by Michael Woods
A man called Eley is having an affair with a married woman. She tells him one Autumn night that the affair is over and he kills himself.
This poem is a progressive narrative that we might describe as a thriller. The regular stanzaic structure lends itself to the build up of tension and sense of foreboding and inevitability. This sense of progression and tension is achieved through the accretion of physical details. In this sense it is very filmic.
The opening stanza describes Eley finding a bullet 'with his name on it'. The familiar metaphorical idea that our fate is inescapable is given a clever twist in that the man's name is shared with that of a well know shotgun cartridge manufacturer. The ammunition really does have his name on it. Autumn trees are turning brown and Keats's 'Ode to Autumn' is alluded to in 'Rime was in the air.' This sentiment of celebration is immediately contrasted with the 'cool bullet' in Eley's hand. The atmosphere is distinctly deathly as we realise that Autumn is a time when things in nature decay. The gunfire which is directed against pheasants and which causes the dog to whine will be directed against him in stanza nine. The dog's 'whine' will become a 'frightened whimper'.
As yet in ignorance of the decision his mistress has made, Eley relaxes and anticipates going to bed with her that night. He drinks whisky and the familiar warmth of a domestic scene is competed with the image of him sitting by the fire accompanied by his dog. He prepares for her by bathing. His soak is interrupted as she telephones to tell him she has managed to lie her way into having time to see him. The fact that this is a clandestine relationship is signalled through the detail of her using a telephone box. Delighted, Eley hugs his dog 'till it barked'. This anticipates what he would like to do with the woman. She will, he hopes, make noise as they make love. We are told that 'the world expanded at the thought of her' suggesting both that he feels the world is a better place when he is with her and also that he expands physically in the region of his loins. It might also be suggested here that the world of this relationship is only sexual and cannot have a real future, something the woman seems to recognise as she finishes the affair. The ominous sense of foreboding is built on at the end of stanza four as 'the wind / knew something was on and nudged at the clouds.' This use of personification suggests a conspiratorial prescience in nature, and ties in neatly with the opening stanza's introduction of the concept of inescapable destiny.
Stanzas five and six describe the last night of the affair. The easeful contentedness of post-coital recovery and reverie is suggested in 'His fingers counted / the beads of her back as he talked in the dark.' Her leaving for good shatters his bliss. Duffy does not describe exchanges laboriously but economically conveys the emotions of the lovers through their physical actions, and brief reported speech. The precise reference to time, 'At ten.' is a telling detail and one that the woman would surely remember given the nature of subsequent events. The reader is aware of real tension and destruction now and this is intensified by Eley's reaction. He repeats her words as if reciting Latin by rote, not seeming to take them in. The pun at the end of the stanza adds an ominous note. Latin is known as a dead language because it is no longer used but the language used by the woman will have the power of death over Eley. We may also say that all communication between the man and the woman is now dead.
The manner in which Eley's suicide is led up to is characterised by close attention to detail. The midnight hour and the moon suggest something sinister, the word 'lethal' emphasising this. His suicide note is in the form of a letter to his lover. The dog's sniffing at a 'tepid bed' is another preparation for the complete loss of body heat that comes with death. It is also symbolic of the cooling of the affair.
Eley's abject state is pitiful. He is aware enough to know that what he is writing is futile and, to others, as Vincent Van Gogh sending his severed ear as a token to his lover. The dilemma he faces in encapsulated in the choice he feels he must make between, 'Thunder or silence.' Fate appears to take over but the final stanza leaves a little room for doubt as to whether Eley does kill himself. Does 'the frightened whimper' of the dog imply that it is reacting to the sound of the gun going off? Compare this to its reaction to the shotgun in stanza one.
This poem clearly explores the destructive potential of passion and the unrealistic expectations that can develop within secretive relationships. Eley is devastated by the fact that his mistress does not love him to the exclusion of all others. This is ironic given the fact that she is married and has, theoretically at least, promised to love her husband exclusively.