‘Parents’ is an image-rich poem in which Durcan masterfully depicts the gulf between parents and their children. Through imagery directly and indirectly associated with the sea, he paints a moving and dramatic picture of troubled communicated. ‘Parents’ speaks on themes of childhood, parenting, and distance.
The poem begins with the speaker making the bold statement that “A child’s face is a drowned face”. He immediately explains what he means by this unnerving statement. The speaker compares the gulf between what a parent sees and what a child understands, and visa versa, to the sea. There is something massive and impenetrable between parents and their children. They can’t get through it, nor can the child communicate clearly from within it.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Parents’ by Paul Durcan is a single stanza, nineteen line poem that does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme. Durcan does make use of several poetic techniques that give the poem a feeling of rhyme and rhythm though. These include epistrophe, anaphora, alliteration, repetition, and enjambment. Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. It can be seen most clearly in lines thirteen and fourteen which read: “Father, Father / Mother, Mother”. There are other examples as well, such as “drowned, drowned” in line nineteen” and the general frequent use of words like “sea,” as images related to it.
Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, the endings of lines three through five, all of which use the word “sea”. It is seen again later on in the poem at the end of lines sixteen and seventeen.
Durcan also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, “Their” at the beginning of lines eight and nine as well as “And” at the beginning of lines eighteen and nineteen.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. Examples can be seen throughout the text, but are most prominent in lines nine and ten with the phrases “foreheads furrowed” and “fearful fish”. Another powerful example is at the end of line eighteen with “stranded, they stare”. In general, there are a large number of words in ‘Parents’ that begin with the letter “s”. This is not surprising as the subject matter has to do with the sea. The “s” sound mimics that of the sea itself. The feeling of its rushing waters is embedded throughout.
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. As with alliteration, enjambment is a very common poetic technique. One example includes the transition between lines twelve and thirteen. Another can be seen between lines four and five.
Analysis of Parents
A child’s face is a drowned face:
And they are above the sea:
In the first lines of ‘Parents’, the Durcan begins with a strong and eye-catching statement. His speaker states: “A child’s face is a drowned face”. This phase by itself makes no sense, but with the addition of the colon at the end a reader immediately knows the second line, as well as the third, is going to provide much-needed context.
When the speaker adds to this statement he says that a child’s face appears this way when “Her parents” look at her while she’s sleeping. There is a gulf between the two. They are “Estranged” from their child “by a sea”. This is of course not a physical sea, but a metaphorical one. The speaker sees the child as being “under” it while the parents are above.
If she looked up she would see them
Their big ears are fins behind glass:
The next set of lines of ‘Parents’ proposes a scenario in which the child looks up from her sleeping position to her see parents. They would be so far from her, it would be as though they were locked “out of their own home”. The child is the home, and the parents, who don’t have a key, can’t understand her. Their mouths are open, but the child can’t understand them. The language barrier is too great at this point.
Durcan utilizes alliteration to great effect in the next lines when he compares the parents to finned fish. They make faces, as fish do when stuck behind “glass”. They express “fear,” as one might expect from new parents.
And in her sleep she is calling out to them
And through the night, stranded, they stare
At the drowned, drowned face of their child.
The twelfth line moves to the child’s perspective. The parents might be afraid, but the child has no idea what’s going on at all. She is far from them, but calling out, knowing that “Father” and “Mother” should be able to help her. Despite her efforts, she isn’t heard.
In lines sixteen and seventeen Durcan reuses the phrases “She is inside the sea / And they are outside the sea”. The choice to use these lines as a refrain emphasizes the great separation between the two. It also lends the poem a musical quality and speaks to the unbridgeable gap between parents and child, it is ever-present and reoccurring whenever they attempt communication.
The scenario the speaker posed, that the child was awake staring at her parents, ends. Now, the reader is back to where the poem started with the parents staring at the face of their sleeping child. They see her, and feeling “stranded”. The parents can’t get through the glass, into the sea to understand their child and soothe their fears.
The poem ends with the repetition of the word “drowned”. This is foreboding, alluding to the all-encompassing fear the parents experience as they look at her face.