Practising Being Dead
by Michael Woods
A childhood game, derived from the experience of a relative dying, is recalled by the persona of the poem as she revisits the place where the relative lived.
The evocative power of memory and memory associated with a particular place is clearly used by Duffy in this poem. The opening of the poem enables the reader to identify with the experience of feeling almost like two people in being 'Your own ghost'. The experience is rendered even stranger as 'ghost' suggests a spiritual remnant of someone who is physically dead. The 'corridor of years' is a concrete image for intangible time that has mysterious and measurable effects. The personification of the trees that 'sigh' conveys an emotional weight that is often associated with the expiration of breath in the manner Duffy describes. This first stanza is concerned with someone facing his or her past from the outside. The physical location becomes simultaneously emblematic of the past and present so is therefore 'Neither'.
Stanza two begins with the persona having overcome the difficulty of facing the interior of the house where both imagined and real deaths were experienced. Duffy uses an olfactory image to capture what the past means to this person. In suggesting that 'the past is the scent of candles' she uses smell, the most evocative of our senses, to make an abstraction concrete. The candles are clearly associated with the memory of the dead woman, presumably a relative, who was 'laid out inside that alcove at the stairhead'. The precision of the memory and the location of the corpse make clear the lasting effect of the experience. This is reinforced by the description of the 'game' of 'Practising Being Dead' that lasted 'For weeks'. The childish response is easy to identify with. One of the ways in which we all deal with such difficult experiences is to ritualise them or, if we are children, to turn them into drama.
The concluding stanza deals with the haphazard manner in which memory can be triggered through an arbitrary decision to visit a place from one's past. The act of remembering is 'accidental and unbearable'. Above all time is irrecoverable. Duffy muses on the effects of time in a manner that anticipates one of her major preoccupations in Mean Time, 'the future / already lost as you open door after door' (ll.16-17). The time intervening between the present of the visit described in the poem and the remembered childhood experience is viewed with the benefit of seeing the future event that followed it. This feature of memory is returned to repeatedly by Duffy. The doors that reveal a 'sepia room empty of promise' (l.18) suggest both the unprofitable nature of raking over painful memory as well as reminding the reader that the door of death will open for all of us one day. Sepia is the characteristic brown tint of old photographs and consolidates the idea of preserving memory in an appropriately visual manner. Photographs are able to capture, in Wordsworth's words, 'spots of time'.
The title of the poem refers literally to the game played in childhood but reminds us that life itself is, in some respects, a rehearsal of death. The sense of negation and isolation communicated at the close of the poem is powerfully conveyed through the use of subtle visual effects as well as the phrases, 'not enough moon' and 'Nobody hears'. It seems that at this point in life when the speaker can neither be seen nor heard there is a real sense that they are indeed 'Practising Being Dead'. The prelude to actual annihilation is suggested by the detail that there is no shadow of the persona cast by the moon. Such a shadow would offer verification of existence. We can sometimes feel that a shadow is somehow a 'ghost' of ourselves but it points towards our physical solidity. Its absence here reinforces the sense of insubstantiality that Duffy is clearly addressing.