What it is like in words
Translation, reflection and refraction in the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
by Michael Woods
This chapter seeks to offer a view of Duffy’s poems as translations of experience and to argue that one of her preoccupations is the opacity of language that is so often apt to cloud communication of pure thought and pure feeling. The ideas of Saussure, Wittgentstein, Barthes and Derrida will be touched upon and the ways in which these help to shed some light on Duffy’s writing. At the heart of what these three thinkers posit is the relationship between language as a system of signs
At the heart of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is a continual acknowledgement and exploration of the limits of language. It is striking that a poet of such a facility with the medium of the art itself should have at the centre of her poetic an acute sense of an ever-present tautology predicated upon what amounts to a post-structuralist awareness of the unstable nature of the sign. So, while Duffy may be a regarded as a live reader of her own work par excellence, and is therefore popularly perceived as eminently accessible, there is a very clear sense, when reading poems she rarely chooses to perform, of her recognising the need to mediate between what Roland Barthes refers to as the lisible or “readerly” and scriptible or “writerly” 1. Also, the tension between the logocentric and phonocentric is crucial when considering the concept of voice in Duffy’s poetry, something with which she is especially concerned. In championing difference, she also interrogates différance. 2
Duffy’s is well known for her use of the dramatic monologue but the multiplicity of voices that also emerge from her first and third person lyrics should not be forgotten. Recognising the plurality of meaning possible in both the written and the spoken, she explores the relative valencies of words and voices. In testing words ‘wherever they live’ she demands, in the way Seamus Heaney does, that they should ‘earn their keep’. There is an explicit engagement with the problems inherent in privileging either logocentricism and phonocentrism, and even with a position that doubts the capacity of words to mean at all, and this is articulated in the early poem, ‘Saying Something’ (Standing Female Nude) in which the persona signals the apparent inability of language to access real meaning: ‘The dreams we have / no phrases for slip through the fingers like smoke’ (lines 5-6). She negotiates this difficulty, in part, by oscillating between poems such as ‘The Grammar of Light’ that seek to construct, in her own terms, wordless languages, and those such as ‘Prayer’ which do appear to place more trust in words and their ability to name and console. There is also a stance that falls between these poles where language is presented as a gateway to the possible. At the heart of Duffy’s poetic is a striving for truth, clarity and the tuned-into frequency of the voice she presents in any given poem. She is acutely aware, as Raman Selden points out, that:
Phonocentrism treats writing as a contaminated form of speech.
Speech seems nearer to originating thought. When we hear speech we attribute it to a ‘presence’ which we take to be lacking in writing 3
In attempting to confront the absence of presence through her multiple attempts at voicing, Duffy is ultimately bound to the reality that she is repeatedly articulating for, through and to the reader, the presence of absence. This stems from her understanding of, and subscription to, a deconstructive position in which ‘speech can be viewed as a species of writing’ 4 because those features of speech that tend to occlude pure thought processes and their expression derive from the manner in which, historically, oratory sought greater and greater eloquence at the expense of clarity of communication. In “Away and See”, for example, she eschews the vicarious and presents us with a poetic Paraclete, an exhortation to trust our own senses, to live experientially. In writing the poem, she celebrates what language is able to do but also draws attention to the way a poetic construct as a snapshot of ‘reality’ undermines itself; the words of which it is made are in an unstable relationship with one another, never mind with a world ‘out there’ that we might hope they may make sense of. Here is a clear example, then, of the poet’s recognition that the artist can only be an interpreter of experience, rather than an unacknowledged legislator, who offers a translation of ‘what it is like in words’ (The Other Country p.47).
‘The Grammar of Light’ (Mean Time) is further exploration of the limitations of language which is perhaps the most striking of Duffy’s poems that seeks to transcend words in order to show us what the world is like in terms of light. Like the grammar of language, this alternative grammar may be viewed in both prescriptive and descriptive terms. Duffy concentrates on the prescriptive model by musing that there are 'so many mornings to learn', and the descriptive through empirically observed detail. The poem begins with the image of a night time kiss. The 'meaningless O' is the shape of the mouths as they kiss but the light that enabled the lovers to find each other is not meaningless, it 'teaches, spells out'. Already words as a means of exploring the world are being replaced, translated out of themselves. Duffy deliberately applies pronunciation terms to her imaginary grammar of light. Mornings are described as 'fluent' and the stars go ‘stuttering on’, indicating difficulty in articulation but also reminding us of the way the light we see coming from stars is sometimes perceived as intermittent, and what leads us to claim that they twinkle.. Like speech apparatus, light can itself be inarticulate at times. The waiter who 'balances light in his hands' reminds us that we could make such an observation without the light to make sense of the situation. Added to this, we could not say that he has 'silver' coins in his pocket. We need not go much further here but might consider what we could say without light. We are told in stanza three that a bell 'shines', a verb enacting its visual being and one that significantly precedes its expected primary sonic function. The fact that it is 'ready to tell' may be ambiguous as it could simply be saying that it is there because we are able to perceive it as such. We think of the 'toll' of a bell so the poet is again drawing a parallel between what we see and what we articulate and how both relate to a decoding process. A saucer 'speaks to the eye', a deft presentation of light as language. The final stanza uses the word 'slurs' to suggest the fluidity of wax as runs down a candle but also conveys the effect of wine of speech. As a source of light itself, it 'flatters', a well-known effect. The 'Shadows' that 'circle the table' are not unexpected in the subdued lighting of a restaurant at midnight but there is quite a sinister sense that darkness threatens. This is certainly borne out in the final image of death in the last line of the poem. The visual effect creates by the word 'blur' is, in the grammar of light, equivalent to 'blur' in the grammar of words. This ingenious rhyme draws the reader's attention to the way in which Duffy has been at pains to reinterpret experience through the medium of the visual. Visual images in the poem invite comparisons with the painterly, and this poem might easily be viewed as chiaroscuro in words. The scenes depicted could easily be viewed as a sequence of paintings, ranging form the purely representational to the surreal. This is analogous to a translation from one language medium to another. Perhaps the most striking in the poem is the image of trees that ‘think in birds, telepathise’. This neatly encapsulates the way Duffy seeks transcendence from language itself and is intimately bound up with relationships between perception, thought and language. Telepathy implies transference of thought from mind to mind but the extent to which this is possible without language is investigated. The way in which light may be viewed as a means of testing experience may be related to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language. In the Tractatus he asks questions that clearly preoccupy Duffy. How is language possible? How can anyone, by uttering a sequence of words, say something? And how can another person understand them?
'Translating the English 1989' (The Other Country) seizes on the cliché of the English invention of a foreigner visitor to Britain labelling its language 'the English' instead of 'English' and uses the term against such people as they are the ones who have become metaphorically translated by the emergence of a xenophobic, individualistic and alarmingly nationalistic society. This form of translation is intimately bound up with an acute sense of the manner in which the language of an age can act as a barometric measure of its values. In this poem, Duffy seeks to find an equivalent in language for the way in which she perceived England to have been debased under the then Tory government. The title draws attention not simply to the imperfect thinking or refraction of ideas that results from attempting to move from one language to another, an intellectual, abstract process; it emphasises the manner in which the English as a nation have become metaphorically translated. England’s cultural axis has changed to the extent that it lauds the novels of Jeffrey Archer, ‘Plenty culture you will be / agreeing’ (lines 23-24) and Brookside as worthwhile whilst reducing the arch, anti-metropolitan to ‘Daffodils. (Wordsworth. Up North.)’ Here is an England in which the poetry of the Romantic tradition is, as Duffy’s epigraph states, ‘lost in translation’. The Romantic is typographically, and ideologically, bracketed off in an attitudinal reduction of everything to the status of mere commodity. The voice presented in the persona of this monologue is easily recognisable but we are simultaneously aware of it commuting to that of the tack-spitting poet as the closing repetition of ‘Welcome, Welcome, Welcome’ is translated in the mind of the reader, who understands the bitter irony of the piece, into a horrible threat; to set foot in England with the memory of something better is to arrive as the inhabitant of the other country of the past, an England where things were done differently. Duffy’s choice of the dramatic monologue is a form eminently suited to her purpose since, in this case, she is drawing attention to the manner in which ideas can be come refracted. Lyric tension is replaced by the tension between the poet, chosen speaker and what is spoken. The opacity of translation is used to expose the transparency of selfish individualism fixed in the mean time that marked the end of the first decade of what was to be a seventeen-year Tory administration. Behind the voice of the poem is the poet as interpreter, affined to the earlier poetic voice of Wordsworth who professed to be speaking to ordinary people.
So, language is not only interrogated in an intrinsic sense but in the ways that it is used or abused by others. Duffy critically assesses the manner in which others offer ‘translations’ of the truth. 'Weasel Words' (The Other Country) satirises the manner in which politicians deliberately seek to defer meaning for nefarious reasons. Its language and technique derives from the verbatim recording of proceedings in parliament as set down in Hansard, while the framing of the poem is within the formal constraint of the sonnet. This is ideally suited to a subject whose locus is essentially that of clearly defined procedure and known structure. The blown egg that is palpably present in the poem symbolises the language of absence in which politicians so frequently acquire fluency. The traditional form of the sonnet is traduced to expose what is said and done purely for form.
Translation as a means of trying to understand otherness rather than to expose societal change is another of Duffy’s concerns. 'The Dolphins' (Standing Female Nude) tries to find a language to give these animals that is reminiscent of the way Les Murray presents a range of creatures in Translations From the Natural World. 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. The dolphin says of its companion, 'The other's movement / forms my thoughts.' (lines 4-5) It articulates its gradual acclimatisation to the aquarium in which it finds itself in terms of translation: 'After travelling such space for days we began to translate.' (lines 10-11) The dolphins' language is form and shape.
Beyond the well known scientific fact dolphins are sophisticated communicators - they have been observed to ‘speak’ in what appear to be utterances – Duffy draws attention to a language beyond words, an idea to which she often returns. In the light of this, it seems appropriate that Duffy should give voice to the creature that seems to have a real language, offering her own translation of what its sense of selfhood might be.
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, something that has been scientifically well documented.
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 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. An unnatural, man-made object has replaced the natural regulator of the tides; 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 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 that 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.
‘River' (The Other Country) uses words as a means of showing the way they reflect, and are rooted in, other countries or cultures. However, 'Water crosses the border, translates itself' (lines 3-4) in a manner that transcends such restriction, unlike the baby in 'Brothers’ whose pre-linguistic, pre-reflective self is 'like a new sound flailing for a shape.' (line 8) ‘River’ may be regarded as another ‘wordless language’. Here, we do not have the world made sense of through a grammar of light but through the medium of water. Although a river may cross physical borders and barriers it is not limited by the constraints of different languages in doing so, it 'translates itself'. In this way it as self-referential as the poem itself in that it seeks more to be than to mean. In direct contrast to water 'words stumble', the hard consonant 'b' emphasising the clumsiness that can accompany translation. The bird that the woman tries to name in stanza two is the same, irrespective of the language of the person naming it. The physical act of preserving the flower, which is pressed 'carefully between the pages of a book', is an interesting way of showing how a physical action following the purely sensory experience of a 'red flower' can be relived independent of language. The fact that it is pressed between pages of words is a striking reminder that there is more than one way to preserve memories.
The question posed to the reader at the beginning stanza three is, in common with ‘Away and See’ an invitation to concentrate on the actual experience of things rather than worrying too much about what name to give them. We are able to derive 'meaning' from sensory detail in a much more direct way. Language is, after all, a code we use to articulate that very experience and, as such, could be seen to have secondary importance outside the normal need to communicate with others. There is, though, the residual problem that we think almost exclusively with reference to linguistic structures. The image of the 'blue and silver fish' that 'dart away over stone, / stoon, stein, like the meanings of things' returns us to the idea that meaning is elusive, and language protean. The signifying system we use in one language may be different in another but they all mean essentially the same thing. The proximity of spelling in three languages of 'stone' is cleverly presented in the alliterated prefix to emphasise Duffy's point. The concluding lines of the poem challenge the reader with another question. The idea of writing a postcard is connected with brevity and, often, writing from a new place or country in a way that tells another person something about it. The whole problem of the relationship between experience and articulation is deftly presented in the image of an estuary, a place where a river becomes 'translated' into sea through the mixing of salt and fresh water in brackishness. As an ultimate symbol of flux , a river is an ideal metaphor for Duffy's exploration of the way language changes and the manner in which it relates to landscape. Duffy is concerned here with reflecting upon language in general and specifically on the morphology or structure of words and their meaning. Words, the raw material of poetry have the capacity to convey what the poet intends, as well as their capacity to confound it.
The preoccupation with translating experience through language as faithfully as possible is sustained in ‘Away and See’ (Mean Time). The childish metaphor of the opening line, 'Away and see an ocean suck at a boiled sun' is immediately transmuted into a much more adult perspective in, 'and say to someone things I'd blush even to dream.' The second stanza begins to deal explicitly with language with the striking beginning: 'New fruits sing on the flipside of night in a market / of language, light, a tune from the chapel nearby'. There is a reminder for the reader that the visual and aural perceptions are crucial for feeding the creative imagination, the translator. The third stanza is worth quoting in full:
Away and see the things that words give a name to, the flight
of syllables, wingspan stretching a noun. Test words
wherever they live; listen and touch, smell, believe.
Spell them with love.
The relationship between words and what they signify is again take up by Duffy and she personifies words themselves in an impressive reversal since it is usually words that are used to personify things. Having said this, she is left with having to articulate this in words, which leads us to ask the sorts of questions about language raised in 'Words, Wide Night' (The Other Country) and 'The Grammar of Light' (Mean Time). The idea of a bird being brought into the mind through words is to be viewed alongside the thing itself and the manner in which the alliterated 'n' sounds in 'wingspan stretching a noun' suggest the tension of wings spread out. Added to this the phrase on the page is visually 'stretched'. The sense of lift provided by the amplitude of the long vowel sound in 'flight' consolidates the explicit exploration of the poetic possibilities of words. The exhortation to 'test words wherever they live' is as much a challenge offered to poetry in general as it is an instruction to the self. The idea that words are alive is vital to any poet, however suspect they may be. The physical senses mentioned - hearing, touch and smell form a bridge between the mind and words; they are the confirmatory providers of empirical data that allow us to 'believe' in the world around us. The last two lines of the stanza employ full rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration and consonance: 'live' and 'love' are a half rhyme but there is also alliteration and consonance between them and 'believe'; 'smell' and 'Spell' rhyme perfectly suggesting that the former helps the poet to order experience. Whilst eschewing the vicarious, the poem can only allow re-cognition for poet and, at best, recognition for the reader. So, the limits of poetic language have to suffice in the business of exploring the boundless.
Duffy often gives voice, or rather voices, to the desire to escape the confines of language in way that recalls Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Oysters’ in which the speaker craves that he ‘Might quicken… into verb, pure verb’ (Field Work p.11). In ‘Homesick’ (Selling Manhattan) the speaker articulates the desire to escape from the trammels of language; to be rather than to name – wanting ‘wordless languages’, an idea this is revisited in a number of poems but developed most extensively in ‘The Grammar of Light’ (Mean Time) The homesickness for ‘when, where and what’ alliteratively ties together a desired singularity rendered explicable through the reality that it was once intuitively understood before language intervened between what is and what is uttered to name the experience of what we see and hear.
The desire to escape from language is articulated in ‘Moments of Grace’ (Mean Time). The first line, ‘I dream through a wordless, familiar place’ engages, characteristically, with the desire to experience and cherish what Wordsworth called ‘spots of time’ rather than to merely record them. The voice we hear in the italicised words such as ‘Like this’, ‘Of course’ and ‘Yes’ is that which is spoken aloud to and by the persona presented in the poem. It translates the present self into the earlier self and negotiates the fissure between the variegated experiences of life and love. The concentration upon parts of speech in stanza four employs grammatical terms as metaphors for varying intensities of living: ‘These days / we are adjectives, nouns. In moments of grace / we were verbs, the secret of poems, talented.’ (lines 13-15) Just as ‘Away and See’ is a poem that advocates the need for experiencing life directly, ‘Moments of Grace’ is concerned with capturing and renovating experience from mean time, the inexorable process that seems intent on robbing us of our being, transmuting us from verbs into adjectives and nouns. Of course, the need to be connected with an extra-linguistic state is framed within the confines of language itself. Duffy recognises this, ‘A thin skin lies on the language’ (line 16), something that a poet inevitably finds difficult to live with. This ‘thin skin’, like the insulation on an electric wire, prevents real energy from being experienced. The insulator in the electrical sense is, though, a lifesaver but in the case of the language of poetry it is a killer. What emerges most forcibly from this poem is a confrontation of the fact of the prosaic with its tendency to swamp the poetic, our less vital selves being a refraction of the quickening verbs of us.
A preoccupation with the need to find ‘wordless language’, and order beyond the chaos of words themselves is evident in other poems, too. ‘Dies Natalis’ (Selling Manhattan), for example, is an enigmatic exploration of a newborn consciousness but linked to a pre-conscious sequence of selves that seek to explore the supra-linguistic realm. These metamorphosing, protean personae that nonetheless have to resort to forms of language, like the cat’s mistress who is described as ‘searching/ with long, gold nails for logic in chaos’ (lines 12-13), may be viewed as the part of us all that craves some Platonic certitude of imperishable singularity. This is underlined by the fact that the polyphonic voices in this poem about the genesis of being that chime univocally in its pristine omega, ‘I cry’. The phrase clearly signals the first use of the child’s vocal apparatus and recalls Hopkins’s sonnet ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ in which each thing ‘cries itself, What I do is me, for that I came. Outside the simple purity of being, though, is the hermeneutic need to explain human action. This effectively traps the child within an abstract matrix that is to be dogged by the obfuscations of language. Conversely, sense is also sought through a language of forms, meaning being mined by the poet from the ore of what amounts to the lexis of being or, in the example from Heaney quoted earlier, ‘pure verb’. The sea is ‘Muttering in syllables of fish.’(line 28) which again highlights the abstraction that is language, through surreal dislocation as well as the freedom from permanent shape that the yet to be determined life, enjoys. The bird persona, - surely Coleridge’s albatross - says, ‘I warned patiently / in my private language’ (lines 37-38) is unable to communicate or translate except to itself in its own metamorphosis into what seems to amount to a reluctant capitulation to the human form. ‘I talk to myself in shapes’ (lines 74-75) and ‘They are trying to label me, translate me into the right word’ ( lines 80-81) clearly signal resistance, while, ‘I will lose my memory, learn words / which barely stretch to cover what remains unsaid’ ( lines 93-94) takes us to the quick of what havoc language wreaks as the poetry of life is, as Frost would have it, ‘lost in translation.’ Selling Manhattan anticipates Mean Time in poems that dwell on nature of language and its ability to reveal or obfuscate. The title ‘Strange Language in Night Fog’ could almost stand alone as an acknowledgement of what a poet faces in attempting to make meaning, while the detail of the poem can leave the reader in no doubt - ‘the pond / had drowned itself’ (lines 5-6) and ‘Even their own hands / waved at their faces, teasing’ (lines 15-16) draws attention to the reflexivity of poetic language as being about itself in a way that does not necessarily signify anything beyond itself – a sealed system that can only refer to its own interiority; unmeaning is only a short distance away and any certainty in naming is unstable and precarious. Fog is as much symbolic of the unstable relationship between signifier and signified as it is of a general sense of disorientation: ‘ they told themselves / there must be a word for home, / if only they knew it’ (20-22). The ‘strange language’ is such because expected syntagmatic relationships are entirely effaced by the paradigmatic and it is with the latter’s signalling of substitution that Duffy muses upon in images such as ‘phrases of light’ (Selling Manhattan p.60) and ‘the colour of thought is / before language’ (Selling Manhattan p.61)). This is not simply a metaphorical felicity but part of Duffy’s interest in the epistemological – the nature and scope of our knowing and the way the poet gives voice to this.
Although widely and rightly celebrated as a performer of her own work, the ‘utterance’ of the poems themselves, as Hopkins would have it, more often than not, leads to a dwelling upon the ‘prepossession’ of the words of which they are made. This might seem self-evident but the connotative and denotative dimensions of words are not simply the archly used staple of Duffy’s art but a consciously acknowledged philosophical problem.
It should not be forgotten that Duffy read philosophy at university and that Wittgenstein has endured in her thinking. ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’, the final sentence of the Tractatus is important to bear in mind when negotiating, for example, the acknowledgement in ‘Words, Wide Night’ that poetry, however heightened in its utterance, can only ever approximate to what it is to be, in the fully human sense. The dramatic monologue is in itself a translation of the thoughts of an imagined speaker, a refraction of experience fettered to the tyranny of words that endlessly defer and defy any attempt at definition. Deryn Rees-Jones argues that Duffy has a 'distrust of language as mediator between idea and object.' And that:
For Duffy an exploration of the relationship between language and experience always dramatises the gap between signifier and signified; between what is about to be said, and what is then said; between the possibility of what might be said, and what can never be said. And this distrust of language leads her to an aesthetic that privileges experience over the telling of the experience. 5
As has been shown, poems such as 'Away and See' and ‘The Grammar of Light’ are poems that purport to escape the confines of language but succeed in drawing attention to their own reliance upon language as a means of articulating frustration concerning that very reliance. It is here that we must reiterate Duffy’s deconstructive awareness that the gap between signifier and signified, that Rees-Jones rightly identifies, is a precarious relationship that might best be analogised as the spark that may or may not arc across the void between electrodes. This ‘all or nothing’ scenario has links, too, with a Catholic tradition (repudiated by Duffy though it may be) in which language is privileged above all else. From the Johannine perspective, the Logos or Word brought all into being. In this sense translation was transcended and rendered redundant because what was said came to be in the performative utterance of creation. In other words the gap between signifier and signified was obliterated so that word was sign. This idea is explored in ‘Education for Leisure’ (Standing Female Nude). The strong narrative impulse in the poem, written in the voice of the boy, is striking. Feeling frustrated and 'ignored', he resorts to physical violence as a means of exerting power over others. He assumes absolute authority by deciding to, 'play God'.
He does not understand Shakespeare but claims to be a genius. In this allusion to King Lear, arguably Shakespeare's darkest tragedy, we are clearly invited to remember Gloucester’s words, 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods, / they kill us for their sport' (Act 4, Scene 1). In playing God, the boy is actually given some of God's words from Genesis to speak but the tense of the verb changes because what was reported is now direct speech: 'I see that it is good' ironically reverses the import of God's reaction to his own creation by showing us someone who is bent on destruction. Duffy engages here with the idea of the performative utterance in which the spoken sign actually results in the instantaneous and miraculous existence of the signified. The resultant obliteration of aporia is the pitch of language to which Duffy repeatedly reminds us that poetry may only aspire. After the opening stanza's statements of intent: 'I am going to kill something' and 'I am going to play God', Duffy moves from the future indicative to the simple present: 'I squash', 'I pour', 'I pull', and 'I touch' dramatise precisely that primacy of experience over its reportage that Rees-Jones highlights. The boy becomes translated, if we recall Shakespeare’s use of the term in A Midsummer Night’s Dream from mortal into immortal.
The splintering of meaning and the killing of love and the poetic by the political forces that work on the language are certainly part of Duffy’s concern in The Other Country but she returns to the limits of language itself in ‘Words, Wide Night’. The impossible tense of ‘I singing’ (line 5) reminds us that there are things that are unthinkable, since the limits of language are the limits of thought. Wittgenstein's remark 'Unsayable things do indeed exist' is itself something that, tautologically, cannot be said or thought. His famous remark 'whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent' is intimately linked with the problem Duffy articulates in this poem: ‘For I am in love with you and this / is what it is like or what it is like in words’ (lines 10-11). It is a metaphysical statement that attempts to convey the unsayable, unthinkable contention that there is a dimension about which we can say nothing. It seems, though, that the limits of language are not contingent with the limits of feeling, something that Duffy seeks, continually to address, offering a multiplicity of ‘translations’ that do ultimately speak to us in our own language, whatever that may be.
Beyond the translations offered from the standpoint of interpreter of other selves, there are those from the language of one medium to another. In a generic sense, these may be viewed as part of the grammar of light, since they concentrate on paintings. The painterly and paintings feature prominently in Duffy’s oeuvre, and the Surrealists particularly strongly. Magritte’s painting of a pipe entitled ‘The Betrayal of Images’ articulates his concern with truth and his belief that only words are able to fix reality. The famous caption, Ceci n’est pas une pipe clearly demonstrates an anxiety concerning the nature of the sign and the relationship between the signifier and signified. This painting could be seen as the obverse of Duffy’s ‘what it is like in words’, a phrase that clearly signals a mistrust of language which, she avers, can at best can only approximate to real experience. While she seeks to escape language in order to access that which is ‘wordless’. Magritte’s doubting the ability of pictorial art to say anything results in his use of words to draw attention to that perceived inadequacy. ‘Poem in Oils’ (Selling Manhattan), like ‘The Grammar of Light’ takes refuge in the visual, seeking an alternative codifying framework for existence: ‘What I have learnt I have learnt from the air, / from infinite varieties of light.’ (lines 1-2)
The persona in the title poem of Duffy’s first collection, Standing Female Nude acts as translator or interpreter of experiences that are from the other country of women and their world view. The model is dismissive of ‘Georges’, the artist who ‘possesses’ her ‘on canvas’, referring to him as ‘Little man’. He is presented as self-obsessed, someone who objectifies women. In giving voice to this woman Duffy subverts the man’s appropriation of her as object making her the subject. She has gained control. Her dismissive assessment of the man’s painting, ‘It does not look like me’ and the contemptuous, ‘They call it art’ may be read as manifesto statements signalling the relationship between art, society and sexual politics. The written and visual arts are not simply suspect because of the systems of signification on which they rely but on the way they are differently translated, reflected or refracted by gender and time. Of course, the painting Duffy has in mind is a cubist work by Georges Braque, an artist who sought truth through a visual translation of his own.
The exploration and translation of female otherness cannot be treated exhaustively here but it is important to remember its crucial significance. Two poems, ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’ and ‘Alliance’ serve as polar opposites in that the former presents complete immersion in, and understanding of female sexuality through the cataloguing of lesbian experience, while the latter presents us with a French woman who has become translated into a life with an English man who, in turn, has become a ‘foreigner / lying beside her’. Oppenheim’s famous Jungian painting also includes a spoon beside the cup and saucer; all three are covered thickly in hair. The Sapphic and phallic images are clearly observable simultaneously but the phallic dimension absent from the poem. The poet as translator has made a telling editorial decision. The French woman presented in ‘Alliance’ is ‘dreaming in another language with a different name / about a holiday next year.’ (lines 13-14). Her life is so diminished that ‘What she has retained of herself is a hidden grip / working her face like a glove-puppet.’ (lines 1-2) Her real voice has become a thrown one. Her life is swamped by an English boor who ‘staggers in half-pissed / and plonks his weight down on her life’. The female sense of self has been stifled and marginalized. (lines 14-15). She wakes in the morning to find that her hoped for life has been turned into a horrible reality away from France, her own country. The ways in which Duffy translates experience across the gender boundary are developed in the book-length projects The World’s Wife (2000) and Feminine Gospels (2002).
Much of the poetry is indeed lost in some translations but not in Duffy’s because she has the ability to perceive and name such loss by avoiding any attempt to falsely poeticise. In resisting such temptation she helps to keep alive in modern, mean times ‘with the muscles of a poem’ (Standing Female Nude p.38) what Wordsworth called ‘those unremembered acts of kindness and of love’.
1 Barthes, Roland, S/Z, trans R.Miller Jonathan Cape, London 1975
2 Derrida, Jaques, Of Grammatology, trans. G.C. Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press), Baltimore 1976).
3 Selden, Ramen, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Harvester 1985 p.85)
5 Deryn Rees-Jones, Writers and Their Work: Carol Ann Duffy, Northcote House, 1999, p.14