We came from our own country in a red room
Which fell through the fields, our mother singing
our father’s name to the turn of the wheels.
My brothers cried, one of them bawling, Home,
Home, as the miles rushed back to the city,
the street, the house, the vacant rooms
where we didn’t live any more. I stared
at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.
All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue
where no one you know stays. Others are sudden.
Your accent wrong. Corners, which seem familiar,
leading to unimagined pebble-dashed estates, big boys
eating worms and shouting words you don’t understand.
My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth
in my head. I want our own country, I said.
But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change,
and, seeing your brother swallow a slug, feel only
a skelf of shame. I remember my tongue
shedding its skin like a snake, my voice
in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.
Carol Ann Duffy
A poem about being asked this question … ‘where do you come from originally?’ … obviously you are now in another place. But being asked that question you have to give the questioner your own personal response to your original home place … and of course this may be many locations back depending on the extent of relocation in your life coupled with the time lapse of how long ago it was that you were back home in that original location.
This poem is the first poem in the book ‘The Other Country’. Arguably the first poem in a book is usually a key poem to entice readers to delve further. In similar regard the first stanza of that poem is most important.
For this Post I am going to look at that first stanza in the context of having read the whole poem enabling greater contextual background which might empower the text to greater understanding. That first line is so important too and the words ‘red room’ catch the reader into a bit of a thought puzzle. Here are my thoughts …
The poem is about the grief of a child in leaving their first home in the city to a place in the country. And the child remembers that time dearly and the journey is by car. The child is in a ‘red room’ so it could be reference to a red car. A child’s room in a house is very important to that child. Her new home in transit as she rides with her parents could in fact refer to the space in the car. ‘Red’ is a highly emotive colour for example a colour which promotes anger in a bull. The car is also ‘falling’ ‘through the fields as it travels personifying grieve.
Quite clearly there is great contrast between the emotional state of the child and the joy expressed by her mother as the mother sings to the tune of her husband’s turning wheels.
The child’s brothers appear to be younger but in great sympathy. And the contrast is again highlighted by the bawl of the brothers against the song of the mother. The brothers to not actually say ‘home, home’ – the ‘bawl, bawl’ states this meaning through these cries.
Although the car is travelling away from the city – in the eyes of the children each mile away is a mile back to their original home. Back to the city, back to the street, back to their original home and back to their precious first rooms. The rooms are now vacant which adds poignancy. Again there is great contrast in the two directions associated with the change of location. Joy in one direction sorrow in another.
It appears the child has something in her hands in the car to remind her of her room. She is holding the ‘paw’ (hand) of her precious mute toy-friend. A friend that is ‘blind’ to the predicament of the journey.
This poem gives reinforcement on why Carol Ann Duffy is such an eminent poet in the minds of many readers and gives authority to CAD in being chosen as the UK Poet Laureate in 2009.
Some more questions that you may be hesitant to contemplate – Where do you come from originally? and How does your current mind create the image of that past place? How does it differ from the actual reality of that original first experience?