Close and Family Affairs

Compare the ways in which Carol Ann Duffy and Elizabeth Jennings present intimate personal relationships under strain in the poems Close and Family Affairs. Andrew Kidd The two poems depict relationships under strain, and while of the same genre, the form, structure and language of the poems differ. In Close, Duffy reveals the dominance of a former partner (“You have me like a drawing… “) and hints at the clandestine nature of the relationship, through various references to darkness (“In the dark journey of our night,”) and the mention of “a hired room”.

The ambiguity of the title supports the uncertainty of the relationship: does it refer to the “close” of a relationship, or actual closeness? Jennings describes a relationship with a female family member which has become lost to “indifference”. Both show strained yet intimate connections: one is romantic, tainted by instability and a partner’s controlling influence, while the other is familial and has become strained by an emotional distance that has grown.

The language employed in Family Affairs creates an image of two women, bound by blood, but emotionally separated; the simile, “as fussy women stitch at cotton” evokes a very feminine picture, and the metaphor “umbilical cord long” gives a maternal feel to the relationship. Prepositional phrases (“too far”, “further than”) serve to reinforce the theme of distance and separation, as does the semantic field of unconnectedness in the final stanza (“untie”, “bonds”, “unconnected”, “sever”).

Duffy, similarly, uses a semantic field of uncertainty and dreariness (“dark”, “lost”, “pity”, “ache”, “black”, “blind”) to build an atmosphere than envelops the description of her relationship. The coin in line 13 could be a symbol for her own lack of certainty (“How the hell / can I win. How can I lose. “), or a symbol of fate/chance in the relationship, which neither her nor her partner can control. In Family Affairs there are no concrete symbols, but instead, the figurative language and imagery highlight emotional distance – an abstract concept itself.

Metaphors such as “the end of summer” show the state of the connection. This metaphor, I feel, shows the disintegration of the relationship – the shift from the heat of summer to the coldness of winter: the coldness the personified “Indifference lays… on the heart”. Jennings clarifies in the next line that the “end of summer” is actually a “climate of mind”. The image of coldness is juxtaposed with a semantic field of anger and heat (“summer”, “wrath”, “blaze, “violence”, “anger”, “warm”), which stresses the poet’s view that even violence is better than indifference in a family.

This seems strange, yet it poignantly illustrates Jennings’s attitude that “quarrels” and “violence” lie at the heart of family life, and some turbulence is essential to keep a sense of togetherness and perhaps normality. Turbulence is too, conveyed in Close, not only through a series of imperatives (“Undress”, “Dress again”, “Undress”) but the very form of the poem: free verse. The rhyme and meter are not consistent, like the relationship portrayed. The form used by Jennings, is indeed, more traditional.

She makes use of iambic pentameter and rhyme to signify, I believe, the link between herself and the other family member: like the rhyme and meter they are bound. The alliterative “bonds of birth” emphasises this image, and in itself it strengthens the notion of being bound. Both poems make use of structural devices but to disparate effects. Enjambement runs throughout Close, which in my opinion creates a sense of the poet’s confusion; lines frequently end in the middle, then continue on to the next line in a disjointed manner.

Some may interpret this enjambement as representing the rush of feelings in the relationship or as supplementary to the unstable, perturbed atmosphere. I feel it is representative of the poet’s confused thoughts. This device is also employed in Jennings’s poem, reflecting disconnection in the relationship through structure (“Unconnected by / The blood we share? “). Foregrounding is another device shared between the poems. Duffy uses foregrounding to place focus on a specific thought, “can I win”, drawing emphasis on a sense of hopelessness; short sentences also add to the hopeless aura of her indecisive state.

Likewise, in Family Affairs, foregrouding occurs (“Out of Pure wrath. “) to draw emphasis on the extent of the anger between the two women. The capitalization of the lexeme “Pure” stresses the undiluted and powerful nature of this anger. The setting of Close is a bedroom. This, or so I feel, shows the personal essence of the relationship, and the privateness of the liaison; the “two childhoods” could be a metaphor for the past selves of the lovers, and their presence in the bedroom exemplifies the invasiveness of the past, which has intruded into this very personal space.

Family Affairs does not have a setting, which is unusual. Perhaps this is because the poem deals with emotion and abstraction, predominantly, as shown through the highly figurative language. The distance in the poem certainly seems more emotional than physical. Despite this both poems contain a first person narrative, which makes the reader feel involved in the revelation of the poet’s thoughts.

Duffy uses the personal pronoun “you” to directly address her lover, which coupled with the present tense, engenders a feel of immediacy, as though the reader is a first-hand witness. Similarly, Jenning’s uses the personal pronoun “we” to directly address her family member, which has a very inclusive effect, fortifying the mentioned bond; yet unlike Duffy, Jennings’s narrative is much calmer and organised, which I believe may tell us that the separation is far from recent, for she has had time to contemplate it and organise her own feelings.

Both narratives are effective in depicting the strain in the relationships. Close, like Family Affairs, contains a powerful bond, though it is something very sexual and dominated by one partner. “Signed by your tongue” is the most patently sexual line in the poem, and it sets the tone of the relationship. Moreover, the use of the lexeme “signed” implies ownership – a bond – almost certain to result in strain due to the unequal balance of power.

While the poem is very sexualised, Duffy persists “Love won’t give in. ” As has been discussed, the bond in Family Affairs is familial, though whether it is between a mother and daughter or between sisters is ambiguous. Femaleness definitely pervades the poem. The past, too, has purport to both pieces: in Family Affairs it is because of past action, or more accurately ‘inaction’, that the relationship has reached a stage of apathy.

In Close the past is seen as something inescapable (“The ghosts of ourselves behind and before us, throng in a mirror”) which has not only shaped the current situation, but will continue to shape everything – ever-present in her personal life as the childhood in the bedroom. The inability to be open, domination and the past are all contributing factors to strain in Close; Family Affairs uses the notion of distance to show how strained the intimate family bond has become, like an elastic band that has been stretched to its limits. The two poems convey these feelings exceptionally well.