Carol Ann Duffy (ed) Empy Nest: Poems for Families – review

Empty Nest is perhaps a misleading title for Carol Ann Duffy’s wide-ranging little anthology because it suggests a strong emphasis on the sadder side of children’s growing up. The book does of course include poems poignantly expressing parents’ feelings of emptiness after their children’s departure, including the haunting title piece by the editor herself. Looking at flight from the nest from the opposite point of view, it includes others expressing children’s frustration with parents or home, their desire to escape into a wider world, or their nostalgia for what they’ve left behind. Thankfully, though, it also ranges much more widely. Basically, these are, as the subtitle tells us, ‘Poems for Families’, mainly about parents’ feelings for children and children’s for parents, but including sibling poems, like Liz Lochhead’s charming ‘Poem For My Sister’. There are a few, like Autolycus’s ‘Jog on, jog on’ song from The Winter’s Tale, Robert Frost’s ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ or Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’, that aren’t about the family at all, in themselves or their original contexts. However, these too make a real and apt contribution. Sometimes the mood or impulse they embody relates in an obvious way to the poems around them. Autolycus’s song, for example, by expressing the joy of the open road, relates to young adults happily escaping into a wider world. The immediate stimulus for Elizabeth Bishop’s magnificent ‘One Art’ may have been the poet’s loss of her lover but it speaks powerfully out of and to loss of many kinds. Hopkins’s meditation on youth and age in ‘Spring and Fall’ had nothing to do with relations between parents and children in its conception, but the context given by Duffy’s book recolours the way we see it – I found myself thinking of it in terms of how a parent might feel looking at her own child and thinking fearfully of what the future held for her, rather like Lochhead’s speaker looking at her much younger sister.

One great strength of the selection, in fact, is its sheer variety within a relatively small compass – just 99 poems, few longer than a page. There are well-established favourites, like D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Piano’, whose long, emphatically rhymed, almost chanting lines give lush rhythmic embodiment to the poet’s frank surrender to nostalgia for his lost childhood and lost mother. Against that, we might set the two poems from Mary Jean Chan’s recent book Flêche. These portray a gay daughter’s complicated relations with a mother she loves across a gulf of mutually incomprehensible experience and beliefs. Chan’s poems and the poem by Lawrence contrast strongly both in feeling and technique. The emotions expressed in each are made more moving by their being seen together.

Pretty well all the poems in Duffy’s anthology might be described as technically ‘mainstream’, and correspondingly accessible, but her selection reminds us what a wide sea of formal possibilities and decisions the term ‘mainstream’ actually covers, or has covered. The inclusion of nineteenth and early twentieth century poems is important here. The poem by Tennyson, ‘De Profundis’, shows how much we’ve given up by losing confidence in long, complex grammatical structures. In a single massive sentence, twenty-five lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, it draws a son’s “young life / Breaking with laughter from the dark” out of the obscure infinity of causes and conditions that have brought it into being, tenderly makes the child’s fusion of his mother’s and father’s genes a metaphor for the love between them, expresses hopes for the child’s own future and his contribution to humanity and finally contemplates his return to the deep from which he’s come. That it’s a single sentence is no mere technical display: there’s something profoundly satisfying about the way its never-broken unfolding both expresses the poem’s fundamental idea of the interrelatedness of all being and suggests the poet’s acceptance that the totality of a life includes its inevitable ending. At the other extreme, W. S. Merwin’s ‘Separation’ shows how brevity and grammatical simplicity, by concentrating the reader’s attention on the multiple associations of each word and image, can invite us to meditate on complex ripples of suggestion released by the most economical of statements. Here’s the whole poem:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its colour.

Duffy herself is an original, distinctive but very accessible poet and this is a book of accessible poems. A few express feelings in a way that stands free of any specific context. Merwin’s little poem is one example. Grace Nichols’s ‘Praise Song for my Mother’ is a piece of pure lyricism. Full-hearted in celebrating the sustaining generosity of the mother’s love, it springs a beautiful surprise in the last line when the mother’s culminating generosity appears in letting her child go when she needs to: ‘Go to your wide futures, you said’. Denise Levertov’s magical ‘Living’ achieves its power by extreme precision of imagery combined with freedom from application to any specific situation. However, most of the poems are grounded in specific circumstances, telling or implying particular stories, and this both makes them immediately approachable and adds to the cumulative richness of the book as a kind of anthology of lives in related situations.

One or two very familiar pieces didn’t seem to me to earn their place. The passage from Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches beginning “Mother, any distance greater than a single span” seemed over-exposed to the point where it was no longer interesting. Inevitably, given the vast store of good or great poems on family relations, I and other readers would have made different choices to some of the ones Duffy has made. However, her selection creates a collection of diverse, complementary responses to family life that creates a rewarding reading experience in itself. It should also lead readers on and out, introducing them to poets they want to follow up independently. This applies both to the various young poets who’ve only published one or two collections and to older or classic and dead writers. I’d previously read and admired Robert Hayden’s brilliant ‘Those Winter Sundays’, for example, but reading it again absolutely confirmed for me that he’s a major poet that I really must read more extensively.

This hardback edition is something of a de luxe production, with each generously spaced poem beginning on a fresh page. This makes it easy to reset the mind between poems, taking each to heart on its own terms at the same time as enjoying the sense of variety, of changing pace, tone and feeling as one reads the book through.

Empy Nest: Poems for Families edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Picador. 144pp.; £14.99.

I would like to thank the Acumen editors Patricia Oxley and Danielle Hope for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 100.


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