Paperhouse reads: Rapture

Because it’s topical, what with her making laureate and all – and in no way because I’ve been too slammed with proper work to write a proper post – here’s a review of Rapture by Carol Anne Duffy from the Paperhouse archives, first published in 2006. (See? Topical.)

Shadows of love


The eponymous rapture of Carol Anne Duffy’s new, T.S. Eliot Award-winning sequence of poems is the extreme pleasure of love; it is also a reference to the strange process of attempting to revive that love through writing after the agonies of loss. This is the sound of love being lifted bodily out of its grave. In Rapture, the love poem is always shadowed by grief – “loves’s spinster twin”.

The tone throughout the 52 poems is strikingly, sometimes painfully, personal – given that Duffy has previously shown a strong allegiance to the dramatic monologue, it is a surprise to encounter her in the naked “I”. From a writer who has often cultivated a poetic voice of no gender (that is to say, for whom gender has always seemed more a property of the characters she writes than of the poet writing), these poems also seem to offer a subtle putting-on of sex.

The hints are slight (“thorns on my breasts” in Forest, a panegyric to her lover, or “the dark fruit of your nipple / ripe on your breast” in Venus) but nonetheless clear that these lyrics are addressed from a woman, to a woman. Rapture is Duffy’s most intimate avowal of same-sex desire. The confessional quality is strong, and lyric loveliness often proves less affecting than scenes of personal embarrassment.

The description in Quickdraw of anxiously awaiting the lover’s phone call with the handset hipslung like a cowboy’s pistol ends with the speaker on her knees, fumbling for the phone. The indignity of desire appears poignantly in moments like this, and makes keen claim on the reader’s own painful experience.

It is this ability to move through the personal to suggest a general experience beyond the page that makes sense of the blurb’s claim that, “nowhere has Duffy more eloquently articulated her belief that poetry should speak for us all,” despite the intensely personal experience that seems to be documented by the sequence. Rapture is bonded not just thematically, but also narratively. It tells a story; there is a chronology, mangled as it may be by pain and memory.

But as the sequence comes to its conclusion, and the relationship it describes also reaches its end, Duffy turns increasingly to thoughts of words. “Love’s language starts, stops, starts; / the right words flowing or clotting in the heart,” she writes in Syntax – but if love’s language is erratic, at least the poet has the consolation of knowing that her language is under control, and in couplets.