REVIEW: Fish, Chips & Carol Ann Duffy, Introducing the Current British Poet Laureate

Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Penguin Global Books 2009. ISBN 978-0141025124. $14.00. 160 pages.

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador Books Hardcover 2005. ISBN 0-330-41280-9. $24.95. 62 pages.

In 2009 Carol Ann Duffy, the award-winning U.K. author of several books of poetry as well as children’s books, became the first-ever female British Poet Laureate. The position catapulted her technically accomplished work, with its pressing and biting social insight, into the international spotlight and into my Baltimore, Maryland purview.

Duffy’s Selected Poems offer dramatic monologues featuring convincing, troubling, and poetically compelling glances at modern times through the kilns of various psyches. This selection from her first five books features voices at the margins of society. The poems offer modern psychological narratives like the 19th-century dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, updated with characters anyone would recognize from the modern urban scene: a school teacher, the private thoughts of children, U.K. immigrants, whispers of secret lovers, a chilling “Psychopath,” and even a narrative told by a dolphin at an aquarium.

Duffy’s work shows a distrust of public narratives. With the skepticism of public “lives,” her poetry explores the richness and troublesomeness and identities of private life. If there is any criticism of this book to be made, it is that it lacks any hint of Duffy’s personal life. It also leaves out some of the more tender aspects of life, focusing instead on dramatically troubled people, like good drama, but after awhile—an incomplete picture. Overall Duffy’s Selected Poems is a poetic tour-de-force.

In “And How Are We Today?” a person speaks of fear of the radio:

The little people in the radio are picking on me
again. It is sunny, but they are going to make it
rain. I do not like their voices, they have voices
like cold tea with the skin on. I go O O O.

To look at this stanza from a craft perspective, the opening line offers the sheer surprise of this narrator’s thought process (people on the radio “are picking on me / again”). The poem creates tension by breaking the first two sentences across the poetic line in line 2 and 3. Rhythm comes from doing it twice. The quatrain stanza uses language creatively to show a person—possibly rocking in a chair in distress—via when the narrator says: “I go O O O.” Simultaneously, the formal quatrain provides some structure for this poetic window. Duffy also spices this narrator’s thoughts with one poetic image: “like cold tea with the skin on.” Yet the everyday diction keeps the narrator conversational and intimate. This subtle workmanship is typical of the poems in this book.

In “Making Money,” Duffy condemns a society twisting and twisted upon the axle of money. The poem does so mostly by reciting money’s various names and then sketching a few extreme things, like prostitution, which people do for it. The rhythmic refrain, exemplified in the first line below, seems taken from rap music. Duffy combines old and new. The poem chants at the end:

Palm Grease. Smackers. Greenbacks. Wads. I widen my eyes
at a fortune; a set of knives on black cloth, shining,
utterly beautiful. Weep. The economy booms
like cannon, far out at sea on a lone ship. We leave
our places of work, tired , in the shortening hours, in the time
of night our town could be anywhere, and some of us pause
in the square, where a clown makes money swallowing fire.

“Telegrams” offers a dramatic love poem between “C” and “B” in the ALL CAPS form of a telegram. “In Mrs. Tilscher’s Class” offers the tender view of a classroom as seen by a child who feels that school “was better than home.” At summer recess at this poem’s end, this same child “ran through the gates, impatient to be grown / as the sky split open into a thunderstorm.”
In the comic “Head of English,” an English teacher introduces a “real live poet with a published book.” However, the poet comically realizes that he or she has been brought in more to serve a classroom purpose only: fill time, be a specimen, but not to embody poetry’s traditional role to delight or inspire. A funny poem—”Head of English”—shows the poet alongside the other narrators here as existing at the margins of mainstream society. The title praises the poet on one head for accomplishment, but ironically in the real world shows the poet to be the title’s opposite. The poem echoes Wordsworth’s ambition for poetry to depict as well as touch everyone in society; mainstream work-day society does not comprehend this force, or if at all, rejects it as disruptive. Like Yeats in “Among School Children,” Duffy is an unwilling observer in the classroom.

Duffy’s most recent full-length collection, Rapture, won the U.K. T.S. Eliot Prize and offers a series of rapturous love poems to an offstage lover. Unlike her earlier work, Rapture often uses a short-lined, rhyming, chimed form of the lyrical song. The poems all appear to be in her own voice—gone are the characters. According to news reports, Duffy recently fell in love with a same-sex partner. The poems do feel like they have experience driving them. Yet after twenty pages, as a reader I felt I was eavesdropping, and not pleasantly. Nevertheless, there are some very nice similes and stage sets here.
Duffy in “Text” writes about waiting for a text message on her mobile phone, while apart from her beloved:

I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird.

We text, text, text
our significant words.

I re-read your first,
your second, your third,

look for your small xx,
feeling absurd.

In conclusion, Duffy as Poet Laureate joins an esteemed U.K. lineage that includes British poets John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, and two fitting modern additions: Ted Hughes and now Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy’s Selected Poems are an intriguing addition to English language poetry.

Gregg Mosson is the author a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press), and a book of poetry of social engagement and witnessing, Questions of Fire (Plain View Press). He recently edited Poems Against War: Bending Toward Justice (Wasteland Press 2010). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, edits a journal called Poems Against War (Wasteland Press), and lives in Maryland. For more, seek http://www.greggmosson.com.

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