‘Never go Back’ by Carol Ann Duffy (from her collection Mean Time Anvil 1993)
One of the main ideas in the poem is that you cannot return to the past as people and places change. It evokes images of death, disease and decay, as this is what happens over time to people and places. Duffy uses darkness and drinking in bars to represent her feelings about time. The poem’s title offers a solution – that it is better not to return to past times and places either literally or to hark back nostalgically.
She uses the second person throughout the poem. She could be talking to herself, which gives a detached feeling; she could be talking to the people she knew in the past, addressing the ghosts of her memories. It has the effect of making the reader seem included and because we all have a past, the images can be personalised. She avoids making it too particular so that the reader can imagine their own past.
to the space where you left time pining…
The poem is divided into three sections which represent different places in the past. She could be visiting them literally or just in her memory. Each place gives her a sense of despair and includes images of death, disease and decay.
In the first stanza she describes a seedy bar in which images of death and decay feature strongly. The oxymoron ‘living dead’ suggests that the drinkers here have given up hope. The personification of the juke box as someone who is reminiscing ‘in a cracked voice’ suggests that the machine itself is speaking to her, perhaps playing the songs of her youth, but in a broken voice, as though it is diseased. Perhaps hearing the music is a stimulus to the memories she goes on to explore. The ‘well-thumbed pack’ suggests repulsive old men gambling in the bar. Duffy uses it as a metaphor for photographs which stimulate the ‘anecdotes’ which have been heard many times before. The tensions in the section come from the contrasts such as
there is nothing to say. You talk for hours
The conversations themselves are stale and pointless because you cannot talk meaningfully as your life has moved on. The alliteration in ‘parched old faces of the past’ emphasises the deadness, the pointlessness of going back. ‘Smoky mirrors’ suggests that people are smoking in the bar, but also that time is misty and clouded and you can only remember certain things. This is added to by the verb ‘flatter’. She makes us question whether the mirror flatters because we only remember the good things or because we cannot see properly because of the lapse in time.
The developed use of personification in the poem, such as the ‘streets tear litter’, ‘the wind whistles’, the house…has cancer’, the train sighs’ suggest that she is surrounded by faces, the places claim her and seem to have lives of their own. The images are unpleasant as they draw on disease and mess as well as echoing her own emotions. It implies that the times and places haunt her as much as the people she once knew, the ones her ‘ghost buys a round’ for.
Many of her images have layers of meaning. For example, the alcoholic friend, who she has perhaps met up with on returning to her old home, is described as having a head which is ‘a negative of itself’. This implies things have gone badly wrong in the friend’s life and dreams they once had have not come to fruition. But it also suggests a visual image as in negatives the colours are reversed and the friend’s hair may have turned white with age, as it would show in a negative.
The speaker in the poem seems detached and the places visited are like ghost towns, inhabited by ‘the living dead’. The personification of the house makes it seem haunted and once again the contrasts between the past and present cause tension in the reader’s imagination and make it seem even sadder that the hopes of the past have been destroyed. The word ‘brides’ evokes hope and innocence and the colour white, whereas the house now is decaying and the only white is the falling plaster. She ironically compares this to confetti, linking back to the bridal image but in an unpleasant way as she shakes it from her hair. The house itself is dreary now.
The final section is focused on her journey from the places of the past, to which she will never return again. The contrasts in this section show that the place is dead for her now and the hopeful images represent where she now lives, which could be both a literal place and a time of her life where she is now happy without any ghosts from the past, ‘nowhere, nowhen’. It is as though going back has brought some release and she is no longer limited by where she comes from or where she is going. The image of drinking recurs, but more hopefully. The idea of home being where you are in the present is communicated by the image of ‘fires and lights’ which the reader associates with home and safety.
‘Never go Back’ is a very complex poem with many layers of ideas. Carol Ann Duffy explores her feelings about the past and present in an effective and moving way and draws the reader in by her use of second person and her startling imagery.
copyright: Angela Topping