BOOK REVIEW / Between the me and the mass: 'Mean Time' - Carol Ann Duffy: Anvil, 6.95 pounds

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CAROL ANN DUFFY is one of the freshest and bravest talents to emerge in British poetry - any poetry - for years. Her project is both subtle and experimental. It has something to do with taking the Larkinesque tone that was so scrubbed with lyric pessimism and re-inscribing it on the life of a contemporary woman poet whose poetic register reaches all the way from a subversive eroticism to a self-conscious regionalism. The danger is not that Duffy's talent will remain unrecognised but that it will go unchallenged. Her imaginative approach is so welcome that it's tempting not to subject it to rigorous examination. She deserves better. This new book contains wonderful poems, which extend her lyric range. It also demonstrates a worrying recurrence of the mannerisms obvious in Selling Manhattan and The Other Country.

Mean Time is a book concerned with recovery and memory, much as Selling Manhattan was taken up with a sort of sparkling ventriloquism. It is darker and more ambitious than its predecessor. It would be hard to resist a poem like Nostalgia, with its cryptic music of displacement:

But the word was out. Some would never

fall in love had they not heard of love.

So the priest stood at the stile with his head

in his hands, crying at the workings of memory

through the colour of leaves.

But Mean Time also shows up Duffy's dilemma. On one hand, she is a poet with a sophisticated private lyric agenda, able to canvass dangerous elements of erotic identity. The marvellous poem 'Warming Her Pearls' in Selling Manhattan, which looked unsparingly at power and desire between women, is a case in point. Another is 'Away and See' in this book, with its exuberant regret. She is also, however, fascinated by the possibility of an unspoken contract between poet and community. She explores edges of comedy which position her in an almost bardic way, ready to recover and articulate lost details of the tribe. She can do this superbly in a poem like 'Litany', with its black details about life in the Fifties:

The terrible marriages crackled, cellophane

round polyester shirts, and then The Lounge

would seem to bristle with eyes, hard

as the bright stones in engagement rings . . .

The problem is that, caught between these fields of force, there is a temptation to ironise the persona itself: to flatten the lyric voice to make it populist, or to inflate the populist tone to make it lyrical. Duffy has a weakness for easy caricature and razor-edge line-breaks. The risk is that a first-rate and subversive talent will get caught between what Sean O'Faolain called the Scylla of the tongue and the Charybdis of the cheek.

The best poems in Mean Time thrive on this tension - poems like 'Prayer', with its odd and loving refusal of the secular. But Carol Ann Duffy needs to beware of the mannerisms which are defence-mechanisms against such tensions - the preponderance of the second person singular, for example. With her gift for risk and her no-nonsense music, she has more chance than most to write those poems which run what Frost called 'a lucky course of events'.