Tuesday 24 August 2010

Carol Ann Duffy

I am having trouble settling to things at the moment so I have been dipping in and out of a pile of books by the bedside. I have been reading 'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams, but very slowly, even though it seems like a good book and the characters are quite engaging. But mainly I have been reading Carol Ann Duffy, and wanted to share a few thoughts before they disappear into the quagmire that is my brain at the moment.

You would have to consider 'Feminine Gospels' a feminist poetry book. It chronicles the experience of women in all it's guises, from witty commentaries on modern existence like 'The woman who shopped' and 'The diet' to the more allegorical 'The map woman'. The one that I really loved from this collection however was 'The laughter of Stafford Girls' High'. This is a 20 page poem that reads more like a short story. It starts with a scribbled note that causes some amusement, that then spreads, first throughout the class and then throughout the entire school, until all the pupils are laughing uncontrollably.

"Five minutes passed in a cauldron of noise.
no one could seem to stop. Each tried holding
her breath or thinking of death or pinching
her thigh, only to catch the eye of a pal,
a crimson, shaking, silent girl, and explode
through the nose in a cackling sneeze."

Despite the stern admonishment of the Head this situation continues for the remainder of the term, with teachers struggling to give what appear to be terribly tedious lessons while their pupils giggle and snigger around them. It is like the ultimate case of mass hysteria, which allows the girls to express their latent, long-represed rebellion:

"... and Diana Kim,
Captain of Sports, jumped on a chair and declared
that if J.J. was no longer Head Girl then no one
would take her place. All for one! someone yelled. And one
for all! Diana Kim opened the window and jumped down
into the snow. With a shriek, Emmeline Belle jumped after her,
followed by cackling Anthea Meg, Melanie Hope, Andrea Lyn,
J.J. herself"

I liked the way the girls all have two names, it makes it feel slightly dated in an 'Enid Blyton' kind of way. We watch as the entire school begins to disintegrate.
This strange new situation and the breakdown of discipline has some surprising repercussions amongst the staff, and their stories are taken up, describing the effect of the laughter on their private lives. This also dates the story as many of the staff seem to be unmarried women. Miss Batt and Miss Fife have been sharing dinner and piano music together for some years, but suddenly:

"... A broken A minor chord stumbled
and died. Miss Fife said that Ludwig could only
have written this piece when he was in love. Miss Batt
pulled Miss Fife by the hair, turning her face around, hearing
her gasp, bending down, kissing her, kissing her, kissing her.
Essays on Cardinal Wolsey lay unmarked on the floor."

Dr Bream, the Head, appears to go crazy, Miss Dunn runs off to climb Everest, Miss Nadimbaba writes poetry and Mrs Mackay just walks away. Thus is the scene at the final assembly:

"And so, Doctor Bream summed up, you girls have laughed this once
great school into the ground. Senora Devises plans to return
to Spain. Cries of iOle! Miss Batt and Miss Fife have resigned.
Wolf whistles. Mrs Prendergast is joining the Theatre Royale.
A round of applause crashed on the boards like surf. The Head stared
at the laughing girls then turned and marched from the stage,
clipped down the polished corridor, banged through the double doors,
crunched down the gravel drive to the Staff Car Park and into her car.
Elvis, shrieked Caroline Joan from the Hall, has left the building."

'The World's Wife' is from 1999 and is another collection about the lives of women. This one has a very strong theme in that all the poems are about 'woman behind the man', telling the story of what it might have been like to live in the shadow of some renown character, or giving a woman's perspective on some of the crap that men seem to have got away with over the centuries. Some of the poems are quite esoteric, I could not tell you what Tiresias or Eurydice are known for, and often assume a knowledge of myths and legends, Mrs Midas and Mrs Sisyphus for example. Only a few are about 'real' people, Mrs Darwin, Anne Hathaway, Queen Herod. 'Mrs Quasimodo' was very sad, who's love for the deformed hunchback is betrayed when he falls for Esmerelda:

"Something had changed,
or never been.
Soon enough
he started to find fault.
Why did I this?
How could I that?
Look at myself.
And in that summer's dregs,
I'd see him
watch the pin-up gypsy
posing with the tourists in the square:
then turn his discontented, mulish eye on me
with no more love than stone."

In the end she gets her own back and destroys his beloved bells:

"I sawed and pulled and hacked.
I wanted silence back.
Get this:
When I was done,
and bloody to the wrist,
I squatted down among the murdered music of the bells
and pissed."

They are all interesting stories, with a wide variety of styles, but always very accessible and with her lovely turns of phrase and use of vocabulary. I think the appeal of the book is the cleverness of the tales, twisting what you think you know and seeing it from another angle, but still great poems, not sacrificing the poetry to the story. Will finish with one that tickled my fancy:-)

Mrs Rip Van Winkle
I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot.

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I'd always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
And he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh, this author looks right up my alley. Thanks for posting!


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