Away And See
by Michael Woods
Remembering a parent's encouraging suggestion to explore the world leads the poet to reflect upon the function of her art.
This poem's title reminds the reader that the poet cherishes the way her mother speaks, and is worth reading I conjunction with 'The Way My Mother Speaks' in The Other Country. The saying is characteristically Scottish/Irish and may be paraphrased as 'Go and have a look'. It is a poem that affectionately recalls a parental instruction to explore what might be available to a child with a thirst and zest for life. It is also a poetic paraclete, a self-reflexive piece that reminds us that a poet's job is to look at what the world is. Each stanza finishes with a sentence that is an imperative statement such as 'Write to me soon.' (stanza 1); Taste it for me (stanza 2); and 'Away and see' (stanza 5). This is consistent with the idea that the choice of sentence type or vocabulary is at the root of what writing is about. It is also instructive to look at the way the poem reflects upon language in general and specifically on the morphology or structure of words and their meaning. Words, the raw material of poetry have the capacity to convey what the poet intends, as well as their capacity to confound it.
The childish metaphor that opens the poem 'Away and see an ocean suck at a boiled sun' suggests the sun is a sweet. This immediately transmutes into a much more adult perspective in, 'and say to someone things I'd blush even to dream.' The second stanza begins to deal explicitly with language with the striking beginning: 'New fruits sing on the flipside of night in a market / of language, light, a tune from the chapel nearby'. There is a reminder for the reader that the visual and aural perceptions are crucial feeding the creative writer. The 'flipside' of night, in a term applied to records, is day. The third stanza is worth quoting in full:
Away and see the things that words give a name to, the flight
of syllables, wingspan stretching a noun. Test words
wherever they live; listen and touch, smell, believe.
Spell them with love.'
The relationship between words and what they signify is again take up by Duffy and she personifies words themselves in an impressive reversal since it is usually words that are used to personify things. Having said this, she is left with having to articulate this in words which leads us to ask the sorts of questions about language that are raised in 'Words, Wide Night' and 'The Grammar of Light'. The idea of a bird being brought into the mind through words is to be viewed alongside the thing itself and the manner in which the alliterated 'n' sounds in 'wingspan stretching a noun' suggest the tension of wings spread out. Added to this the phrase on the page is visually 'stretched'. The sense of lift provided by the amplitude of the long vowel sound in 'flight' consolidates the explicit exploration of the poetic possibilities of words. The exhortation to 'test words wherever they live' is as much a challenge offered to poetry in general as it is an instruction to the self. The idea that words are alive is vital to any poet. The physical senses mentioned - hearing, touch and smell form a bridge between the mind and words, they are the confirmatory providers of empirical data that allow us to 'believe' in the world around us. The last two lines of the stanza employ full rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration and consonance: 'live' and 'love' are a half rhyme but there is also alliteration and consonance between them and 'believe'; 'smell' and 'Spell' rhyme perfectly suggesting that the former helps the poet to order experience as already mentioned.
The relishing of language for its own sake is stressed again in the placing of the energetic colloquialism, 'Skedaddle' in a sentence of its own in the penultimate stanza. It means either to run away or to fly in a disorderly way. Duffy seems to be using it for at least two reasons. In the first place, it is a word she would have heard as a child and in the second its connotation of flight links with the previous stanza. The familiar Scottish custom of first footing at the 'year's end' is accompanied by a suggestion of hope but the 'stranger' could easily herald 'horror and pity, passion' as well as that which is 'new' and 'vivid'. The uncertainty of the future he holds is acknowledged but, through the power of words, his name can be ascertained. The dialect word 'chaps', meaning to knock, keeps language awareness at the poem's centre.
The poem concludes by celebrating variegation, 'Nothing's the same as anything else', repeating the words of the title 'Away and see' and coaxing the art of poetry, poets and everyone to take risks, embark upon the journey of discovery that words make possible: 'Walk. Fly. Take a boat till land reappears, / altered forever, ringing its bells, alive. Go on. G'on. Gon. Away and see.' There is no room for hesitancy here, the emphasis is upon joyful participation and investigation.