by Michael Woods
A dolphin, remembering its previous free life in the ocean, speaks about the experience of being confined to an aquarium with another of its kind where it is expected to perform tricks in the aquatic equivalent of a circus where it believes it will die.
In an interesting departure, Duffy writes a dramatic monologue in the voice of a dolphin. In some measure one might regard it as a poem that tunes in to a frequency only normally perceived by the very creatures that form its subject. It is allied in this sense to the work of the Australian poet, Les Murray whose Translations from the Natural World capture the voice of creatures as Duffy does here.
The dolphin is well known as a befriender of human beings in trouble at sea. It is ironic that those same human beings should be their abductors. A warm-blooded mammal, the dolphin is very close to humans in genetic terms. It is also a sophisticated communicator; scientists have observed a linguistic system in what amount to their utterances. In the light of this, it seems appropriate that Duffy should give voice to the creature that seems to have a real language.
The dolphin begins by speaking in the second person. This has the effect of creating a sense of familiarity and affinity between the reader and the creature. However, all that it says beyond the third line of the poem is in the first person plural. This is striking because it leaps into the world of dolphins forced to speak from their perspective about the effects of imprisonment by humans. It uses images of what we might perceive as being associated with freedom and joy in 'swim' and 'dance' but this impression is modified and complicated by the fact that the dolphins' 'world' is the pool in which they perform and not the expansive ocean. There is both pathos and dignity detectable in its voice when it speaks of being in its element but 'not free'. This tension introduces a conflict that is articulated in the remainder of the poem, the dolphins' natural affinity with humans and the latter's propensity for causing misery. The 'constant flowing guilt' refers to the necessity in an artificially created aquatic habitat of having water pumped through the pool. Duffy presents it metaphorically as 'guilt' because the system is effectively an admission that the situation is unnatural and otherwise unsustainable.
A dolphin derives an enormous amount of information about its world through its skin, which reacts to minute changes in electromagnetic fields. Its highly developed sonar is well known. In stanza two even this seems unable to offer 'explanations' that might make sense of its new world. In the 'limits of the pool' it finds 'no truth' but only the monotony of 'the same space always'. It has taken 'days' to 'translate' the truth because the dolphin's mind is so used to expanses of free ocean. Far from illustrating mental incapacity this presentation of the creature serves to stress its ability to fathom new experience. The culpability of humans in the abduction of dolphins is indicated by the continual presence of 'the man' who is 'above' the pool. This reflects his assumed position of superior status. He reduces the dolphins to performing by jumping through hoops or after a 'coloured ball'. The terrible psychological effects of confinement show in, 'for the world / will not deepen to dream in.' Recalling the idea of mediation between languages, we might see the dolphin as a translator rendering an unnatural 'world' in terms of its own natural language.
The collective voice in 'we' signals a search for truth and an awareness of selfhood that is not selfish. This is made clear in references to the 'other'. Stanza three stresses the mutual understanding between the dolphins and they define themselves in terms of each other, 'The other knows / and out of love reflects me for myself'. This touching insight into a relationship signals a sense of otherness, respect for independence and mutuality. The dolphin's companion shares the its knowledge that life has changed irrevocably and tries to reduce the attendant pain by simply being a sympathetic 'other' of its species. The reflexive pronoun 'myself' clearly indicates that the fact that the dolphin who speaks in the poem is able to maintain its integrity as a result of this mutual understanding. The sense of loss of former freedom is intensified by the visual description, 'We see our silver skin flash by like memory / of somewhere else.' The simile brings together the dolphins' intimate bodily knowledge of each other but simultaneously reminds them of a time when there would be a multitude of such sights. The dolphin is naturally gregarious and often travels in shoals of several hundred. Their real world is now referred to as 'somewhere else'. The dolphins' response to performing tricks with a ball is defined, naturally enough, in terms of the presence or absence of the man. They 'have to balance till the man has 'disappeared'. This detail is important to consider as it emphasises the human's utter control.
In observing that the 'moon has disappeared' there is a visual association being made between the spheres that are the ball and the moon. The natural regulator of the tides has been replaced by an unnatural, man made object. It seems almost to be a parodic, garish substitute for the real moon. The final stanza's presentation of the dolphins' predicament is bleak and hopeless. The image of a record being played repeatedly is used as an analogue for the seemingly eternal circuits that the dolphins make in the pool that confines them. The fact they 'circle well-worn grooves / of water on a single note.' effectively translates the experience of sound into the terms of the aquatic mammal. The monotony of existence communicated in a 'single note' and its effects is compounded by the dolphin's expression of utter desolation as, in the next sentence, it tells of the effect of its companion's mournful voice. Its eternal 'music of loss', keening over its predicament and impending doom is enough to turn the listening dolphin's heart 'to stone'. It has sympathy for its own kind.
The poem closes with reminders of oppression, control and confinement. Possibility that was once limitless for the dolphins now has 'limits' imposed upon it that will become impossible to bear. The realisation will probably hasten the creatures' death, signalling that there is as much at stake from a psychological perspective as there is from the physical circumstances. Stifling of natural impulse and behaviour can have fatal consequences. The 'plastic toy' is a further reminder of the indignity visited on this majestic creature of the ocean. The phrase until the whistle blows is potentially ambiguous. In one level it simply refers to the controlling device used by the keeper but on another the poet might be reminding us that this sort of cruelty will continue until somebody exposes it for what it is. Duffy does effectively 'blow the whistle' on such practices. The final line, with its reference to 'our mind', neatly links the plural possessive pronoun with the singular noun 'mind' indicating a collective voice for a species. The tense change to 'we will' draws attention to the contrast between what the dolphins had, what they have now and can expect in the future. As a result, the dolphins assume an almost mythic status in that they appeal to archetypal impulses in us and in nature; they are not just the creatures who form part of it. 'The Dolphins' may just as easily be read as a poem about human disillusion, betrayal and loss of direction as it is about animals. As an interpreter of experience it offers us a new language into which we would do well to translate ourselves.