by Michael Woods
In an imagined England after a nuclear attack, a young man talks about his experiences.
It is a well known scientific fact that one of the effects of radiation on the human body is atomic transmutation. Anyone who has read John Hersey's Hiroshima will also be aware of some of the effects of burns. Another side effect is the mutation caused in successive generations. In 'Descendants' Duffy explores the way in which language can also become mutated in a way that reflects the forces acting upon society. In this respect it is similar to 'Translating the English 1989'.
The form of the poem is interesting in relation to its subject matter. There are three eight line stanzas and one of nine which lends a sense of asymmetry. Also, longer lines are interspersed with very short ones. Typographically, this has the effect of making the eye move around in ways that are not particularly customary when reading a poem. This contributes to the oddness of the situation presented.
The relationship presented is between a young man who drinks heavily and a girl called Sarah who is in touch with her past. He has an affinity with dolphins he cannot explain but renounces the 'bastard past' perhaps because its only legacy to him was to ensure that he was 'well-nuked. Knackered.' This slang is a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar as far as we are concerned and indicates the way in which the past is bound up in the present. Drinking oneself into a state of imagined invincibility is not unheard of but the names given to the wine 'Burgdy' and 'Claray' have become mutated like the 'blotchy purple' face of Sarah. These changes are viewed as the norm and the man's use of 'lovely' to describe what we would consider shocking indicates the way perceptions can alter. His use of the adjective to describe Sarah's face is uncharacteristic of his general speech, which we recognise as rather crude and aggressive.
The oddness of the situation is made clear in the first line. Lancashire is not known as a wine growing area and the fact that there was work there 'all year' alerts the reader to the fact that seasonal normality is absent. This idea is made more explicit in lines 28-9.
Duffy contrasts the emotionally cauterised man who is disconnected from the past with Sarah whose lyrical attachment to 'poetry' and the remembered seasons is dismissed as 'crap'. The references to the dolphins represent a natural impulse for communication between humans and other creatures. In this respect it is reminiscent of Edwin Muir's post-nuclear war poem 'The Horses' in which he presents a rapprochement between humans and animals as a 'new beginning'. Here, though, any possibility of contact is absent. The book of poems is 'flung…beyond the dolphins' (lines 24-6). The language of the dolphins is heard as 'Click-click', one that cannot be understood by the man. He dismisses the dolphins but they are there. Interestingly there are a number of human languages called click languages. It is worth looking at this part of the poem in relation to 'The Dolphins' in Standing Female Nude. The man's brutal, 'I'd piss on an ancestor as soon as trace one. What / fucking seasons…' may convey anger at what he knows is their responsibility or it could show how he has become conditioned to blot out the past and consider it irrelevant by a society that has been transmuted. His reference to the lack of seasons is sufficient to alert us to the Book of the Apocalypse in the Bible, which refers to the cessation of seasonal change as a sign that the world is about to end. It seems that this could be in Sarah's mind as she looks up at the 'trembling unsafe sky'.
This is a very disturbing poem. Duffy reflects upon the fact that we have a responsibility to future generations. The world has not been given to us by our parents but is on loan from our children. The threat of nuclear war was still a possibility in the 1980s until the Cold War finally ceased. This is dealt with in more detail in part five.