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Élodie Gaden (août 2007)

Carol Ann Duffy, We remember your childhood well

Nobody hurt you. Nobody turned off the light and argued
with somebody else all night. The bad man on the moors
was only a movie you saw. Nobody locked the door.

Your questions were answered fully. No. That didn't occur.
You couldn't sing anyway, cared less. The moment's a blur, a Film Fun
laughing itself to death in the coal fire. Anyone's guess.

Nobody forced you. You wanted to go that day. Begged. You chose
the dress. Here are the pictures, look at you. Look at us all,
smiling and waving, younger. The whole thing is inside your head.

What you recall are impressions; we have the facts. We called the tune.
The secret police of your childhood were older and wiser than you, bigger
than you. Call back the sound of their voices. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Nobody sent you away. That was an extra holiday, with people
you seemed to like. They were firm, there was nothing to fear.
There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears.

What does it matter now? No, no, nobody left the skidmarks of sin
on your soul and laid you wide open for Hell. You were loved.
Always. We did what was best. We remember your childhood well.

« We remember your childhood well » is a poem of Carol Ann Duffy, an English writer of the twentieth century, who is still alive. This poem is a monologue of a parent (or two parents, we don't know exactly), who is talking to his child. The adult seems to deny what the child – who has grown up now – says about the violence he has endured. Mistreating is only suggested, not really said.

That's the principal interest of the poem: the adult speaks as if there was something to hide, as if there was a secret. Everything is filtered: both by the memory, and by the use of words.

In a first part we will see that there are some devices used to create an atmosphere of mystery in the poem. Then, we will study how the poem is built on the ambiguity between illusion and reality. Finally, how the poem conveys a poetic of the secrecy.

The poem is rather mysterious, for different reasons. First, we can notice that the poem is a sort of dialogue since it is made of some occurrences of pronouns « you » and « we. » It is rather strange since it has also a poetic form. But we also remark that in fact, it is a monologue of an adult (or maybe the two parents, we don't really know exactly). It is not an exchange: we only have the viewpoint of the adult, but not of the child. The child seems not to have the right to speak, and we can consider that it is a form of oppression for the child.

The reader doesn't really understand everything at the first reading. The monologue evokes events of the past as we can see through the use of the past tenses and through the evocation of « pictures » (line 8) which shows an event they have taken a picture of. There are also allusions to some events: « you wanted to go that day », « that was an extra holiday. » But the events are not organised, there are no rational link between them. The reader is not aware of the entire story of the childhood which is described. So the reader has an impression of mystery about the past: tlack of detail shuts us out.

Moreover, the rhythm is very interesting. The poem is built on an irregular pattern. There are many pauses which create a slow and rather hacked rhythm. Three stanzas begin with a statement: « Nobody hurt you », « Your questions were answered », « Nobody forced you », « What you recall are impressions », « Nobody sent you away ». It gives the impression of a hammering, which is latter on reinforced by the onomatopoeias « Boom. Boom. Boom » (line 12). It is a mean to create some tension in the reader and to give more sense of poetics, with a refined language which emphasizes the mystery. The anaphora « nobody » gives the impression that the imagined dialogue (the monologue) is not real, that it is built, and not authentic. So we can wonder if the poem is dealing with real events or if it is an illusion.

The adult seems to deny everything that is to say what the child is talking about. The repetition of « nobody » for example, is the complete negation of what may have happened. The adult is constantly denying the facts. Line 2, « the bad man (...) was only a movie you saw »: the words « only » and « movie » stress the theme of illusion. The same idea is conveyed by some expressions like: « thdidn't occur » (line 4), « you seemed » (line 14), or « a blur » (line 5). It gives the impression of something vaguely or indistinctly perceived.

The vocabulary is also important because the poem makes associations of antonyms. « Blur » (line 3) is rhyming with « occur » (line 4) and they are antonyms. There are other instances: in the first stanza, « light » and « night », in the second stanza, « fully » and « less », in the fourth stanza, « impressions » and « facts ». The reader is not given a clear account of the events which are hinted at: is it light or night? Is it reality or illusion? Moreover, line 12, with the verb « call back » we feel that the child (or he reader) is asked to remember things past. It is almost a reminiscent process, in a Platonic sense: as if things had known in a previous existence. It catches the reader's attention about the relation between memory and reality.

A paradox in the text also conveys this theme: even though the adult tries to explain that childhood was a happy period, there is a lexical field of the violence: « hurt », « bad », « forced », « begged », « fear ». Some adjectives are used in a comparative form: « older and wiser than you, bigger than you » (line 11). It gives the impression that the adult scorns the child, and it adds to the sense of danger.

Yet nothing is really said: it is as if there was something to hide, a kind of secret, a kind of taboo about the past. Line 10, we read: « what you recall are impressions ; we have the facts. » The adult opposes the rationality of the adult and the feelings of the child, in order to hide a secret which he doesn't want to reveal. Line 9, « inside your head » insists on the unreality of what the child may have said. Everything is based on imagination in the poem, both on the imagination of the child (which is constantly denied by the adult) and also on the imagination of the reader. The poem is built on a series of innuendoes: things are not really said, they are simply suggested, and not developed: « The bad man on the moors » (line 2), « a door being locked » (line3), « the child being sent ... away » (line 13). The events are not developed, and it allows the reader to imagine exactly what happened during the events which are related.

So, the imagination of the reader is conveyed in this poem, and so is his participation in building the meaning. The last stanza begins with a question: « what does it matter now? » The reader is asked to think about this question, and to give an answer. Even if the question applies at first to the child, since he is not present in the poem, we can think that the question implicitly applies to the reader. Moreover, we can say that the sentence « nobody locked the door » line 3 is a sort of metaliterary reflection: the meaning of the poem is not locked; the reader has got the keys to interpret the text.

In addition, we can notice that some words create an « after-text », a text which is sketched out: « else » (line 2), the preposition « away » (line 13), « extra » (line 13), « open » (line 17). The reader has to imagine what happened, thanks to the use of these words. « We called the tune » (line 10) can mean « to give orders. » But the word « tune » also means « melody ». The words are used in their various senses, in order not to restrict the meaning. It shows that words are not simple. We could draw a parallel between the way the poet uses the words, and the way the adult (in the poem) uses it. The adult, here, seems to deny, he does not let the child take part into the conversation, whereas the poet lets the reader be involved in the poem. So there are two different ways of using words: the adult uses words to hide a secret, whereas the poet uses words to show the secret.

This poem is not only the restitution of a part of a dialogue: it is also a reflection about the meaning of words, and the way we can use them. It suggestes – without speaking about the child at all – the mistreatment of the child. It is up to the reader to give the meaning. The reader is not influenced by the author or the narrator, but by the choices of the words and the construction of the poem. C. A. Duffy « like(s) to use simple words but in a complicated way, » as she has said of her own writing. We can add that it is not simply the study of one case but a general reflection and maybe a sketch of mythology since the author makes some allusions to « Hell » and « death. »