Within ‘Foreign’ Duffy delves into themes of alienation, home, and acceptance. Though Duffy’s own struggle a reader explores these themes. She expresses the difficulty she has had coming to terms with a certain perception of herself as different, separate, or unusual in her community. Through poignant and clear imagery, she depicts the experience of suddenly feeling as though you are recognized only for your differences.
The mood and tone are both dark, depressive, and at times, fearful, as the speaker describes her own experience in her “strange, dark city”. In the last stanzas, as Duffy describes moments of hesitation, confusion, and fear, she transitions into ungrammatical phrases meant to represent her own dislocation in her city.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the reader’s surroundings to them. It is written in the second person, meaning that “you” will be the main character. It is clear from the beginning that the character the speaker has created does not feel at home in this place. They think in a different language and struggle with their own foreign accent.
As the poem continues, this person’s world is developed further and fear is added into their life. There is a moment where they forget how to speak their second language, forget how to read coins, and are unable to understand the spoken word. This happens in tandem with “you” observing a derogatory slur written on the wall in spray paint, further alienating “you” from “your” place of residence.
The poem ends with this person wondering what it would be like to peacefully drift off to sleep without wondering where and how they can belong.
‘Foreign’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines or quintets. While this piece does not have any particular rhyme scheme, the lines are very consistent in length and the number of words used. This gives it an overall even and rhythmic sound and feel.
Additionally, the poem is written in the second person. The poet has made use of this perspective in an effort to cast the reader into the role of “foreigner” that she has crafted. It also reads as if the speaker is attempting to convince the reader of something. It is likely that these are the poet’s experiences, especially considering the insight into the emotions that the “you” in the story experiences. Perhaps she is hoping to make others understand.
Duffy makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Foreign’. These include alliteration, imagery, caesura, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “dismal dwellings” in line two of the first stanza, or “snowing” and “streets” in line four of the third stanza.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. There are several powerful examples in ‘Foreign’. Such as the description of the “dark city” in the first stanza and the “name for yourself sprayed in red” in the third stanza. These are both emotionally moving, and mentally troubling representations of the themes of alienation and fear.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The third line of the third stanza is a great example. It reads: “against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines three and four of the first stanza and two and three of the second.
Analysis of Foreign
Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years.
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker asks of her readers to cast themselves into the position of her main character. She is going to describe a number of different experiences and emotions while referring to the person experiencing them as “you.”
She first asks the reader “Imagine” they are “living in a strange, dark city.” They are not a new resident of this place, but somehow it remains “strange.” The main character of the poem has lived in this place for “twenty years,” in one of the “dismal dwellings on the east side.” These places are at once separate and familiar to the speaker. Her main character knows where they live, but they do not feel they belong there.
When this person, still being referred to as “you,” enters the home they hear their own “foreign accent” echoing in the stairwell. Even though it has been twenty years, this person still feels out of place. Their accent has not changed, nor has the language they “think” in. This is another element that sets them apart. They speak one way and think another.
Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
why your eyes are watering and what’s the word for this.
The day this person is living continues on until the moment they are “writing home”. Time has not made their current house anymore like home to them, and the only way they can access their home is through letter writing.
Once more there is a divide between the internal voice and the external. They write in their native language and “recite” it that way in their head, but outside of this context, there is no time for them to use it. These writings that the speaker is describing bring the main character to tears. “You” are reminiscing on the language “you” knows best and these memories bring up the sound of this person’s mother’s voice.
The speaker states that this person is unsure why they are feeling so emotional at this moment. To a reader though, the loneliness and alienation are clearly being felt deeply.
You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one night
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes what day-to-day life is like for someone who is completely foreign to the world they are living in. This person, still being referred to as “you,” is using “public transport” and working and sleeping. They are functioning, but it doesn’t seem healthy.
The poem takes a darker turn at this point, painting a world that is hostile towards, “you”. The person, who is the main character of the narrative, comes upon a “name for [themselves]” spray-painted on a wall. This is a clear reference to some kind of derogatory term. The speaker is refraining from saying which one so that any reader is able to connect with this moment.
The experience would be quite a fearful one and cause someone living it to feel even more alienated. This character’s world is described as “coming to bits”. The tiny parts of life that one could hold onto are slipping away. Their current home is turning against them.
And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
It like they only go to bed and dream. Imagine that.
In the final stanza, the speaker describes “you” experiencing a moment where all understanding disappears. The world has been full of so much pressure and the main character is overwhelmed by everything. At this moment they are unable to understand the coins in their hands, and the markings no longer make sense. It is as if the world is fading away and getting harder and harder to understand.
The same thing is happening to language in the following lines. “You” are now “point[ing] at fruit,” having forgotten the names. The loss goes further into everyday language. “You” are unable to understand what others are saying.
In conclusion, the speaker states that “you” are astounded by other people. Particularly, those who are able to go straight to bed and dream, without worrying about not belonging.