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“Stealing” Notebooks | Brandon Pownall

“Stealing” Notebooks

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I recently visited Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) to view some of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry notebooks. While the collection spans decades of her career, I focused on her Selling Manhattan and The World’s Wife notebooks. This post will cover what I uncovered from notes on the poem “Stealing” from Selling Manhattan.

Her notes for “Stealing” begin on the 14th of January, 1987 with the line, “All over this island the children are building snowmen”. The children that are mentioned only as a thought in the poem are emphasized with this line.  It is not clear if this was intended to be the first line of a poem or possibly her source of inspiration, but the winter date suggests she could be capturing an aspect of her everyday life.

Duffy leaves a few lines blank and goes on to write out one of the two drafts of “Stealing” contained in the MARBL collection. The first draft of the poem lacks the poem’s final stanza. She forms the final stanza on the back of the first draft, beginning with the rhetorical question from the missing last stanza, “you don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” Duffy builds the last stanza around that disconnecting final line. With the last line completed she works out what the first line of the final stanza will say, crossing out the despairing lines, “what’s always bother me is What’s the point?” and “what’s always bothered me is boredom, ticking off the days”, settling for the published version’s line, “Boredom. Mostly, I’m so bored I could eat myself”. It’s interesting to see the original phrasing of that thought and how she works it into the speaker’s voice through rewriting.

The second draft includes the final stanza, but she makes an interesting change to the third line: She crosses out, “I nicked a nude bronze once” and changes it to “I nicked a bust of Shakespeare once,” referring to the master of the tradition she is working with. “A bust of Shakespeare” alludes to both art and literature, which adds a dimension to the character, as the narrator alludes to music in the previous line when they admit to stealing a “guitar”.

In the final version of the poem the ambiguous narrator wants a snowman as a “mate,” however both drafts in the notebook have “brother” instead of “mate.” The reason behind this change could be the word “mute” ends the previous line and “mate” sounds better as the next ending word (they are only one letter from being the same word). Though a change in the next stanza could be related, as “clasped to my chest” is crossed out and changed to “hugged to my chest” in the second draft. “Hugged” and “mate” from “clasped” and “brother” have different connotations, suggesting a more endearing, romantic rather than fraternal relationship, at least to my ears. “Mate” could also just be an inclusion of colloquial dialect, as Duffy uses slang like “nicked” and “flogged” as well.

Seeing the changes adds a new layer of understanding to previous interpretations. It also may interest you that “Stealing” was a late addition to the collection, not included on many of her lists for what ended up being Selling Manhattan. The notebook entries reflect Duffy’s deliberation to ensure the right message got across to the reader in the right voice.

Photo Source: https://flic.kr/p/9iaVfS

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The fact that she wasn’t planning to include it in Selling Manhattan is one of the most interesting details. One wonders why she changed her mind…or if she just needed another poem.

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