by Michael Woods
The poet asks the reader to consider what it must be like to be an immigrant worker, the object of racist abuse, living in an unlovely house, finding communication difficult and feeling homesick.
Duffy's preoccupation with language is dealt with here form the perspective of its cultural significance as much as its ability to say anything. To the immigrant, the country to which he or she has moved out of economic necessity will always be 'foreign' but the indigenous population will regard them as foreigners.
The fact that living in a foreign culture is something that is not easy to get used to is emphasised in the opening line of the poem. Despite living in a city for 'twenty years' it remains 'strange'. The immigrant is aware of his or her own 'foreign accent' as it sounds to others. The strain of thinking in one language and having to translate into the speech of another cannot always be sustained and this is sensitively pointed out through the physical detail in the final stanza: 'And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins / in your palm will not translate.' The breakdown in communication in an everyday, exposed transactional situation is intensified through the words 'Inarticulate' and 'point'.
Duffy's empathic feeling for such people is further expressed in her presentation of other actions such as 'writing home', a way of maintaining contact with others of the same culture. The 'local dialect' in the immigrant's 'head' is coupled with the memory of his or her mother singing. These are details with which any sympathetic person might identify and throw into sharp relief the actual experience of seeing racist graffiti 'sprayed in red' (line 12). Duffy's use of the simile, 'Red like blood' to describe the paint is effective because of its monosyllabic directness of observation. It also resonates with a famous and terrible speech given by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell who, on 20th April 1968 warned that increased immigration into Britain would result in a 'river of blood'. There is, then, a stark contrast between the uses of language as a sign system of cultural inclusion (stanza 2) and its deliberate use as a weapon of racial exclusion (stanza 3). The 'hate name' of the racists is sprayed on a 'brick wall' the harshness and unyielding nature of which is symbolic of the mentality of those who do such things.
The unfamiliar, snowy weather and artificial 'neon lights' create the impression for the immigrant that the country moved to is 'coming to bits'. This image of fragmentation is, though, not entirely imaginary as he or she has a life splintered from all that is familiar and constantly experiences a sense of alienation. The italicised words at the close of the poem give voice to the immigrant but this only gives away a difficulty with English. The unfinished verbs, 'Me not know' and 'It like they only…' are drawn attention to by Duffy in order that the reader may ponder what it would be like to face the same language problem. The final words of the poem, 'Imagine that' remind us of the opening and there is quite a clear impression that Duffy is adopting an undisguised didactic stance. As a skilled and empowered user of the English language herself she is drawing attention to the lot of those who are marginalised because of their deficiency in its use.