New Hunger, Ella Duffy
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2020 £5.00
Transcending its time
A poem is written in one time and set of circumstances. Sometimes — as now, while we are learning to live in, and with, physical isolation — changes in the wider world can change the way we read it.
‘Shard’ is the final poem in this debut collection. Alone, in a room on the fiftieth floor of the London Shard, a daughter gets a call from her mother:
you were on Southwark Bridge,
waving beneath a lamppost.
Third from the left.
Daughter signals by flashing a bathroom light, and mother responds, seen through binoculars provided by the hotel room:
You danced on the road, blowing kisses,
giddy with seeing me.
I am thrilled by the choice of ‘giddy’ and the sense of movement here. When Duffy was putting this pamphlet together, making all the decisions behind preparing it for publication and checking the proofs, she could hardly have known that this image of separation and connection would soon not only be more poignant but far more widely applicable.
Separation is currently the norm; finding ways to get around it are part of daily living. Ella Duffy might be seeing her mother against a backdrop of over-crowded trains, crossing the Thames bridges on ‘wishbone tracks’ — a view that now feels like unreachable history — but the loneliness and the need for connection are an eternal motif. These are the last words of both the poem and the pamphlet —
your daughter, blinking my small light
down on the city;
the space between us swollen
and homesick, a mile long.
Poems that speak to a shared emotion transcend specific time and place. As well as revealing the poet’s experience, they take the reader back into personal memory. They tap into a common understanding; here it’s the mother/daughter relationship, and with it comes the added pain of how a whole new set of circumstances, outside this poem, touch all our lives.
Actions may change but the fundamental human need for love remains.