Wayne’s World

Ian Sansom

  • Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy
    Penguin, 151 pp, £5.99, August 1994, ISBN 0 14 058735 7

Reading through Carol Ann Duffy’s unremarkable early pamphlet publications, one despairs of finding any sign of promise, any sign that this romantic and dreamy adolescent (‘Cast off your thighs/and irrigate the desert of my body’s europe’) would one day be hailed as our best British poet, the voice of a generation. Then one comes across the poem ‘Army’, published by the preternaturally far-sighted Howard Sergeant in the pamphlet Fleshweathercocks in 1973, when Duffy was just 18 years old. It begins:

Hello mother!
It’s your eldest son back from the nuclear war,
well, half of me anyway.
How are you mother?
Oh it’s good to see you too,
considering the fact
that your little darling only has one eye now.

‘Army’ may not be a very good poem but it’s altogether preferable to the sentimental sludge and slurry of Duffy’s other juvenilia – you realise that here she has discovered her much-praised talent, her gift for imagining and recording voices that are not her own.

Duffy’s achievement is well represented by the new Selected Poems, which begins with a magnificent monologue, ‘Girl Talking’, from Standing Female Nude (1985), and ends with a feeble squib, ‘Mrs Darwin’, a poem from Duffy’s work-in-progress, The World’s Wife. This looks as though it may turn out to be a literary equivalent of Sally Swain’s Great Housewives of Art, a mildly amusing feminist stocking-filler of a few years ago which featured novelty paintings such as ‘Mrs Degas Vacuums the Floor’ and ‘Mrs Gauguin Has a Tupperware Party’. Duffy’s ‘Mrs Darwin’ reads, in its entirety:

7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him —
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

Between its extremes of the sublime and the ridiculous the Selected Poems contains a familiar medley of marginalised voices, a 147-page a capella extravaganza of old people, ugly people, children, dolphins, misfits and sociopaths, all of whom share in the predicament of being notable mainly for being pathetic and inarticulate. The children in ‘Comprehensive’ are typical:

Wayne. Fourteen. Games are for kids. I support
the National Front. Paki-bashing and pulling girls’
knickers down. Dad’s got his own mini-cab. We watch

the video. I Spit on Your Grave. Brilliant.
I don’t suppose I’ll get a job. It’s all them
coming over here to work. Arsenal.

Masjid at 6 o’clock. School at 8. There was
a friendly shop selling rice. They ground it at home
to make the evening nan. Families face Mecca.
There was much more room to play than here in London.

We played in an old village. It is empty now.
We got a plane to Heathrow. People wrote to us
that everything was easy here.

It’s boring. Get engaged. Probably work in Safeways
worst luck. I haven’t lost it yet because I want
respect. Marlon Frederic’s nice but he’s a bit dark.
I like Madness. The lead singer’s dead good.
My mum is bad with her nerves. She won’t
let me do nothing. Michelle. It’s just boring.

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