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Empty Nest: Poems for Families, edited by Carol Ann Duffy review – the agony of absence | Poetry


This is not, as is the usual rule of this column, a collection but an outstanding anthology in which fathers, mothers and grownup children speak of themselves and, sometimes, to one another. A new form of homesickness is identified in which it is home itself that sickens. In the poem from which the anthology gets its title, Carol Ann Duffy suggests that her house “pines” when her daughter is away. Gabriel Griffin in Alone describes his home’s echoing uncanniness, a “golden hum in the house now they’ve gone”, and Sharon Olds registers a “strange quiet” in her wildcard of a poem Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil in which even her daughter’s thankless gerbils have died.

A child must be allowed to grow up and leave. Several poems describe a retreating back view, more telling than any organised face of farewell. Cecil Day-Lewis sees this early on in Walking Away, dedicated to his son Sean, whom he describes “walking away from me towards the school/With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free…” Sometimes, it is the parent whose back is turned. In Eavan Boland’s The Necessity for Irony (and what a maestro at understanding family she was), this is a cause of regret. She remembers visiting antique fairs with her flame-haired 12-year-old:

…I was in those rooms,

with my child,

with my back turned to her,

Searching – oh irony!–

for beautiful things.

Sometimes the letting go is final – Shakespeare’s “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” from King John (acute home sickness) or a challenging fragment from Say Something Back by Denise Riley, whose grownup son died, or William Stafford’s For a Lost Child with its innate awkwardness – as though the subject of his late son were too big for the poem. His conclusion is moving precisely because of its deflating ordinariness:

I find your note left from a trip that year

Our family travelled: “Daddy, we could meet here.”

These writings contrast with the comfortable regret of poems about gap years, making us conscious of how it would be were every year a gap year.

Poets play tricks with time. Childhood is sometimes intensely recoverable for a verse or two – before the mirage ends. Louis Macneice’s immaculate, if stagy, Soap Suds involves a mallet that goes through several hoops before returning us to an adult present. It is a fine companion piece to Charles Causley’s Eden Rock, where a picnic with parents turns otherworldly:

They beckon to me from the other bank,

I hear them call, “See where the stream path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.”

What mothers say gets plenty of airtime, although it seems fitting that My Mother Never Said I Should – exulting in parent-free anonymity – should be by Anon. Carol Ann Duffy revels, meanwhile, in The Way My Mother Speaks, in repeating her mother’s antiquated question: “What like is it?”

What like is her anthology? It is the unsafety of the writing about family that is striking, the sense of so much being at stake. At a time when many are struggling with full nest syndrome, this book rehearses a different scene – a dance between closeness and distance. The beautiful final poem is by Carol Ann Duffy’s daughter, Ella. It describes the sighting of her mother on Southwark Bridge while she signals from 50 floors above. Poetry seals their bond:

You danced on the road, blowing kisses

giddy with seeing me,

your daughter, blinking my small light

down on the city

the space between us swollen

and homesick, a mile long.

Empty Nest: Poems for Families, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Separation by WS Merwin

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its colour.

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