Carol Ann Duffy ends her complex poetry collection, Selling Manhattan, with the poem “Miles Away.” I had never really considered it before, but in class we talked about how the arrangement of a poetry collection could be, and most likely is, intentional. Ending on “Miles Away” would make sense, as it explores many themes present throughout the collection, and like in the first poem, “Practising Being Dead,” memory is of great interest to Duffy. However, a recurring theme that doesn’t show up in the first but really caught my attention was a fascination with thought before language.
In “Miles Away,” the narrator observes herself to be “breathing the colour thought is/before language into still air” (2-3) in relation to a memory she is experiencing. She goes on to observe the inaccurate and fading nature of memory, but what color is thought before language? It makes me picture standing out in the cold and seeing the smoky cloud of my breath, but what an odd metaphor to throw out there, it really made me stop and think. Besides working as a beautiful image, pondering thought before language is not something everyone does. Throughout the collection Duffy shows concern with learned language’s inability to express the ineffable nature of emotions and memories.
Jumping backwards to the second poem in the collection, “Dies Natalis,” Duffy explores the idea of thought before language, as the narrator takes the reader through past lives as both pre-language acquisition animals and humans, and ends the poem from the perspective of a baby. The baby will, “learn words/ which barely stretch to cover what remains unsaid” (93-94) which is again a comment on an inability to express thought, or “what remains unsaid,” in human language.
I like to think Duffy is dividing language into two categories: the language of thought and the language we use to communicate. Just like the incarnation of the bird in “Dies Natalis”, with her own “private language,” (39) the narrator of “Foreign” uses a split in language to describe her isolation. She observes, “You think/ in a language of your own and talk in theirs” (4-5). She describes what one might feel if they moved to a foreign country and learned speak a language that differs from the one learned by heart, but also describes the nature of thought versus spoken language. Some things just can’t be put to words.
It seems the narrator of many of these poems anxiously struggles with conveying her own personal language to other humans. She has experiences, memories, all in the form of thought, but only has the limited English language to convey them to others. Whereas a language philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein posits, “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” Duffy believes poetry to be just as clear a form of translation.
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