Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Last Post’

Carol Anne Duffy is a good poet, and the Laureateship seems to have given her a new lease of poetic life. She has just released a new poem, marking the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch; it has a strong central idea – a war film played backwards:

Last Post Carol Ann Duffy

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud . . .
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

(Copied from the Times website, but all the papers seem to have it, so I’m assuming there’s no copyright problem.)
I like the way the soldier begins as an anonymous victim, and gradually gathers life and identity, and I like the lines:

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible

‘You lean’ – shows us  a  casual unmilitary posture, the man watching the world go peacefully by, and seeing not only the several million lives saved, but the several million versions of his own life that are still possible, not chopped off by war.

The ending is good, too – about the aspirations of poetry (to tell the truth, and to describe a better world) and its limitations – isn’t there  an implicit ‘but it can’t’ at the end of the poem?
I’ve got a couple of reservations, though – mostly about the use of Wilfred Owen. The first two lines, of course, are taken from Dulce et Decorum Est, and I can’t help feeling they’d have been better in italics, or indented as an epigraph. There seems a confusion between this death by gas and the death by shrapnel two lines later.  For my own taste, too, the message-hammering line:

Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.

could also have been cut without loss.

But the time reversal is very effectively handled, even though Kurt Vonnegut got there first, in the section of Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim sees the Second World War played backwards:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 31, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your reservations about Duffy’s use of Owen, who becomes a useful shorthand for a particular attitude to the war. Ted Hughes realised very early in his writing career that you can’t out-Owen Owen. Duffy tries and fails.

    In other respects the poem is curiously uneven. Take the lines ‘watch bled bad blood / run upwards from the slime into its wounds’, where a tongue-twister which should never have been allowed into print gives way to a line of genuine power. Very strange…

  2. Posted July 31, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, ‘bled bad blood’ is really bad, because ‘bled’ is so redundant. What else can blood do except bleed?
    Perhaps this is one of those poems that should have been put in a drawer for six months, and then slimmed down by 20%. A ruthless revision could have made it a good poem.
    But laureates are expected to meet deadlines. I was reading the other day about the stick that Robert Bridges got for not coming up with a suitable poem for Peace Day in 1919. It’s a tough job.

    • Anonymous
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      power of 3

  3. MARK WOOD
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I think you may have been a little unfair in referring to (mis(use of Owen’s poetry. “Dulce et decorum est” actually goes back much further (to Horace??). Owen was simply using a phrase already well-used by the 19th Century. Duffy’s simply continuing the tradition!!

  4. Posted November 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    You’re right about Horace, of course, but Duffy’s first lines quote Owen, so it’s appropriate to link Dulce et decorum to him, too.

    One thing I wonder. Owen wrote D et D in late 1917. I get the impression that by this time the ironic contrast between Horace’s idealistic slogan and muddy reality had become quite a common trope in war literature. So by linking the two, was Owen actually following the trend?
    Still, he does it better than anyone else.


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