An analysis of Before You Were Mine by Carol Ann Duffy

This is another poem, like Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage which has been analysed to death, hence another reason I left it so late to explore. I can’t count the number of years it’s appeared on the GCSE syllabus. Like Mother, it’s on there because there’s so much you can say about it and it’s generally quite accessible, which is why it’s a perennial exam board favourite. I like Carol Ann Duffy. I love The World’s Wife and she writes poetry that is just very, very good. It’s interesting and you never feel cheated by her poetry. They’re always very thought-provoking and I never feel I want to read more than one or two in a go, just so I can spend a little time chewing them over and thinking about them. Plus, I like the way some of her poetry is borderline psychotic. Okay. A lot of her poetry is borderline psychotic. More than you might expect.

This poem celebrates the poet’s mother in a more unusual way, reflecting on the life her mother had before she became a mother. I think we’ve all done this, haven’t we, looked back at a photo of our parents or grandparents, and wondered about their lives, the moment that led up to the photograph. The people our parents once were before they were parents. The central theme of the poem is made clear in the title and we pick up once again in the personal nature of the poem.

Like many others in the selection for the new AQA anthology, this poem is directly addressed to the poet’s mother, which we see even in the title. Again, we sense that same feeling of being an intruder in something that is intimate and personal, putting the reader in the position of Duffy’s mother. This use of a very personal tone makes us an insider in that relationship, reading things we might never have read as an outsider. We get to share in something that is private and reflective. Unlike Walking Away or Mother, this poem doesn’t just take one moment for reflection: it uses the first memory, perhaps a photograph, as a springboard to explore her mother’s life at that time, imagining the life her mother leads, the conversations she may have had. In terms of the way the ideas are structured in the poem, we get a sense of a passage through time, each stanza marking a shift in time or place.

Unusually, Duffy isn’t writing from a fixed point in her own existence, either. Her own reference point isn’t clear, moving from “I’m not here yet” to “I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes” and “You’d teach me the steps”. Just like our memories, there’s no sense of beginning or ending – we shift between them in the exact same way our memory does, and we move fluidly from one to another. There is a kind of sense of linear progression, from her mother’s teenage years to the first years of motherhood, but it isn’t clearly defined. What I particularly like about the poem is the notion of “relics”, the objects from the past that create a trace of that moment and evoke that time when you look at them. I think the poem does that. It feels like an archive of a sort, a collection of memories that serve to define her mother.

We get this feeling as well with the tense of the poem: we start off with a mention of the past in the title, “Before…” and then the poem is present tense in parts, such as describing the mother with Maggie and Jean. We get some complex turns-of-phrase, verbally speaking, with “I knew you would dance like that”, which suggests Duffy has always known, with some certainty, but there is also the possibility and hypothetical feeling of “would” which is unusual. We move back to the present tense and its sense of immediacy in “You reckon it’s worth it” which gives us the feeling that Duffy can see her mother at that exact moment in time. It also gives her an aura of omniscience, that she knows everything her mother is thinking and feeling, which gives us the impression of this strong bond between the pair.

She moves into the past tense when she says “the decade ahead… was the best one, eh?” which is once more reflective, but then moves to the present, “I remember” and how her mother’s ghost “clatters”. Back to the past “You’d teach”, which is again unusual with the “would” – suggesting imaginary rather than real past: it’s not “you taught” but “you would teach” and we move to the past as Duffy remembers “I wanted… before I was born”

All these time shifts add to the feeling that she is dipping into her memories, constructing her mother’s past, imagining how it was. It’s funny because she as the poet is in control of her mother’s story, the way in which she presents her mother to us, adding another layer of possession to the poem. In writing about her mother, she is creating a past for her. Her mother has become a character in her daughter’s poem, controlled by her daughter. She defines how we see her mother, as well as how she sees her. The way she writes about her mother’s youth as if she can see it gives us the sense that she is looking in on her mother’s life, a being yet to take form, waiting for her moment.

Duffy writes in free verse, much more than any other poet we have yet seen in the selection other than Owen Sheers. She is not playing with sonnets and half-rhyme as Armitage does. Her stanzas work like paragraphs, each stanza with a new focus. The last line brings the poem back to the title and back to the beginning. We have various time references, but the poem is not chronological. Or, it is loosely chronological. The final stanza refers to a time when Duffy was born, harking back to a past even then. The first three stanzas seem to cover the ten years before Duffy was born, but we have no sense of the sequence of events, if indeed they are real events. Duffy certainly presents them as if they are, though. There’s a sense that these memories are actual events, due to the biographical details she gives us… the people who were there, the laughter, the setting. She sets up a tableau, almost creating a photograph or video clip in our minds of precisely what her mother was doing. The way she includes little movements, “you laugh”, “the three of you bend from the waist, holding each other… shriek at the pavement… your polka-dot skirt blows round your legs” – this sense of motion and movement is what brings the poem to life for me.

In terms of form and organisation, we have free-verse, with lots of enjambment and caesura which I’ll consider when we get to language, since it has more of an impact on the words and their meaning. The poem is organised with four even stanzas of five lines. The syllabic length of the lines varies but is generally fairly even too. The title threads through the poem, picking up in verse two and again in verse five, connecting the beginning to the ending. It remains the strong focus of the poem, but it also adds to this sense of time-travelling, the moving backwards and forwards between the past and the present, like loops rather than a strict chronology. The poem is also framed by the two pavements, the pavements with Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff, and “the wrong pavement” on the way home from Mass. Each verse seems to cover a tableau, making it seem like a selection of photographs and artefacts of her mother’s life. I’ve got a box of relics from my life and it’s like she has the same, picking out one thing after another and using it as a key to evoke an (imagined?) memory from that time. Maybe the writer knows these moments for sure if her mother has told her the story behind the photograph or the object, or maybe she’s just imagining them.

The language is at once ordinary, colloquial, with “pals” and “a hiding” from “your Ma”, “You reckon” and “eh”. It’s also familiar, “sweetheart,”. I find it sweetly selfish, like a child would be, littered with “I” and “me”, thinking of everything in connection to herself as a child might. But there is also a glamour to the language, with “the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows”, the “red shoes”, the “tree with its lights”, “the glamorous love” with her mother who “sparkles” and “waltzes” and “laughs”.

Verse one immediately creates this self-centred tone: “I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on” – and gives us also the sense of dipping through time, whilst setting the scene. We don’t know that this is her mother yet on a first reading. There’s a simplicity and mundane quality to the words: they’re not poetic high diction. In that, they recreate that every-day mood, the fact that there is nothing fancy, elegant or elaborate. As mentioned before, the present tense also brings it to life and inserts the poet into her mother’s life as a teenager with her friends. It’s a very descriptive verse, telling us about her mother’s “polka dot dress” and it’s also a verse with lots of movement in it, as they “shriek” and the dress “blows round” her mother’s legs. She calls her mother Marilyn, evoking the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway air vent, so that we get an image of how her mother’s skirt is blowing around her legs. It does more than that though. It creates an image of her mother as a glamorous, fun woman who has a sex appeal not unlike Marilyn. She sees an image of her mother as careless and free, something that she would no longer be after the birth of her daughter.

In the second verse, the poet reaffirms her position, how she is looking back at her mother’s life, “I’m not here yet.” Not only that, her mother is far from thinking of motherhood, “The thought of me doesn’t occur”, and we get a different image of her mother, this time in a ballroom. When Duffy describes it as “the ballroom with the thousand eyes”, it’s very evocative, making me think perhaps most simply of a ballroom filled with hundreds of people, but also it has a sense that they are all perhaps looking at her mother. Again, it’s a flirtatious image of her mother and she sees her as glamorous, the centre of attention, where her mother is free to go home with any one of those people looking at her. She imagines the “fizzy, movie tomorrows”. I love that word “fizzy” here – it captures her mother, the bubbly effervescence of her – and also perhaps the butterfly feelings of the “movie tomorrows” – you wouldn’t naturally put “fizzy” with the “movie tomorrows”, but we have a real sense of the time period too, as we did with “Marilyn”, of the 1950s and the happy glamour of her mother’s life, when she is free to walk home with whomever she wants. The way “fizzy, movie tomorrows” sits at the end of the line also adds a little emphasis to it, encouraging us to consider the loveliness of these words and what image they paint of her mother’s life.

The scene once again becomes more than a photo, more than a tableau, when it says “I knew you would dance like that” and it brings the scene to life, more of a movie than a photograph. I think this phrase also makes me know how well Duffy knows her mother, that she knows how she would dance. Duffy then moves on to describe a very typical scene for so many: getting told off for coming home late and missing curfew. I’m sure we can all imagine a mother waiting furiously for her daughter’s late return and the certain punishment that would follow. She doesn’t just recreate her mother’s the with her friends, with the boys she walks home with, but also with her mother, showing it to be as typical as any. She presents her mother as rebellious and daring, carefree, accepting a punishment in return for all the fun she has had.

In stanza three, Duffy continues this idea, a rather bitter tone to her question, “the decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?” and we sense her envy that she did not get to share this side of her mother, and we begin to see that they carve out a new story, she remembers “my hands” in her mother’s shoes and calls them “relics”. Things change. Red heels may be fine for the life she had before Duffy was born, but after her daughter arrives, they are “relics” and playthings for her daughter. The memory is layered: as a daughter, Duffy remembers putting her hands in the shoes, and she imagines her mother wearing them as she “clatters” towards her. This has a couple of senses we can take from it: is her mother now dead, hence the “ghost”? Or is it that hazy kind of memory (even though this is one that Duffy is constructing) and her mother seems like a ghost as the memory materialises? If her mother is dead at the time of the poem, it takes on a new level of sentimental pathos: it’s not just the woman her mother was that Duffy is “possessive” over, but everything to do with her mother. The simile “clear as scent” is interesting, since scent is not clear to see at all, a vapour, and we realise her mother is not there at all. Still, Duffy sees the details as she has done before, the tree lit up that forms the background, the fact her mother has lovebites. The way she calls her mother “sweetheart” is curious too – something of a role reversal. We remember that this is the adult Duffy writing, and she is much older when writing than her mother was in the memory, which adds to the sense of role-reversal. These questions show a curiosity about her mother’s life, a bitterness that she doesn’t share the intimate details of her mother’s teenage years.

In stanza five, we find Duffy’s mother and Duffy together, getting a sense of the mother she was. To me, it seems like she retained much that was fun and lively, doing the cha cha on the way home from church. The stars are the sparks from the metal on the soles of their shoes, but this is the “wrong” pavement. Even though she has a fun relationship with her mother, what she wants is to know her mother as she was in Scotland. She tells us that even as a young girl, she wanted to know her mother as she was. She’s envious of the fun person her mother was, wanting to know that person, not the mother she has.

Through these imagined scenes, Duffy presents a vision of her mother. We have to understand that these are constructed memories, perhaps based on photographs or artefacts, but we have no way of knowing if they are real representations of her mother or not. Ironically, she is in complete control of her mother’s past in how she paints it.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthologyplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

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