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'.Reuse content