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A Wee Dram of History
January/February 2012

In her new collection, The Bees (Picador, £14.99), her first since becoming Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy is unabashedly bibulous, and all the better for it. She is tipsy not only on "John Barleycorn", the title of a rollicking ballade (one of her finest), but on words themselves. She celebrates bees, those emblematic insects, but her bees are also words themselves, "brazen, blurs on paper,/besotted". Names too enchant her, as "John Barleycorn" makes plain in its loving litany of pubs:

Britain's soul, as the crow flies so flew he.
I saw him in the Hollybush, the Yew Tree,
the Royal Oak, the Ivy Bush, the Linden.
I saw him in the Forester, the Woodman.
He history, I saw him in the Wellington, the Nelson,
Greyfriars Bobby, Wicked Lady, Bishop's Finger.
I saw him in the Ship, the Golden Fleece, the Flask,
the Railway Inn, the Robin Hood and Little John,
my green man, legend strong, re-born, John Barleycorn.

Whiskey-fuelled history has never been so merrily celebrated. But in "Drams", a delicate sequence of haikus, she carries this enchantment deeper, into the very loam and heather of the land whence a good dram is distilled:

Barley, water, peat,
weather, landscape, history;
malted, swallowed neat.

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