Before You Were Mine
by Michael Woods
In this poem Duffy addresses her mother, framing the time element in a curious way so that she inhabits with her voice the ten-year period before she was born. Speaking in the voice of her pre-existent self, she addresses her mother during the ten-year period preceding her own birth. She is exploring real time but a time that can only be imagined as far as she is concerned. Through specific detail she reconstructs the life her mother led before her daughter’s birth.
The title of the poem is surprising in that it suggests something a mother might say to a child rather than the other way around. The word ‘mine’ suggests closeness in a relationship and a sense of loving ownership.
In stanza 1 Duffy employs the first person in order to address her mother who is carefree and happy. There is an almost ghostly effect created by the child speaking to the parent before it is born. The sentence ‘I’m not here yet’, which opens the second stanza, is characteristic of Duffy’s treatment of time and creates tension between the present and an anticipated future. These ideas are, of course, projected imaginatively into the past of the poet’s mother.
The seemingly arbitrary sequence of events that led to the existence of us all are somehow short-circuited and lent a kind of inevitability by the background presence of the poet. This is clearly perceptible even though the ‘thought’ of a daughter does not enter her head while she dances in ‘the ballroom with the thousand eyes’, a reference to the presence of five hundred potential husbands watching her. The hoped-for future of the mother is framed in terms of ‘fizzy, movie tomorrows / the right walk home could bring’. The word ‘fizzy’ suggests zest for life and excitement (compare this with ‘fizzing hope’ in ‘The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team’) as much as capturing the rather hissy soundtracks and the sometimes less than sharp picture quality of early films. The ‘movie tomorrows’ indicate the way young women hoped that their lives would become real life versions of the films they flocked to see.
The third stanza intensifies the sense of the mother’s freedom as her child to be reminds her that she arrived, like all babies, with a ‘loud, possessive yell’. The easy, conversational tone of the sentence finishing with ‘eh?’ underlines the intimacy of a relationship that has been developing for a long time. Duffy turns her attention to the memory of being a little girl doing such things as putting her hands in her mother’s ‘high-heeled red shoes’. Such an action is fairly typical of what a little girl might do and enables the reader to identify easily with the situation described. The shoes are ‘relics’, a word that emphasises the gulf of time between the event remembered and the occasion of its recall; it also has a religious connotation implying that the shoes are very special because of their association with the poet’s mother. The stanza closes with the poet vividly imagining her youthful mother as she revisits her old Glasgow haunt: ‘and now your ghost clatters toward me over George Square / till I see you, clear as scent’. By employing the technique of synaesthesia, Duffy replicates for the reader the vividness of her seemingly visionary experience of her mother. Scent is unmistakable and almost always associated in our minds with a person and a place. As well as sight, the poet is relying on smell, the most evocative of our senses.
The final stanza continues to catalogue the details of childhood memory, the poet fondly recalling the learning of dance steps ‘on the way home from Mass’. The image of ‘stamping stars from the wrong pavement’ conjures pictures of Hollywood but reminds us that there is no escaping real life. ‘Even then’ suggests that the child yearned for her mother even before she was born. This is a tremendously confirmatory idea and it is clear that ‘love lasts’ for the poet and her mother in the real present as well as the imagined past. The final sentence, peppered with words like ‘glamorous’, ‘sparkle’, ‘waltz’ and ‘laugh’ suggests youth and enjoyment and signals that, unlike many daughters, the poet can imagine a life for her mother without the children she was later to bear. The final phrase of the poem, which contains a repetition of its title, reminds us of its ambiguity. Duffy evokes the Glasgow of the 1950s with its dance halls and fashions influenced by American icons like Marilyn Monroe. The ‘polka-dot dress’ mentioned in the first stanza recalls two famous photographs, one of Monroe strategically stepping over a hot air vent, which caused her dress to fly up, and another called ‘Seaside Chat’ by the photographer Bert Hardy. The women in the latter wear dresses similar to Monroe’s while the photograph is clearly influenced by the image of her. The image Duffy creates of her mother with her friends is an idealised, imaginary one, even the names are invented. This is wholly in keeping with the way children try to reconstruct their parents’ lives through images already available. Such images often do include photographs.
The poet imagines her mother risking ‘a hiding’ from her mother (the poet’s grandmother) for arriving home late from a dance. This indicates clearly that the relationship between parents and children does not differ significantly from one generation to the next.