The Other Country

“Representation makes dummies of us all” How is this sentiment reflected in Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry? “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” 1 Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is often criticised for being very simple, in both the lexis and the manner in which it is delivered. However, time must be taken to read the ‘unsaid’, that is, the words that are not written on the page, which create textured, layered poems.

Poems such as ‘We Remember Your Childhood Well’ (The Other Country : 24) exemplify this; one side of the conversation is represented, but it is the other voice, the other story, which intrigues the reader and it is left to them to imagine the missing dialogue. “The whole thing is inside your head” is particularly chilling to try and presume what the absent voice has experienced. The combination of both the spoken and unspoken at once, creates more depth to poetry and it is this that the reader has in mind when trying to understand it.

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The Alfred Hitchcock quote above explains exactly this, how a reader will anticipate the unsaid, sometimes to a more extreme degree than the reality. The question is, how a poet, or indeed any other author, can reasonably represent a character, feeling or message to their reader accurately if each reader will individually interpret their poem, novel or text. A reviewer for the Sunday Times wrote; “So often with Duffy does the reader say ‘Yes, that’s it exactly’ that she could well become the representative poet of the present day” (Selected Poems : Reverse Cover).

Yet, if each reader interprets a poem in their own way, how can it be “it exactly”, when each understanding will be slightly different? Is it possible that Duffy writes in such a way that every reader will be able to identify with the majority of her poems? If so, then surely the subject matter, the language and the representation of ideas must be so broad so as to encompass all possible readers?

It could be argued, then, that Duffy’s poems are less personal as a result and are somewhat undermined by the fact that concepts and characters cannot be fully and accurately represented, so as to leave leeway for each reader to be able to relate to the poem. In her thesis, Patricia Connell argues that this “suggests that Duffy’s poe,s invite a non-gendered – both male and female – identification [… ] In other words, gender and sexual difference to not figure. ” (Connell 2005 : 50)

The notion of identity and selfhood are important themes throughout Carol Ann Duffy’s poems, though it is questionable to what extent character and persona are built up and expressed within her writing. Although the majority of the poems are written in the first person, there is a distinct lack of the personal. That is, the reader is never fully aware of the true nature of the speaker, their beliefs, their physical appearance or their motives. Their identity is often reduced to “I” or “we”, it is only in the later volume The World’s Wife that the characters are even given names.

The reader is often left to construct the character themselves, though this is not always easy. Character is built up through the language used, the events that are talked about and the actions and reactions of the speaker. Memory plays a large part in the creation of persona in Duffy’s poems, the experiences of the past shaping the person of the present. There is, however, a problem with relying on memories to form opinion on a person; the memories represented in Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are often incomplete, bringing only half an image to the reader.

The shift between past and present is sometimes indistinct and this blurring makes the speaker’s identity and character hard to pin point. In a sense, we are often left with just a dummy, an outline of a person, sketchy in detail and hard to gain a true picture of. Freud introduced the term “screen memories” to describe the theory that childhood memories are not always an accurate recollection of the actual events. He argues that early memories cannot always be trusted;

It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from childhood; memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were, but as they appeared in the later years when the memories were recovered. (Freud : 46) The poem ‘M-m-memory’ describes this in the line, “forgotten, half-forgotten, half- / recalled”. The line-break between “half” and “recalled” is particularly telling, as if the speaker were pausing between the words, trying to recall the memory.

‘We Remember Your Childhood Well’ (The Other Country : 24) demonstrates this too, firstly in the title; we can imagine an adult speaking condescendingly to a child, but also within the poem; “What you recall are impressions” and the unsettling “Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday”. The repetition of “nobody” throughout the poem reinforces the lack of identity and there is a deliberate blurring of facts by the speaker, making the whole poem very uncertain and imprecise.

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