Sometimes, not all times because Carol Ann Duffy is human and works hard and perhaps writes more than her energies allow, Duffy finds a word that changes everything in a poem. I know that was a meandering introduction but I wanted to write out what I feel happens when Duffy is really worth reading. She comes upon the RIGHT word, the ONLY word that can fulfill the WEIGHT of what she is SEARCHING to say. Perhaps that is not quite’it’. I think I mean that Carol Ann Duffy seems to allow her words to DISCOVER the ESSENTIAL emotion or meaning, so that the reader says, Ah yes. YES and the feeling transcends even the meaning itself.
Here, the word for me is the word,‘Amazed’. It carries the wonder of resurrection, of a second chance at life and of ‘awe-fulness’ – the offer of magical healing in one of the most bleak places in history.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, and drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
Carol Ann Duffy was asked to create a poem to mark the final passing of two of the last World War One survivors Harry Allingham and Harry patch. Here in Last Post she movingly rewinds the mindless slaughter of that war, revealing the promise and expansiveness of futures which were sacrificed for just a few hellish yards of mud. The ‘width ‘of certain words deployed in Duffy’s new poem yield up vistas lost, intimacies missed, the sense of any ‘dailiness’ destroyed. Duffy’s imaginative, compassionate dream of another version of the war is ironically juxtaposed to Wilfred Owen’s terrible, nightmarish indictment of the war, Dulce est Decorum est.
Duffy acknowledges her poetic debt to the terrible ‘dreams’ of Owen through the occasional, terse use of the clipped ’t’ sound in the poem. This staccato sound conveys the inhuman mechanisation of carrying out one’s ‘duty’, through the ordinary soldiers’ loyal obligation to follow often senseless orders. Duffy’s combination of both short and long sounds allows both the ‘old’ story of the war told by poets like Wilfred Owen, where the soldiers’ ‘last breath’ is almost always upon us, with the resurrecting time turning, possibilities of Duffy’s healing ‘what if’ in Last Post. For the staccato, terse sound of Owen’s poetic testimony is movingly assuaged by Carol Ann Duffy’s cinematic rewinding of the serial fatalities of the war, so that the poem seems to resuscitate the long dead through the emerging generosity of the breath, a returning breath, which reverses and imaginatively heals the bleak certainties of history.
How powerfully the word ‘amazed’ works to announce the awe of Duffy’s soldier at his second chance at life, his second chance of another day, just as Fitzgerald movingly uses the word ‘wonder’ at the end of The Great Gatsby to suggest a perceptual bewilderment which embraces the wide eyed freshness and expectation of hope. The repetition of ‘you walk away’ catches at a choice wholly unavailable to the serving soldier and thus we hear through the simplicity of such a choice, a Hardy-like note of yearning tenderness. The poet may do what time may not.
As I have said, Duffy’s Last Post is significantly framed by an extract from Wilfred Owen’s famous poem about the horrors of the First World War, Dulce est Decorum est. Owen was a direct witness to the abject horrors of the war and his feeling of nightmarish impotency before the hapless victims of mustard gas described in this poem, finds visceral expression through the very ‘breathlessness’ of the poem’s actual rhythm. As we read Owen’s poem we feel short of breath, we feel as if we too are gasping for our ‘last breath’ like his forgotten soldier. The desperate activity of the verb ‘plunges’ in Owen is upheld and sustained by the repetition of the present participles and this conveys the hellish, frenetic panic of the First World War soldiers victimised by the German’s use of mustard gas. The recurrence of such a disturbing image in the poet’s ‘dreams’ adds to the grim intensity of the recollected moment and operates as a very resonant introduction to Duffy’s new poem. It is as if we have to hear again Owen’s testimony to the hell of the war, before Carol Ann Duffy can offer up another way, through which and by which hell can finally be alleviated. As Duffy states in her editor’s introduction to the anthology Answering Back, significantly perhaps utilising a word central to the effect of her Last Post:
‘What amazed (my italics) me, once I sat down to choose some kind of order for the hundred poems submitted, was the sense of coherence and community between the living and dead poets. This sense was so strong, that the dead poets, even the long dead, seemed just as vividly present on the page as the living.’
Duffy’s Anthology Answering Back was published in 2007 and it is apparent that this time travelling communion between one poet and another, where ‘Poetry…is language as life..’ finds powerful expression in this ‘amazed’ strange meeting between Owen and her poet self.
Duffy also explores the connotations of a form of time travel in her Laureate poem Premonitions and this I have explored in another piece. For what if time could retreat, if we could recuperate lost, dead moments and all that had been taken away from us could regroup and grow again? It seems that grief does make time travellers of us all. Indeed the profound and tragic irony of Duffy’s poem Last Post is that the poem can go backwards and healing can take place, when all the orders inflicted upon the soldiers sent them forwards, relentlessly ‘over the top’ to their deaths. So much language around bereavement is about moving forward, moving on, yet our natural inclination when we lose someone, is to move backwards to find them again.
The soldiers’ lost potential is named through Duffy’s careful delineation of missed life stages, and the pathos of the casual seeming ‘shaking dried mud from their hair’ is profoundly physical as well as visual. The iconic, seemingly inescapable images of the war’s dead soldiers immersed in mud are beautifully challenged by Duffy’s liberating image. A perfect, tender glimpse of a ‘what if.’
The final pathos of the poet no longer needing to give testimony to the horrors of war, to the grisly events of the past is palpable. One of Wilfred Owen’s most famous poems frames this poetic resurrection of lost lives and his voice haunts the entire text. Compassionately, it is as if Owen himself escapes his terrible, week before Armistice Day sacrifice and can smile too, glad to be alive, to survive and thrive, no longer obliged to write at all.
‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards
Then it would. ‘
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