This is the second poetry collection that I have reviewed this year, The World’s Wife was chosen by one of my two book groups as our May book. I already knew that I really liked Carol Ann Duffy’s work, although I hadn’t really read that much before – and never an entire collection in one go. This collection, first published in 1999 was Carol Ann Duffy’s first themed collection. In these wonderful poems Carol Ann Duffy takes traditional stories, tales of historical figures and myths which traditionally focus on a male character or perspective. Turning these stories on their head then, we see them from the perspective of the invisible women behind those men.
“Teach me, he said –
we were lying in bed –
how to care.
I nibbled the purse of his ear.
What do you mean? Tell me more.
He sat up and reached for his beer”
Duffy plays around a little with these stories with clever little twists and turns. Some of the poems tell a recognisable story from history that we think we know already, but from the perspective of the woman in that man’s life – as in the poems Mrs Quasimodo and Mrs Aesop. While other poems turn the male characters and their stories into stories of women as in the poem Mrs Krays. In the opening poem – and one of my favourites, Duffy changes the message of the original story of Little Riding Hood in her poem Little Red Cap. Here the woods represent the transition out of childhood, as Little Red Cap falls in love with the wolf, later taking revenge and using her experience of him as guidance for the rest of her life. I have read that the poem is also viewed as an autobiographical account of Carol Ann Duffy’s relationship with the poet Adrian Henri. I particularly loved the imagery in this poem, the streets of childhood, factories and allotments giving way to the unknown woods of an unexplored adult world.
“At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
into playing fields, the factory, allotments
kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men,
the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan,
till you came at last to the edge of the woods.
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw,
red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me,
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,”
(From Little Red Cap)
These poems written very much from a feminist perspective cover such themes as birth, bereavement, sexism and equality. In this collection female characters are able to speak out for themselves no longer silenced by male dominance. A number of the poems remain set in their original historical period, while others are given an updated modern setting. Duffy also shows flashes of brilliant humour such as in Mrs Icarus.
“I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.”
In her poem Anne Hathaway Duffy was apparently inspired by the passage in William Shakespeare’s will which refers to his second best bed – this according to Duffy would have been the couple’s marriage bed – the bed not reserved for guests. The poem, a sonnet is a celebration of their love. This is a gently flowing poem, the language and imagery perfect and in a way a little Shakespearean, reminding us of Hamlet, The Tempest and other great works.
“The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where he would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
A page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, our best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.
There is in fact so much to explore in this collection, so much to think about there are some quite complex and even controversial ideas in these superb poems, some of which I suppose are more accessible than others, though I found them all very readable and could have easily quoted far more than I have.