You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.
That for an hour, then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.
This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a gold star by your name.
The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.
I have been looking at this poem again and am struck by the importance of location in the poem. This might seem an obvious thing to say but Duffy is consistently fascinated by questions surrounding ‘orientation’ in her poetry whether geographical, pschological or sexual.
Here the orientation relates initially to the structured familiarity of a primary school day. Time appears a known commodity. Even the exoticism of the far-away places on the map, is safely integrated through Mrs Tilscher’s highly polished lessson plan. This ‘territory’ on the map is no more or less important than the regulation milk time and the sound of the school bell signifying licensed play-time. Everything is ‘mapped out’ and this includes the reader’s response!
Carol Ann Duffy ‘locates’ her poem here through a carefully selected choice of image that appears spontaneous and arbitrary but is in fact peculiarly attentive to the sensory aspects of memory. These senses combine to open up the past so that it lives before us again, and even if it wasn’t literally our past, we know it belongs vicarioulsy to us through parents, grandaparents, stories, films….
Of course the ‘laugh of a bell’ suggests pleasure and innocence. The promise of temporary(and permitted) liberation from ‘work’ into ‘play’ yet the irony is also there, that for some of us, this laugh might have been less pleasure and more discomfort through shyness and social unease? Duffy’s elected phrase thus acts as a gate-way into the past which illuminates through reanimation and resurrection. Thus we acquiese or negate the world of fresh-eyed acceptance represented here. But our reaction also reveals the reality of Duffy’s poem and its consummate ventriloquism.
‘This was better than home.’ Duffy suggests the liberation of early education here through the juxtaposition of ‘home’ with ‘Enthralling books.’ Once again there is an infectious idealism in ‘Mrs Tilscher’s class’ and this is transmitted through the sense of wonder and opportunity voiced in the first two stanzas of the poem. Duffy is ‘anchoring( NLP) her remembrance to visual, auditory and kinaesthetic memory which invite identification and participation from the reader.
This technique of anchoring is used in many of her poems and perhaps explains why Duffy is so ‘near’ her readers? Her popularity seems somehow tied up with her intimacy of tone, she is in our ‘room’ ( location again) carrying us with her on a journey into ‘our’ constructed/reconstructed pasts. You can almost feel Mrs Tilscher’s breath!
‘The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.’
How many of our senses are invloved here? And with what effects?
And what type of pupil ‘carefully’ shaved their pencil I wonder? The class angel or the pupil wanting more time ‘off work’…or a kinaesthetic wunderkind who liked amassing a satisfying heap of wood shavings, daring the pencil to break? Anchoring is all!
The Woman in Black
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