Carol Ann Duffy's childhood's spaces in Stafford Afternoon
More to follow - but how wonderfully does Duffy capture the idea of the endless spaces of childhood and of childhood remembrance in the first stanza? We are there with the 'explorer' child lacing a shoe; aware of new vistas and horizons as we explore our freedom; loomingly aware of the holiday's epic promise and yet also implicity the secret danger of independence. The future almost swims before the child's eyes as she recognises the aloneness of any reflective life. We are like children again with the narrator and remember that breath of separation that we felt away from the gaze of guardians, almost away from time itself. We can taste the quiet fear too.
All Senses are alerted and alive to this new private relationship between the world and ourselves. It is a pivotal moment like Pip's at the beginning of Great Expectations, where the literal shape of everything changes and looks unsettlingly new, and with this newness comes responsibility and anxiety.
Duffy's child recognises that she is now presiding over her own story and this amazes and disturbs: 'Only there' she begins her memory. How tenderly accomodating and yet ironically exclusive is this particular 'space' of memory?
The second stanza recalls the childhood game of waving at cars. Yet the childhood space has become slightly threatening. The motorway bridge brings with it 'speed' and unsettling feelings of rejection. For the temporary elation at freedom brings with it more distinct feelings of powerlessness and impotency. This feels utterly true. We do remember moments of exultation when the world seemed to be ours and then this ownership collapses and our overriding feeling of extraneousness is everywhere.
Duffy reveals the emotional resurcefulness of her child-self when the girl 'feeds' a horse to re-ground herself after the complex feelings of rejection in the same stanza. 'A vivid lie for us both' astutely aligns the child's desire for sensory attention AND normality - she wants to be wanted again, with the horse's natural expectation that it will be genuinely fed. Neither expectation is literally true and Duffy's child here exercises the restabilising power of imagination in order to reorient herself after the feelings of panic on the motorway bridge.
' In a cul-de-sac, a strange boy threw a stone.'
I would love to read a history of the 'cul-de-sac' ! Duffy recognises the literal parameters of childhood play in suburban England.It is also a probable metaphor for memory and even relationships? Thus far and no further say so many relationships in time. So it is here with Duffy's wandering child. Once again, the invasion of something disruptive within the world and spaces of childhood is simply yet devastatingly done. Such 'danger' escalates as Duffy's child withdraws into another, less socially prescribed space: ' a small wood' and enjoys the edgy nearly oxymoronic feelings of being 'lonely and thrilled.'
The pastoral setting is not a place of conventional respite or healing yet it brings its own magic:
' The green silence gulped once and swallowed me whole.'
The personification of silence with its supernatural associations offers the relief of invisibility. Yet Duffy immediately explores the repercussions of straying into this unknown world. She identifies the 'sly faces' and the 'sticky breath' of this now animated, nightmarish space. Fairytales are alive and dangerous! And it is the 'rightness' of Duffy's talent for recollection that gives representation of this hidden world through the register of dark fairytale.
And then there is a real bogey man and he does want to harm children. His dispalyed erection is likend to a 'purple root' as again the child has to find the nearest language for its expression. This confrontation with sexual horror makes the child long to hear again all the sounds of safety and community. Luckily the poem ends with the child making it back into such a world and joins a game with other children in an exaggerated parody of pleasure: 'children scattered and shrieked' The alliteration communicates the inutterable relief of being back in a world of normal, communal play. Exultation at escape is both the child's and ours!
'and time fell from the sky like a red ball.'
The poem about revisitation ends on a note of relief -as -near catastrophe. The simile is again pertinent to childhood and yet delivers a highly emotive metaphysical concept that would not have been apprehended in such a way at the time. Thus we are aware of the gap between the adult poet who has written the poem and the child self who is the subject of the poem's remembrance. Duffy is emphasising, as she does in many of her poems, the movement from innocence to experience. This movement renders time and the knowldege gleaned through the inevitable passage of time, meteoric and childhood shattering.
One of my favourite Duffy Poems. I find it stunning...probably as being a child in the sixties it just works so well at excavating the past and making it here, right before me...'cul-de-sacs' indeed!