Friday, 11 December 2009

Before you were mine - Carol Ann Duffy

This is a delightful poem written by a daughter about how she imagines her mother's life to have been in her teenage years, ten years before her daughter was born.

The first line initially seems a little confusing as we read 'I'm ten years away from the corner you laugh on', but it becomes clear that the narrator (the daughter) is looking at a photograph of her mother with three of her friends. They 'shriek at the pavement' and seem to be sharing a great joke, young and carefree. As the daughter looks at her mother's dress blowing round her legs in the photo, she is reminded of Marilyn Monroe: the one-word sentence 'Marilyn' that closes the first stanza tells us how glamorous the future mother looked as a teenager.

As the second stanza begins, the narrator reminds us that all thoughts of her are still distant as the girl in the photo goes dancing 'in the ballroom with the thousand eyes': it sounds as though all these eyes were on her mother-to-be. She imagines how her mother must have danced, and can understand that if the right person walked her home, she would have been in a dream-world the following day: 'those fizzy, movie tomorrows' conjures up the magical feeling perfectly. The daughter also knows that her grandmother would have been waiting 'with a hiding' (a spanking) if her mother was late home, but that this would have been a small price to pay for such a night out.

In the third stanza, the daughter refers to the moment of her birth with the phrase 'my loud, possessive yell', conveying the idea that this was a pivotal, life-changing moment. She realizes that the ten years preceding her birth, as her mother approached adulthood, must have been the best ones. She can remember playing with an old pair of her mother's 'high-heeled red shoes, relics,' and pictures her mother walking in them, strangely referring to her 'ghost' as she approaches. Her imagination takes on the senses of both sight and smell as the picture becomes more vivid: 'till I see you, clear as scent'; she refers to her mother as 'sweetheart', and imagines that she would have had love bites on her neck.

The fourth and final stanza begins with an expressive Cha cha cha! in italics, and the daughter remembers how her mother taught her to dance on the way home from church. There is the sense of the forbidden here, echoing the idea of her mother going home late to a punishment perhaps. These dancing lessons seem to have taken place when the daughter was still a child, as she says 'Even then / I wanted the bold girl winking in Portobello'. The last two lines of the poem describe the mother's love as glamorous, and in the final one, the daughter captures the essence of her mother's teenage years where she used to 'sparkle and waltz and laugh', creating a picture of a vivacious, carefree young woman.

The poem is a four stanza one, each stanza being made up of five lines, with some variation in length of line. The first two stanzas focus purely on the life of the mother before the daughter was born, whilst the third stanza opens with a reference to the daughter's birth and then moves to the daughter's vision of her mother in her earlier life, thus providing a link with the previous stanzas. The fourth stanza begins with a recollection from the daughter's younger life with her mother, and then takes us back once again to the mother's days of dancing.

It's refreshing to read a poem in which a daughter enthuses over her mother, imagining how full of life and fun she must have been before she was born. Her admiration of her mother is conveyed in a delightfully direct way, and words such as 'shriek', 'sparkle' and 'fizzy' conjure up the lightheartedness of youth. I never tire of going back to read it again and to enjoy the way in which a daughter can see her mother as a young person, just like herself.

1 comment:

  1. The mother daughter part of this is very interesting. I like the way that you write you seem very talented.

    Best regards,
    Tom Bailey