Before You Were Mine
by Carol Ann Duffy
BEFORE YOU WERE MINE is essentially a kind of love poem addressed to my mother. It is entirely autobiographical. In the poem, I am imagining my mother 10 years before I was born- almost trying to re-create her as a teenaged girl in language. The images in the poem come from old photographs of my mother. One in particular reminded me of the famous image of Marilyn Monroe where her dress is blowing up around her knees- (“your polka-dot dress blows round your legs. Marilyn.”) Of course, my mother’s name was not Marilyn, it was actually May. Other images come from stories my mother told me about her dancing days, tales about the weekend search in the ballrooms of Glasgow for “Mr Right”!
The poem is about a child’s almost possessive love for her mother and about the freedom a woman loses when she has a child. There is a sadness in the poem because a child can never know her mother when she is truly free- ie before she was a mother. The child knows or senses that these years (“the decade ahead of my loud possessive yell”) were magical for the young woman who was to become her mother. Partly this is because the mother, as we all do, glamourised her young self when telling anecdotes to her child. The mother in the poem is perceived almost as a movie star- (“you sparkle and waltz and laugh...”).
My family moved from Glasgow, Scotland to Stafford, England when I was 6. The poem ends in England, with my mother teaching me the old dance steps as we walk home from Church. I remember that the metal studs in the soles of our shoes (cobbler’s repairs?) would make sparks on the pavement as we stamped out the steps.
BEFORE YOU WERE MINE is written in 4 5-lined verses and uses no rhyme scheme or formal metre. The poem is a kind of collage, sticking together images from photographs (“Maggie McGeeny and Jean Duff”), anecdotes (“your Ma stands at the close...”) and found objects (“Those high-heeled red shoes”). Unifying these different images is the voice of the “I” in the poem- me, the child- who is fiercely imagining the impossible- the living image of the mother pre-motherhood... “I’m not here yet...” “I knew you would dance like that...” “...your ghost clatters towards me...” “I see you, clear as scent...” Characteristically of my poems, BEFORE YOU WERE MINE falls into regular verse shapes. The poem begins and ends with two pavements- one in the Glasgow of the mother’s youth and the other in the England of her motherhood.
The language and diction of BEFORE YOU WERE MINE are largely conversational (“the best one, eh?”) and at times intimate (“whose small bites on your neck, sweetheart?”). In parts the tone is very close to how I would talk to my mother, a slightly heightened version of my own voice- (“I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on/with your pals...”). Some of the words in the poem reflect the almost cinematic quality to the picture I had in my head of my mother as a young, glamorous dancing girl- “fizzy,” “movie”, “lights”, “stars”’ “winking”, “sparkle”, “waltz”. In the second verse, there is a reference to my mother’s own mother- (“your Ma stands at the close/with a hiding for the late one”) and the language here uses words from my mother’s youth. She called her mother “Ma”, not “Mum”, more usual among the Glasgow Irish. A “close” is the entry to a tenement building or block of flats. A “hiding” means a “spanking”. If my mother was late home from a dance, she would be punished with a hiding! (“You reckon it’s worth it.”) The “cha cha cha!” of the last verse are the words we would shout on the last three stamps of the dance she taught us.