A Childhood of Emigration: A Commentary on “Originally” by Carol Ann Duffy Outgrowing childhood is leaving many cherished people, memories and treasures behind. Emigrating in childhood is leaving a culture, a language and a home behind. Carol Ann Duffy moved from Glasgow, Scotland to Stafford, England when she was six years old, in the 1960s, thus later writing this poem “Originally”.
Through laying out childhood memories and ending on the note that she hesitates when asked of her origin, Carol Ann Duffy expresses regret that she has lost her own origin during her emigration at a young age in a nostalgic tone despite many of these memories being far from pleasant. The most striking thing about “Originally” is that it is mainly composed of flashing images of memory. They are carefully selected moments that most represent her disoriented feelings brought by emigration and her losing her origin in the adaptation to her new environment.
Scenes of “unimagined, pebble-dashed estates” and “an avenue where no one you know stays” presents the protagonist as a stranger lost in a new country. These places are unknown and intimidating to her. So many strangers are housed in such huge areas that there is a strong sense of loneliness conveyed as well. The child grows changes and adapts to her new society, from not understanding what is said by the people around her to her “tongue shedding its skin like a snake”, from balking at boys “eating worms” to accepting her “brother swallow a slug”.
One after another, these are all presented as short, clipped images that allow the vast subject of “all childhood” be captured in few words, making the feelings in emigration more intense and the subject of childhood more tangible. They also correspond to the scattered nature of childhood memory. These images are increasingly abstract. In the very first line, the poet as a child describes the train compartment she is in as a “red room”. This is simply because the child does not understand that she is in a train.
Then she hears “our mother singing our father’s name”, which is unlikely to be the reality but is an expression of this child understanding her mother’s pain of parting with her father. In a transitional line from the journey to life after arriving at their destination, there is the greatest abstract idea in the whole poem: “All childhood is an emigration. ” Here we are presented with this single impression of childhood. It emphasizes the impact of emigration on the poet, suggesting that it is the dominating memory of childhood.
Furthermore, comparing emigration and childhood gives deeper meaning to the poem. “Sudden” emigration may literally mean moving from one country to the other or imply sudden changes in the course of life, finding shocks and surprises around the corner. “Slow” ones represent gradual change as a child grows up and tries to find her place in the world, lost and not knowing where to go on a stranger’s avenue. No matter sudden or slow, all these give the feeling of being stranded and unsupported.
They make this child conform to her new environment, and thereby losing her own origin. This message of the poem becomes clearest in the ending: “Where do you come from? /strangers ask… I hesitate. ” That she is unsure of where she comes from suggests that this part of her identity and of her past in unclear, and this is understandable when one undergoes frequent, continuous and drastic change, in “emigration”, in “childhood”. The course of adapting to a cultural shock and unknown district are pivotal to the poem as it is the root of regretting lost origin.
Parallelism and repetition is used to stress this longing for an origin. Lost “origin” in this poem is described as a lost “river, culture, speech, sense of first space and the right place” and more than that. This is the climax of the poem, and parallelism adds power to the language as one loss after another accumulates. It has ever more momentum when one parallel comes after another. The poet’s past is forgotten and sense of identity is altered when in the process of conforming to one’s new country you “forget, or don’t recall, or change”.
From this first line of the stanza parallelism builds up to the climax. Parallelism is also used in the beginning of the poem to the same effect, when the child thinks back to her home as “the city, the street, the house, the vacant rooms”. We can see the same accumulation of precision, power and intensity. Repetition sharply points out the main theme of origin as well. One of her brothers bawls for “Home, home,” on their journey.
The poet as a child also asked for “our own country” in last line of the second stanza, corresponding to the first line when she and her family “came from our own country”. Other than parallelism and repetition, imagery is a major technique. In the shock and distress of being a new immigrant, the imagery used in this poem makes the reader uncomfortable and disturbed. Boys are “eating worms” and her brother is “swallowing a slug”, which represent actions in the new culture that are abnormal, disgusting and unacceptable to the newcomer.
That the poet comes to see them as normal symbolizes the great change in her mindset and principles that she may as well have become a different person. The child’s tongue “shedding its skin like a snake” expresses in an ugly, horrendous way that she learns a new language and loses her accent. The reference to innocent childhood adds repulsiveness to the imagery, when the poet describes her unknowing stuffed toy as a “blind toy” and compares anxiety to “a loose tooth” that “stirred”.
This uncomfortable tone is in line with resentment and reluctance to truly accept her new surroundings. Lastly, this poem demonstrates loose and inconsistent rhythm particularly in the first and third stanza. Alliteration with soft consonants such as “fell through the fields” and “skelf of shame… shedding its skin”, rhyming such as “fields” and “wheels”, “more” and “paw”, “space” and “place” and parallelism all contribute to the natural and slow-paced rhythm of this poem, adding to its nostalgic tone.
In our era of high human mobility and the emergence of the “third culture”, that of people who migrate much and do not have a distinct cultural background, Carol Ann Duffy’s determination to look back on her past, her origin and her identity becomes increasingly relevant. “Originally” calls for reflection on what our origin means to who we are, how our backgrounds make us who we are, and where our past will take us to in the future.