Carol Ann Duffy has a sardonic sense of humour which makes its presence felt in every poem, perhaps. Especially when it comes to dealing with love.
Her poem ‘Valentine’ was not just written for the occasion or what the Day means to her. Love is not just an intimation of intimacy but a deeper understanding too. When I said ‘sardonic humour’ it is not evident in this poem alone but in a few others as well. Take “Anne Hatheway” or “Before you were mine” where too this sense of humour comes through like a razor. I propose to deal with them separately.
Valentine takes off without a slight hiccup when one reads the early lines. “Not a red rose or a satin heart’. It is not just a sardonic expression but a deeper statement about love. Mythological love affairs have spilled blood as one could easily see in Romeo Juliet or some other story. Red rose is a symbol of violent finale to love as one is accustomed to. Love is too deep an emotion to be identified with red rose or a satin heart.
To Carol it is like onion – an unusual image but very apt to describing the bitterness that makes it all the more sweeter – that could blind you with tears. It is also a moon wrapped in a brown paper which radiates light like the careful undressing of love. What is meant here is the palpable meanings of love in the early stage before it is fully realized.
But subtler meanings are yet to come. You realize it when you go down the poem. “It will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief”. I was drawn to this expression like a magnet because it was a truthful statement. Any commoner will react to this the same way I do. This is where Carol scores by a mile. Subsequently when she says “I am trying to be truthful” she is stating the obvious.
Further down you realize that the intended message is love makes you possessive whether by choice or otherwise. Is it not a matter of fact when one starts exploring relationships? Lines that lead to the climactic one are all designed to stress this singular fact. What one likes about the Carol Ann Duffy is the candour with which she approaches poetry.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
The quoted lines sum up the message to a student of Carol as well as the reader. Its biographical details are not of immediate relevance. It could have been written for Jackie Kay or someoneelse. But the stamp is unmistakable.