by Michael Woods
In this poem, a burglar and petty thief talks about the items he has stolen, the most unusual of which was a snowman. The poet gives us an insight into what he might be thinking.
Duffy lived for a while by Wimbledon Common in London. Her neighbours once built a traditional snowman for their children, which was stolen. The poet wondered who might have done such a thing. She concluded that it could only have happened under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, a period during which individualism and greed seemed to be regarded as virtues. It is clear, then, that apart from being curious about who might steal a snowman from children, Duffy regarded the actions of an individual as a barometer of the political climate. The opening of stanza 2, ‘Better off dead than giving in, not taking / what you want’ appears to encapsulate this idea.
This dramatic monologue is a good example of how formal organisation into stanzas of regular length can contain the informal register of a persona. Statements such as ‘He weighed a ton’ (line 7), ‘I’m a mucky ghost’ (line 13), ‘I nicked a bust of Shakespeare once’ (line 23) and ‘flogged it’ (line 24) convincingly recreate the argot of the man who is speaking.
He seems to derive pleasure (although this is short-lived) from gratuitous acts of burglary, enjoying the excitement or frisson of the act itself rather than really desiring the objects he steals. He leaves a ‘mess’ (line 13) in other people’s houses. This could refer to the chaos often left behind by burglars who empty drawers and so on, but it could equally suggest defecation, a common feature of burglary. Such an act is calculated to defile victims’ private places. A Freudian psychologist would suggest that its origins are sexual. There is certainly a suggestion of an auto-erotic charge in ‘I watch my gloved hand twisting the doorknob. / A stranger’s bedroom. Mirrors. I sigh like this – Aah’. He also derives pleasure from speculating upon the effect that his acts will have on others: ‘Part of the thrill was knowing / that children would cry in the morning’. (lines 8–9).
The utter futility of what the man does is made clear in such details as, ‘I joy-ride cars / to nowhere’. He steals a guitar but never learns to play it. Perhaps the most striking example of such futility is his attempted reassembling of the stolen snowman. His failure to recreate ‘a mate’ (line 3), with connotations of both friendship and physical intimacy, prompts him to immediate aggression and destruction, leaving him ‘amongst lumps of snow, sick of the world’ (line 19). This fragmentation could symbolically suggest a personality which is itself disintegrated, a Jungian term for describing someone who has not come to terms with his or her ‘shadow’.
Duffy’s use of internal rhyme is appropriate to the interior aspect of a dramatic monologue which seeks to explore the thief’s motives for acting in the way he does. For example ‘the slice of ice / within my own brain’ indicates a self-awareness and concern with interior workings, which the man identifies with coldness and hardness. The second stanza’s ‘chill’ and ‘thrill’ reinforce this identification. The snowman, itself a cherished object, is curiously as unfeeling as he is and conveniently ‘mute’ (stanza 1).
‘Stealing’ is another of Duffy’s explorations of the minds of those who are mentally unstable. Useful comparisons are ‘Psychopath’ (Selling Manhattan), ‘Liar’ (The Other Country) and ‘Havisham’ (Mean Time).