Monday, October 3, 2016

Poems I Journey With 18

We turn to literature for many reasons: for comfort, for escapism, for entertainment, to give us insight into life, to educate us, to challenge us and so on and so forth. A turning point for this present reviewer was his discovery of the local library. I remember joining the branch at Charleville Mall in north inner city Dublin when I was seven years of age. It was then that my love of books, for knowledge and for literature in general began. To take out two different books every two weeks was a delight for me and a brief embrace with the wonders of knowledge and indeed of life itself. Umberto Eco has declared in one of his books that the main purpose of literature is to learn how to die.  In my opinion he only took into account one side of the story in that declaration as it is my contention, and indeed, that of many others, that the main purpose of literature is to learn how to live and how to die. Life and death are inextricably linked realities. Poems are in a sense a distillation of prose literature, an intense expression of what is said in a more expanded and expansive way therein.

Carol Ann Duffy
This evening I would like to present the readers with a poem from the pen of another wonderful woman poet, namely, Carol Ann Duffy.  As the Wiki succinctly puts it:  “Dame Carol Ann Duffy, DBE FRSL (1955) is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, and was appointed Britain's Poet Laureate in May 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly LGBT person to hold the position.” See this link: Carol Ann Duffy

This poem works through a fairly standard technique or literary device called “personification,” where Duffy presents us with a feminine version of history, history as an old woman waking up in her bed and coming to realise all that has been done to her. Rather than saying anything more at this stage, let us read and reflect upon the poem:

She woke up old at last, alone,
bones in a bed, not a tooth
in her head, half dead, shuffled
and limped downstairs
in the rag of her nightdress,
smelling of pee.

Slurped tea, stared
at her hand - twigs, stained gloves - 
wheezed and coughed, pulled on
the coat that hung from a hook
on the door, lay on the sofa,
dozed, snored.

She was History.
She'd seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;

been there
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;

witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name, Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam. She'd heard the last words
of the martyrs burnt at the stake, the murderers
hung by the neck,

seen up-close
how the saint whistled and spat in the flames,
how the dictator strutting and stuttering film
blew out his brains, how the children waved 
their little hands from the trains. She woke again,
cold, in the dark,

in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor. 

Carol Ann Duffy covers some 2000 years of history since the birth of Jesus Christ in this poem and comments on how history, personified as a woman, might feel given the drastic changes that have occurred over those two millennia.  This personification is an effective conceit to get us thinking. The one problem I have with this poem is that perhaps the period covered in too broad a canvas that thereby renders the conceit somewhat too simplistic and consequently somewhat less than effective as a literary device here.  However, the message of the poem is clear:- we humans have really messed up and messed up very badly indeed.

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