So, it struck me that I hadn’t updated on the other days I spent in Cheltenham.
As well as attending two Radio 4 recordings (Excess Baggage and The Write Stuff), putting up with Giles Brandreth in order to learn a lot of really fascinating things about Oscar Wilde, squeezing into the most packed tent in the place to see Julian Fellowes and other involved with Downton Abbey be very cryptic about what was to come, attending two talks on Religion and Writing (one of which I posed a question that could not be answered, and the other where Anne Rice was mystic and wonderful), a number of coffee dates and gossips – I sawthe Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy give a poetry recital of her new collection The Bees.
I’ve loved Carol Ann Duffy since GCSE English Literature. Her poem Anne Hathaway was, I think, the first time I’d ever come across oral sex in poetry, and the first time it had been discussed in class in a serious manner! Then Warming Her Pearls… Salome was another poem about danger, sex and powerful women and I think it must have really struck me that poetry could be about something other than the stereotypical flowers and chaste beautiful women. Of course, one English Literature BA later, I’m aware that very little poetry isn’t actually about sex (or is that just what we were taught?!) but Carol Ann Duffy was the first poet I remember reading that used language in such a strong way. Education for Leisure (now inexplicably banned from the GCSE syllabus) is another example of the power of words in her poetry.
It was her tenderness and wit, also, that I remember. Before You Were Mine is a beautiful account of Duffy’s mother when she was young, before she was a mother, and I remember thinking that the use of image rewound time in a way that was just so vivid.
Duffy has lost none of this strength, nor wit, nor tenderness. Her readings were funny, poignant and in some cases, moving. She read a number from the collection, moving from a poem to speak out against the removal of her poem Education for Leisure from GCSE study-books, a poem protesting against the Royal Mail’s eradication of counties, and a celebration of British pubs, through to poems about the death of her mother.
Throughout the readings she was interspersed by a colleague John Sampson; a kind of sixteenth-century wind instrument recitial-cum-cabaret. He was hilarious, talented and engaging to watch – although together Duffy and Sampson made an odd pair. During the final poem, however, he began to play on the tenor recorder a quiet ‘Danny Boy’ behind her slow words rewinding her mother’s life from birth to death.
I’ve since found a copy of this poem published in a newspaper and I’ll include it here. Reading it is one thing, reading it aloud another. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say that while Duffy read this poem and Sampson played his solemn tune, there were some tears shed around the room.
Dedicated with love to the
memory of UA Fanthorpe
We first met when your last breath
cooled in my palm like an egg;
you dead, and a thrush outside
sang it was morning.
I backed out of the room, feeling
the flowers freshen and shine in my arms.
The night before, we met again, to unsay
unbearable farewells, to see
our eyes brighten with re-strung tears.
O I had my sudden wish -
though I barely knew you -
to stand at the door of your house,
feeling my heartbeat calm,
as they carried you in, home, home and healing.
Then slow weeks, removing the wheelchair, the drugs,
the oxygen mask and tank, the commode,
the appointment cards,
until it was summer again
and I saw you open the doors to the gift of your garden.
Strange and beautiful to see
the roses close to their own premonitions,
the grass sweeten and cool and green
where a blackbird eased a worm into the lawn.
There you were,
a glass of lemony wine in each hand,
walking towards me always, your magnolia tree
marrying itself to the May air.
How you talked! And how I listened,
spellbound, humbled, daughterly,
to your tall tales, your wise words,
the joy of your accent, unenglish, dancey, humorous;
watching your ash hair flare and redden,
the loving litany of who we had been
making me place my hands in your warm hands,
younger than mine are now.
Then time only the moon. And the balm of dusk.
And you my mother.