As we celebrate Carol Ann Duffy’s decade as Poet Laureate, Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards offers a response to the themes of love and loss in her work
The twentieth Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, whose ten years in post ended in May 2019, knows what it is like to fall in love. Her 2005 collection, Rapture, traced in fifty-two poems the life-changing impact of a relationship from its glorious beginning to a devastating conclusion. It is the most powerful piece of work that she has produced, and one of the most important collections of love poetry of the twenty-first century: a first-person negotiation of a riverside falling-in-love competing with a darker desire to possess, which is sometimes satisfied but never satiated. Sadly, the relationship ends in wreckage, separation and the almost widowed faithfulness of its speaker, who begins and ends the collection alone.
The poem ‘River’ appears at the beginning of Rapture yet runs right through it. It channels the longing with which its protagonist has approached a lifetime’s search for love, culminating in the lines: “Then I can look love full in the face, see / who you are I have come this far to find, the love of my life.” Duffy’s speaker has evidently met ‘The One’, but by the end of the book she has also lost her. How, we ask, can such things be? And how can we bear them, not only in the immediate aftermath of a breakup, but every day of the rest of our lives? Whether Rapture depicts an actual relationship shrouded (rightly) in mystery, or a partially fictionalised synthesis of many different bonds, it speaks to us because we love as its protagonists love, and we therefore suffer as they do. This awful truth struck reviewer Margaret Reynolds, writing in The Guardian in 2006, whose life deteriorated from a missed train stop as she read, to sleep-deprived workplace weeping, so deeply was she drawn into the terrible finality of Rapture’s ultimate question: ‘So, now what?’
‘An Unseen’, published in Duffy’s Laureate Poems collection Ritual Lighting, was commissioned as a poetic reaction to Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Send-Off’. But it also strikes a chord with readers of Rapture, envisioning “all future / past” as the speaker asks, “Has forever been then?” and is told, “Yes, / forever has been.” It seems only right that the real answer to ‘now what?’ comes to us not from the living but from the dead. In ‘Snow’ (from her 2011 collection The Bees), the icy flakes scattered by the ghosts that walk beside us offer space and silence, and the possibility of healing and redirection. The dead also offer a different question: “Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now / with the gift of your left life?”
It will take Duffy until Sincerity (2018), her final collection as Laureate, to come to terms with the answer to this, which is, nothing. She, or rather her speaker, will simply go on being: being herself, often by herself. This may have been what sustained her as Laureate. Tristram Fane Saunders, in the Telegraph, rightly challenges the curious levels of secrecy and government involvement in choosing a Laureate, yet his question “how can you choose… when it’s still not altogether clear what a Laureate is?” demonstrates a failure to understand that the Laureateship is what you make it. Duffy has made it business as usual, remaining true to herself, no easy task in the face of such international exposure.
Her fictionalised speaker has learned that, as the ghosts of ‘Snow’ originally decreed, she must go nowhere but to the quiet, calm and healing centre of herself. The poem ‘Dining Alone in Orta’ depicts her calm again beneath her beloved moon, nurtured by bells. She is no longer restless. ‘The Monkey’ sees the speaker, despite her new baby-pet’s energy, sitting alone at the end of a day, “toys tidied, all safe, house hushed”. Other loves have inevitably arrived in the meantime and been welcomed and their course has even been charted in the sacred words of Rapture itself, for example in the poem ‘Chaucer’s Valentine’. Parents have died. Children have brought extraordinary joy to the most ordinary of moments – they too have become the centre of the world – and then, just as lightly as they arrived, they have left, which Duffy suggests is the way of things if we are lucky. Poetry has, all the while, been offered, rejected, ignored and received.
The only one who has never left is the only person who remains at Orta’s table. Duffy’s speaker has risked everything, gained everything, lost everything and yet lost nothing. In the words of poet Mary Oliver, writing in Our World about an earlier relationship that had impacted upon the love of her own life, Molly Malone Cook: “She had… an affair that struck deeply, I believe she loved totally and was loved totally… I am glad. I have an idea of why the relationship thrived so and yet failed, too private for discussion… I only mean that thilove, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed – not necessarily badly but changed. Who doesn’t know that, doesn’t know much.” At the close of Rapture, Duffy’s speaker can only mourn this, powerlessly watching their once-beloved river “flowing always somewhere else, even its name, / change, change” (‘Unloving’). By the close of Sincerity, she has accepted that despite this, even as she sits in solitude, she remains in communion “with the stars, / with everyone else who breathes”.s