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L.P. Hartley once wrote 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' Carol Ann Duffy explores the relative 'foreignness' of recollection revealing both its reassuring familiarity and its unexpected revelation. This conflict between voluntary and involuntary memory; between what we think we know and what we find we didn't dare to know or admit, forms the 'foreign' land of much of Carol Ann Duffy's poetic landscape. I say landscape deliberately. Duffy's evocation of the past conjures up worlds and words very much concerned with territory and 'ownership' and in this poem 'Litany' we see such how the resurrection of the past represents who we are, and what we are and were.
Duffy loves lists. Indeed lists are a way that Duffy can ironise our relation to the past. Such lists inspire collusion and a spirited humorous collusion at that. Every time I read a Duffy list I admire the very developed degree of selectivity and peculiar attentiveness employed by the poet to make such a list work; to make it representative of the message and era she has elected to represent and re-animate.
When we read the first stanza of 'Litany' those of us who can recall the 1960s smilingly tick off the resonances and connotatations of Duffy's acknowledged world. It feels so right, so present to us. This 'presence' is then used as the basis for the more 'inside' revelation. The poet uncovers the secret tensions behind half-understood childhoods through the play between recognition and misrecognition.
Duffy deploys a simile: 'sly like a rumour' to risk a revelation. For Duffy's childhood recollection is now narrated by an adult and adults may convert half-glimpsed fascination into definitive knowledge. This tension between a the writer who is an adult and the writer who was the child under renders Duffy's revisitation of the past both comical and tragic.
For this territory is a world where words were infantilised for the sake of politeness, for the sake of social sanitisation and stability. Coffee mornings and 'get togethers' skirted around authenticity and truth.Children were expected to know nothing. But Duffy knows how curious children are about the unsaids, about the secret worlds and words of the adults; of family friends.
Duffy rediscovers the superficiality of social connection, and ironises it heavily. How lonely was such a childhood we wonder? How lonely indeed for the adults trying to conform and to present themselves as relentlessly normal? Safe,'normal' words imprisoned and suffocated relationships. We wonder of course how far things have actually changed?
Duffy makes us retouch the signs of the past. Thinking arrives through sensory recollection. We experience a past that we may or may not have directly experienced through resonant sensory detail and this makes us involved. We are seduced by the pride in pyrex and the grand 'lounge' of the past!
We remember cellophane. We hear its name once again. 'Polyester' has become transmutated into a joke; a failed symbol of pragmatic enterprise( one does not have to iron it) with erotic nullity. ( It produces static and is distinctly sweatyand erotically unappetising!) The juxtaposition of the different senses makes the reader extend their involvement within this world of the 'Lounge' and the suppressed word; memory is truly uncomfortable!
It is a world of conventional relationships and behaviours. Anything that could undermine such a world is feared and abjected:
'An embarrassing word, broken to bits..'
Duffy's astute alignment of biscuit and unlooked for testimony is throwaway and yet devastating. Protocol twitches at the mention of something real, unsightly and unmentionable.
Sex and Alex Kime
death intervene in the memory of the child and destabilise the rigid boundedness of such a 'reality' so that the transgression instigated by the looming knowledge of sex, reedits the past. The litany of names in the final stanza operates as much as an ironic obituary now for Duffy's narrator as for background detail and verification. These names are now most like absences, they are 'hauntings' and only survive through the humanity and humour of Duffy's excavation into the words upon which we rest (somewhat anxiously perhaps) the past.
I can still hear the coffee cups!