by Michael Woods
In an amusing reversal, a ventriloquist's dummy talks disparagingly to the person who is supposed to put words in his mouth.
This poem, along with 'Model Village', 'Psychopath' and 'Money Talks' first appeared in a pamphlet called Thrown Voices published by Turret books in 1986. The title of the pamphlet draws explicit attention to the poetic technique of the dramatic monologue. In doing this, Duffy is, in the parlance of the Russian Formalists, 'laying bare' her style. The self-reflexive element of the poem lies in the interrogation by the dummy of the ventriloquist. This invites the reader to consider the relationship between the voice of a persona and the extent to which it is a true reflection, or refraction, of the poet's. Obviously, it is often a grave mistake to identify the 'I' encountered in a poem with that of the poet but there are certain instances when this can be productive. Duffy is drawing attention to this and is also addressing a fundamental poetic dilemma, poetry as an art that is continually 'croaking for truth'. The voice may not always be as clearly articulated as the poet would like and it may not always learn 'the right words' but language is not simply a dummy kept 'in a black box' waiting to be manipulated by the poet. Intriguingly, a ventriloquist was regarded around the middle of the seventeenth century as somebody with an 'evil spirit speaking in his belly', or one who could 'speak out of his belly without moving the lips'.
There is a considerable number of images associated with voice production or hearing in the poem: 'listening', 'voice', 'croaking', 'lips', 'sing', 'tell', and 'ask' and all these draw attention to the intimate relationship between language and its articulation. The close relationship between the ventriloquist and the dummy is also made clear in the way it seems to take liberties with the puppeteer. The dummy is nothing of the sort, of course. It is able to 'learn fast' but this simply emphasises its independent capability and self-awareness. The process of language awareness, articulation and autonomy in its use is stressed. This is made particularly clear as we notice that the only voice heard directly in the poem is that of the dummy. We know that a ventriloquist's dummy can only start where the performer leaves off but Duffy is presenting the possibility of that performer becoming redundant.
In choosing the sonnet form, the voice is constrained and yet forced to say what it has to in a concentrated, concise and telling manner. Additionally, Duffy is drawing attention to the artifice and constructedness of the poem. The word sonnet is from the Italian sonnetto, meaning 'a little song'. In this case, the original performance element is significant. The final sentence, 'You can do getter than that, can't you? is clearly humorous in that we can recognise 'getter' as a sign that the ventriloquist is not particularly expert. Beyond this, though, we might ask if the question is designed by the poet in order to set a challenge to the self; to make every poetic act a truthful one whatever the 'voice' employed. The word poet is derived from the Greek Poiein, meaning 'one who makes' and again Duffy is deliberately drawing attention to both artifice and performance. A formalist critic might argue that Duffy is 'laying bare' her style by drawing explicit attention its workings while deconstruction would argue that the poem interrogates itself and exposes the inherent contradictions in of all 'meaning'.