North-West by Carol Ann Duffy is the penultimate poem in Duffy’s Feminine Gospels. The poem explores nostalgia and the inability to relive the past through a melancholic tone. Duffy focuses on images of change, ‘what we lost’, and things that didn’t work out in her life filling North-West with depressing clarity.
Summary of North-West
The city has now changed, the streets no longer resembling what she remembered from her childhood. All those days spent there, ‘ruined loves, unborn children, ghosts’ all become palpable for the poet. The city of Liverpool comes to embody the past. Duffy feels a deep sense of connection to her city. Yet, she is constantly drifting away, both physically on the ferry and emotionally over the course of her life. The poem ends on a solemn note, ‘tearful air’ entirely representing the tone of North West.
You can read the full poem, North-West here.
Form and Structure
Carol Ann Duffy splits the poem into 14 lines, reflecting a sonnet form. In doing this, Duffy connects with the tradition of sonnets. This is reflected through the strong emotions within the poem, sonnets often holding thoughts of love or its loss. In this poem, the extremity of emotion is melancholy, with Duffy reflecting on her lost past. The structure aids further agency to the writing, drawing upon a historic form to ruminate about the loss of her past. Yet, Duffy avoids the traditional sonnet rhyme scheme, instead only having one rhyme in the poem. By foregoing the joviality of rhyme, Duffy further compounds the sense of melancholy that North-West holds.
Themes in North-West
The key theme within North-West is nostalgia and the past. Duffy centers her poem around looking over the city where she grew up, reminiscing across the cold waters. There is constant imagery of change and movement, Duffy becoming emotionally distanced from her past. Although inevitable, Duffy mourns the loss of her past, using the city of Liverpool as a symbol of her childhood. There is even a sense of possibility, with the ‘unborn children’ that could have been haunting the city. It seems that Duffy doesn’t even know ‘what we lost’, there is too much to count.
Duffy uses, as in many of her poems, asyndeton within North-West. Asyndeton, the colocation of many connected images through a list format, creates a sense of infinity. Duffy passes from image to image, ‘spot, the flowers of litter, a grave’, resting upon each for only a moment. In doing this, the constant use of asyndeton suggests a never-ending list of lost things. Duffy gives herself no time to mourn these things, her mind racing through each image. The poet’s use of asyndeton is overwhelming, memories of the past racing to the surface.
Another technique that Duffy uses in writing North-West is caesura. There is the frequent use of caesura within the poem, Duffy instilling metrical pauses. The poet uses this technique to stunt the poem, making the reader pause on certain images. These images, such as ‘out of reach’, therefore become emphasized, Duffy allowing their melancholy to stop the poem. The combination of tragic images of loss, combined with caesura culminate in deeply moving moments.
However it is we return to the water’s edge
we do what we always did and get on board.
North-West begins as if Duffy were in mid-sentence, ‘However’. This could reflect the fact that Duffy is in the middle of her life, returning to Liverpool on a whim. This is no longer her home, but rather somewhere that she returns to in order to remind herself of the past. Indeed, the first verb of the poem is ‘we return’, instantly focusing North West on the idea of coming back to something. Of course, this ‘something’ is revealed throughout the poem as the past and childhood.
It is interesting to note that Duffy conjugates all the verbs in the poem in the ‘we’ form. Perhaps Duffy is stating that this is not simply something she faces alone, everyone is prone to nostalgia. On the other hand, Duffy could be suggesting that her memories are encompassed by the people she lived them with. Indeed, her reference to ‘ruined loves’ suggests the presence of others. Duffy is perhaps demonstrating her lost attachment to people from the past. This makes further sense considering the following poem in the anthology is a mournful elegy for her now passed friend, Adrian Henri.
The city drifts out of each. A huge silvery bird,
for our ruined loves, unborn children, ghosts.
Duffy places ‘The city drifts out of reach.’ between an end stop and a caesura. This means that on either side of the phrase Duffy has incited a slight metrical pause. In doing this, the phrase becomes incredibly prominent, Duffy examining the impact of loss through this line. Her ‘city’, representing all she has lost, is ‘drift[ing]’ further ‘out of reach’. She is losing her past by living, those she remembers from that time now having also left her. The poem is incredibly melancholic, Duffy caesura following the phrase furthering the tragedy through the mournful pause.
The focus on an image of freedom, ‘silvery bird’ is slightly out of place within North-West. Duffy, now being a grown woman, is free to do what she wants. Yet this freedom, here presented as a metaphor for the ‘ferry’ as a ‘silvery bird’, is what takes her away from her past life. Duffy mourns all she has lost, but ‘silvery’ suggests that there is a happy quality of life she has achieved by leaving.
Duffy uses transient imagery to focus on the loss of her childhood. The use of ‘X’ draws upon the semantics of treasure, Duffy suggesting the value of her childhood. Yet, this strange period is located ‘on a wave’, something that is constantly moving and changing location. This could be emblematic of Duffy’s lost childhood, witnessing the city but not feeling the same way she did when she was young.
The final image on each line of the asyndetic list focuses on the semantics of death, ‘ghost’, and ‘grave’ both emphasizing the death of her childhood. Duffy has lost the link she had with the past.
We look back at the skyline wondering what we lost
Frets of the light on the river. Tearful air.
Indeed, her city has become mysterious, just a ‘skyline’. The places seems so changed that she begins to wonder ‘what we lost’. Duffy is not sure what she cannot remember because there are now no physical markers from that time in her life. The city has changed, ‘rented rooms’ and ‘tourist booms’ clogging the once glorious place of childhood. The rhyme between these phrases ‘rooms’ and ‘booms’ creates a superficiality that is out of place in the melancholic poem. Duffy is pointing to the ‘tourist’ industry and how they have ruined the city.
Duffy’s use of ‘yeah yeah yeah’ is a direct reference to the Beetles song ‘She Loves’. The Beatles were from Liverpool, Duffy associating her childhood with their rising fame.
The final image of the poem is melancholic, ‘tearful air’ being a hypallage. Indeed, ‘tearful’ is referencing Duffy, not the air. Duffy stares over her city and begins to cry, remembering all she has lost.
Historical Context to North-West
One key point of context to this poem is knowing that Duffy grew up in Liverpool. Born in 1955, Duffy experienced the rise of the Beatles (1960-70) first hand, the band representing her childhood. This is why she references them in the penultimate line of the poem, calling back to that time. Duffy, being the famous poet that she is, has left her home city. Due to the incredible modernization of Liverpool that has happened over the last 50 years, the current Liverpool is very different from the city that Duffy grew up in. This change is central to North-West, leading Duffy to feel lost in the place she knows best.
Another poem that sings with a similar melancholic note from Duffy’s work is ‘Death and the Moon’. Both of these poems use the semantics of distance to convey loss. Discussing death and the loss of the past, both Death and the Moon and Northwest are incredibly tragic poems.