Before You Were Mine is a kind of time travel poem. It begins ten years before Duffy is born. She imagines her mother then, before you were mine – and evokes an image of what her mother might have been like as a teenager.
She imagines her stood on the street corner with her friends, shrieking with laughter. They are out for the night, dressed up and having fun. Duffy visualises her mother wearing a polka dot dress, and compares her to the famous image of Marilyn Monroe, standing above a subway vent with her skirt blowing in the air.
This is a romantic and a very flattering image. But Monroe was also a controversial figure. The comparison shows that Duffy imagines her mother to be beautiful, and like a film star. But she also sees her as rebellious and free spirited. We see that rebelliousness again when her mother gets home, and gets a good hiding for being late. But she reckons its worth the pain. This creates the impression her mother was someone determined and in love with life, not willing to be cowed or to conform.
Duffy paints a picture full of life and energy with active verbs – shrieks, blows, laugh – which show her mother’s energy. She is surrounded by friends, and intimate and close to them, holding each other. The second section of the poem continues to develop that idea, showing Duffy’s mother imagining an exciting and glamorous future for herself, the fizzy movie tomorrows. Duffy continues to romanticise her mother, I knew you would dance like that.
At the beginning of the third section Duffy pretends to speak directly to her mother, using a rhetorical question. She implies that her mother was happiest before she had a child. Duffy sees herself as a possessive and demanding child, a noisy presence that changed her mother’s life. Now she would not be able to fulfil her dreams of being a film star, but her time would be taken up with childcare.
The red shoes are a relic of that time before Duffy came along. Duffy knew about them, and played with them as a child. She imagines her mother as she was then, seeing her as a ghost, and uses images of the sound and smell to bring her alive in our imagination, drawing our attention to these descriptions by using alliteration. She is clattering and clear as scent.
There are also visual images of the love bites on her neck, with the teasing suggestion that Duffy’s mother was both popular with the boys, but also perhaps quite free with her favours! Duffy does not criticise her for this but speaks to her as an intimate friend, sweetheart, viewing her mother’s behaviour with a kind of forgiving and loving indulgence. They had a loving relationship. Her mother taught her to dance, and let her play with her dancing shoes. They were intimate and close.
But Duffy wishes she had known her mother in her youth. She loves her as she imagines her then, the glamorous and beautiful girl who she associates with stars and who sparkles and waltzes. A young girl full of life and energy before she was changed by the birth of her child.
A great poem to compare with Simon Armitage’s Mother Any Distance