Frost Fair is a tiny book, about 4in x 4in, and might be alighted upon as a stocking filler, though, unlike most stocking fillers, it will surely survive Christmas Day.
It is tempting to take Carol Ann Duffy for granted, in rather the same way that Joyce Carol Oates is sometimes undervalued because of her productivity. But reading this small, icy, perfectly formed book – a ballad, a winter’s tale – one is reminded of Duffy’s consistent excellence. And here she is supported by David de las Heras’s understatedly graceful illustrations. A solitary figure in rusty red walks through a sepia world of snow, flanked by feathery poplars. The ballad begins as an ordinary yarn: “So cold it was –” and then after you turn the page, becomes a singular story:
by late December, ink had frosted
in its well; my breath was tinkling
on my lips, so everything I saw to tell
I had to memorise. I saw birds
fall from trees, too stiff to fly, like stones.
I saw a lass, her tongue stuck to a spoon.
I saw an ice-hare staring lifeless at no moon.
The image of the frozen ink beguiles. The cold means the suspending of normal services for the imagined poet. Duffy’s own ability to take us into a place of the past – London in the “Great Winter” of 1683 – with minimum fuss is masterly and the detail of the tongue stuck to a spoon shows we are on no ordinary path. What a pity Heras’s hare does not qualify as lifeless – he looks hale, furrily kempt, ready to run.
Duffy is a curator of cold, and her penetrating transformations continue as if in a winter exhibition: “Men’s tears were jewels in their beards for wives to pluck.” The poem is rooted in London and involves a walk from Spitalfields in which our “poet-spy” is disguised as a boy – the gentle cross-dressing further enlivening the atmosphere. The poet spies St Paul’s Cathedral.
I found this line: “London was snow. St Paul’s, a talent of the snow/ to seem more grand” a bit odd – the “talent” top-heavy – but I loved the roll, a line or two later, of: “I saw a clock too cold to tell the time”. It rings out even if the clock doesn’t. And there is a shivery moment (perhaps looking centuries ahead) when she writes:
I mused on climate – how it could clench
the greatest city in its bitter fist
Later, comes a fleeting moment of romance:
I met a wench who thought I was a man,
or didn’t care, and stole a salty kiss.
I’ve never seen her since.
In lesser hands, a ballad of this kind might fall into repro folksiness, but Duffy knows how and where to let contemporary language ventilate the verse (“Trees went to pieces; cracked”). The rhymes are assured – and sometimes beautiful:
… beside a bawd whose eyes were hard as gems.
My mouth as wide as one at Bethlehem’s.
Bethlehem feels momentarily unlikely and then inevitable. The characters she describes share a strangeness and are never hackneyed. And she knows how to change tone at the end, without strain, to a final vision – a gift to us:
alighted, swerving on the blazing glaze,
then flew, creaking, away. I spoke a prayer.
I saw my words freeze on the air
and hang, preserved, to thaw now in your ear.
• Frost Fair by Carol Ann Duffy (illustrations by David de las Heras) is published by Picador (£7.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15