Empty Nest: Poems for Families, edited by Carol Ann Duffy review – the agony of absence

Fathers, mothers and grownup children reflect on leaving home and the ‘dance between closeness and distance’ in an outstanding anthology

This is not, as is the usual rule of this column, a collection but an outstanding anthology in which fathers, mothers and grownup children speak of themselves and, sometimes, to one another. A new form of homesickness is identified in which it is home itself that sickens. In the poem from which the anthology gets its title, Carol Ann Duffy suggests that her house “pines” when her daughter is away. Gabriel Griffin in Alone describes his home’s echoing uncanniness, a “golden hum in the house now they’ve gone”, and Sharon Olds registers a “strange quiet” in her wildcard of a poem Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil in which even her daughter’s thankless gerbils have died.

A child must be allowed to grow up and leave. Several poems describe a retreating back view, more telling than any organised face of farewell. Cecil Day-Lewis sees this early on in Walking Away, dedicated to his son Sean, whom he describes “walking away from me towards the school/With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free…” Sometimes, it is the parent whose back is turned. In Eavan Boland’s The Necessity for Irony (and what a maestro at understanding family she was), this is a cause of regret. She remembers visiting antique fairs with her flame-haired 12-year-old:

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