Much of Maureen Duffy’s verse contrasts contemporary problems with how life used to be, such as during World War II or the Victorian era. Moreover, not only does her latest collection, Environmental Studies, betray her affinity for Greek mythology, it also reveals her favourite poets: John Milton and John Donne are frequently alluded to, or else emulated in style or theme.
Sadly, a couple of Duffy’s poems which are reminiscent of Donne, such as “At the Welcome”, lose momentum. Lines such as “I’m glad of skin masking mortality” are very much in the Baroque period mode of “Memento Mori”, but the poem lacks a strong conceit. It does, however, use a technique similar to the concluding couplet in a sonnet, the last lines reading:
There will be time enough for pared bones as poets
Know who try to clothe it in a weft of words:
Love’s epiderm for all who live and breathe.
While the rhythm flows elegantly, one might argue the topic has been overdone. Luckily, Duffy seems aware of this problem, and addresses it in a very subtle manner in “Perfection”. This poem is also about love, while the title suggests that it too is written in the tradition of unconditional praise. This notion is however subverted, as Duffy explores the possibility of perfection by describing a variety of imperfect physical phenomenon, before juxtaposing a definitive assertion by means of a simple question mark:
that in your arms that other first law
doesn’t apply: ‘Perfection exists’?
One might argue that contrasting cliché and innovation is the primary trait of Duffy’s verse. Another example of formal as opposed to topical contrast is found in “The Book of the Dead”. The poem, which describes Egyptian mummification and funerary rites, starts with a beautiful use of alliteration:
We have come to peer at the dead, spiced up
eviscerated, parceled out in canopic jars
embalmed, bound, their rites of passage
painted on coffin wood.
The second verse contains a more laboured alliteration of “H”: “Did it hover, hawk or humming bird chirruping to come in?” Unlike the hawk, the hummingbird (being native to the Americas) has no place in Egyptian mythology; nor does it have any perceivable connection with the rest of the poem, which leads to the conclusion that it was simply used to achieve the alliteration.
However, the most notable characteristic of Duffy’s writing is her attention to detail. Not only are the descriptions insightful, but poems such as “Woodlouse” show her appreciation for the (literally) small things in life: “But I can’t risk that little spark snuffed”. Moreover, that appreciation for detail also allows her to satirize as for example in the case of “Uses of a Classical Education”: “Narcissus is up the gym three nights a week”. The poignancy of these observant poems sets them apart from those marked by larger, metaphysical themes. Not only are the former humorous, but they bring two quasi-opposite fields of interest together – as it seems that people whose primary concern is their appearance will make the connection between working out and mythological tales. Yet another example of Duffy’s knack for observational humour is found in “Pigeon Dancing”, which describes the unrequited courtship efforts of a male pigeon that, among other things “bows, pirouettes, teeters on window ledge”.
All in all, Duffy’s forte is poetry with more personal or concise themes. The poems treating big, metaphysical topics tend to drag a bit, which is by no means a depreciation of her poetic capabilities: it simply means those themes have been done to death. Fortunately, the majority of her verse falls into the “concise” category, making Environmental Studies a collection that is like its poems: short and strong.