Saturday, September 15, 2012

an early poem by Carol Ann Duffy

I think Carol Ann Duffy is the best living British poet.  Here's a beautifully-crafted early sonnet of hers, which vividly contrasts/connects the human and natural realms:


Over this Common a kestrel treads air
till the earth says mouse or vole.  Far below
two lovers walking by the pond seem unaware.

She feeds the ducks.  He wants her, tells her so
as she half-smiles and stands slightly apart.
He loves me, loves me not with each deft throw.

It could last a year, she thinks, possibly two
and then crumble like stale bread.  The kestrel flies
across the sun as he swears his love is true

and, darling, forever.  Suddenly the earth cries
Now and death drops from above like a stone.
A couple turn and see a strange bird rise.

Into the sky the kestrel climbs alone
and later she might write or he might phone.

(Vole (I had to look it up) is defined by the Oxford American Dictionary as: "any of several small animals resembling rats or mice." A kestrel is a small falcon.  SW19: "Mostly Wimbledon, a classy suburb" of London.)  (Note: Duffy did not include this in her Selected Poems (1994), nor in her New Selected Poems (2004).)

. . . Notice how effective the internal rhymes that Duffy uses are. In the first stanza, how "Far" echoes "earth" and "air."  See the connections of: over—vole—below—lovers. 

And the el-sounds in: kestrel—till—vole—bel/ow—wal/king.  Then: pond—un/aware.  Further down in the poem, find these: half—deft; crumble—stale—kestrel; love—for/ev/er —above.

The alliterations of: Common—kestrel —walking.

In lines 1-11, this progression of verbs: treads—walking—stands—crumble—drops.  Line 4, the link of 'feeds' and 'wants.' 

The repetition in lines 1-9: lovers, loves, loves, love.  How this last use of 'love' is followed so closely by 'death.' 

In the third stanza the k-sounds reoccur: crumble— kestrel— a/cross; and then, in line 13, sky—kestrel—climbs. 

Line 14 is full of internal rhymes: late/r—might —write—might; she—he. 

The connection between the wild kestrel and the tamer ducks, both wanting to feed, on 'mouse' or 'stale bread.' 

Thread the verbs of communication down through the poem: says—tells—swears—cries—write—phone (contrast the first four present active verbs with the future conditional verbs of the final line). 

Is the final verb assigned to her, "write," more distant than his verb, "phone"? 

The "two lovers" (l. 3) don't dialogue: her response to his telling her he wants her (l. 4) is to half-smile and stand slightly apart (l. 5) and to silently say to herself (silently, I assume, since the italics here are also used to indicate the unvoiced words of "the earth"),

He loves me, loves me not with each deft throw of stale bread to the ducks (l. 6). 

It could last a year, she thinks to herself, possibly two (l. 7). 

He persists and swears his love is true (l. 8) and, darling, forever (l. 9). 

Still, she won't speak; she won't even voice her doubts about his promised "forever." Instead

the earth cries Now (the needs of now take precedence to the vows of forever) and death drops (lines 10-11). 

They turn as one (a couple) to see a strange bird rise (l. 12) 

Why strange: as opposed to the domesticated ducks? 

Strange because its predatory interruption has somehow estranged them? 

To the temporary coupling of two it has introduced the terrible coup of its thirdness?  Its terza has rima'ed them apart. 

This deus ex machina dropping down 'like a stone' has shattered and split and left them each "alone" (l. 13). 

The K's and L's and I's and E's have it: Into the sKY the KestreL CLImbs aLone / And Later shE mIght wrIte or hE mIght phone.

(The kestrel is alone presumably because it has swallowed its prey.  What we devour is no longer 'apart' (l. 5) from us.)

('Apart' is the only endword in the poem which has no counterpart rhyme, a choice made probably for deliberate emphasis and reinforcement of the theme.)


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