Carol Ann Duffy situates her poem in an ordinary place: the toilet! This sets up a paradox for the internal monologue of the speaker as she turns the female skull around in her hands trying to recognise herself in it.
The very process of balancing the skull and exploring its messages generates the poem itself- as in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. The process of creation and the fragility of life are presented.
The intimacy of this connection with the ‘small female skull’ is palpable. The verb ‘balance’ acts as a tender, anchor , suggestive of the precariousness of the skull’s situation in the speaker’s hand as well as the transience of life. For the poem seems to be unsurprisingly about mortality and the way we need to take greater care of ourselves.
As in so much of Duffy’s work, the idea of the ‘breath’ comes up. We are so often aware of the ‘pulse’ of life in a Duffy poem, a pulse which maintains the rhythm of the poet’s thinking and which changes as the poem approaches its finale. Being out of breath as in Wilfred Owen’s war poetry is synonymous with suffocation and extinction. In some poems of Duffy, the poet draws our attention to breathing reinforcing idea of resurrection. In Duffy’s poem here, the breath through the holes of the skull are without effect. The hollowness of the skull even a reflection of the hollowness of any avowal of ‘love’. For everything according to the atheist Duffy, yields to the emptiness of this residue of life; namely the skull itself.’Papery bone’ All our ‘weight’ of living through thoughts, aspirations and memories become this… Cheery eh?
After initially externalising a reflective process about mortality, Carol Ann Duffy allows the poem to slip between external and internal focus. The skull far from being ‘without’ becomes the within. Why after all is the speaker seemingly stranded alone on a toilet? What or who is she seeking refuge from? And why the reference to the ‘scar’ gained through ‘love’ and ‘treacherous stairs’? Grief has destabilised the speaker perhaps and the stairs may be a metaphor for a fall from love, or alternatively a ‘fall’ from childhood innocence perhaps? For it is quite possible that the stairs are the stairs of life..so that the ‘fall’ is a metaphor and thus the ‘braille’ represents the human urge to make sense of life?
Is life a search of a meaningful dialogue which may never arrive or which remains a conversation finally spoken in a ‘white room’ with death itself? All our grandiose ‘grand words’ become erased, or deemed ‘crazy’ by others, emphasising the essential solitariness of existence.
The final image is one of infinite tenderness to self/other and conveys the infinite fragility of life!! – YOLO