘squander their light’ …a provoking image of defiance and individualism. Are these lights representative of the poet’s lost intimates or the aspirations that remain tantalisingly beyond any atttempt at control and mastery? The final image does suggest the ‘beyond’ of any schooling or educational experience. Originality has its own light despite any efforts to control it?
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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