Carol Ann Duffy’s songs of the Earth

Credit: Jacopo Werther
Credit: Jacopo Werther

It almost sounds like British laureate Carol Ann Duffy is responding to news headlines about bee populations and cellphone usage when she says:

Where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise

In pear trees, plum trees; bees

Are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.

Guard them—against what? Cell phones? Against our environmental ignorance?

Duffy might have that situation in mind, but her  poem “Virgil’s Bees” also evokes Caesar Augustus’ favorite bard and his praise of bees and their labor in the  Georgics.

It’s a poem belonging to Duffy’s yellow-and-black-themed collection, “The Bees” — one of two volumes published by Faber and Faber this spring to welcome the season (how many publishers are classy enough to have such poetic timing for publication dates?) from a poet who’s scooped up every contemporary poetry prize worth winning, from the T.S. Eliot Prize to the Costa Book Award to the Dylan Thomas Prize and on and on.

“There were flowers at the edge of the forest, cupping/the last of the light in their upturned petals. I followed you in…” she writes in “Forest,” a poem in the other volume, “Rapture,” about a memory of lovemaking in the woods that ends with a poignant, painful request:

I am there now, lost in the forest, dwarfed by the giant trees. Find me.

This is elemental stuff that’s rich with mythic associations (how many dark woods are there in fairy tales and myths? Can you count them all? Impossible!). This is what I look for in poetry — language that I can think about the way someone else thinks about songs from the radio; and a sensibility whose roots are deep in ancient tradition and whose branches spread a lovely, contemporary shade.

Duffy prides herself on using plain, simple words — a poet like Seamus Heaney, who relishes strange, Latinate language, seems to annoy her (I don’t see why) — but that doesn’t mean her poetry is without shadows or mystery, beauty or grace. When morning light falls on “the softening earth,” in the poem “Grace,” Duffy experiences a moment of spiritual transcendence:

…the moon stepping slowly backwards

out of the morning sky, reward

for the dark hours we took to arrive and kneel

at the silver river’s edge near the heron priest….

We should all be so lucky to experience such a moment. And if we can’t, at least we can read Duffy’s work. That’s a good consolation.

3 thoughts on “Carol Ann Duffy’s songs of the Earth

  1. I’ll have to read it and get back to you, even though I know what it probably will say. 5 or 10 years ago he published a good essay collection that I admired, but I stopped reading him after seeing his reviews in the NYTimes. Really nasty stuff. Thanks for letting me know about it.

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