World Book Night is here at last and my choice of a book to give and made after a great deal of deliberation, The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. I've bought enough copies of this one over the years for friends so I'm quite pleased to now have forty eight to give away. I've collected my box of books and was mightily relieved to find them safe and sensibly sealed in plastic inside the box, so any left out to the mercy of the weather around the country should be fine.
Thank you for all your kind words about the radio programme and forgive any repetition but I did want to record my thoughts on The World's Wife for posterity here too because my mind was teeming with them.
As I know I've mentioned here before, I'm back with poetry big-time again now after a few years of a bit of an indifferent slouchy sloth-like approach induced by too much in-depth study. Whilst the studying revealed many poets to me in a new and enlightened way and I felt sure I would come to love them one day, all that sitting on the edge of my chair at 2am trying to write an essay, frantically searching out meaning and metaphor, rhyme, half rhyme etc, and knowing I had to be up early for work the next day, was all the kiss of death for poetry pleasure for me. But there were exceptions and The World's Wife was a notable one.
If, as Seamus Heaney suggests, poetry is about glimpses of the alternatives and re-dressing the balance then I can think of no better assessment of The World's Wife, because over the years I have come to appreciate the nuances of each poem in this little book since I first bought it in 1999. It is the invisible woman made visible, history told through the eyes of the women who were most certainly looking on, and how many times have I wandered around an art gallery taking in those great big murals of significant historical events and wondered how a woman artist may have painted them differently? Of course they were busy painting flowers, a historical narrative painting considered far too difficult and demanding, but in a way to read this collection is to partially assuage that need. And how much I am enjoying Carol Ann Duffy's tenure as our first female Laureate in 314 years already; knowing that whilst she won't be feeling compelled to write to order but as the spirit moves her, but that when it does we will get a woman's point of view, witness David Beckham's achilles injury... we should probably be thankful it wasn't his metatarsal again... Carol Ann Duffy wouldn't have baulked at the obvious rhymes there I'll bet.
The poems here are fearlessly wry and witty, playfully subversive, deeply intelligent, emotional and so much more. Ostensibly this is the arc of women's lives told using fairy tale, myth, biblical allusions, literature and film, and as Tom Watt said on the programme (I wanted to hug him at this point but microphones in the way) it is much more than feminism or a diatribe against men, it is, as Carol Ann Duffy says, about ways of being human. These are poems about jealousy, joy, grief and loss,(Mrs Lazarus) love that heals (Delilah) love that transcends all barriers ( Mrs Tiresias) about abuse and boredom (Mrs Aesop) about falling in love with the wrong person, about protecting our children,(Queen Herod) about being careful what you wish for,(Mrs Midas) ageing,(Mrs Rip Van Winkle) or creativity (Penelope).
Reading The World's Wife again in readiness for the programme I was struck by the gift that poetry has now become for me, how much I enjoy fewer words telling me more... and telling me even more every time I revisit them, and what a great choice this was for me to be giving on World Book Night. There is an element of The Gift involved in this whole scheme and whilst the plan is also for the receivers to pass the book on, I'm hoping that this will be a book people will want to keep a copy of and perhaps buy copies for friends, because I know it has taken me years to unwrap it all and there are still a few poems here that I have yet to really appreciate fully. I think it might also be an age thing, these poems say different things to me at different times in my life and clearly Carol Ann Duffy sees them as a personal progression reflecting her own life path too.
There is a really excellent transcript of a conversation with Carol Ann Duffy here which has offered me welcome insights into the poems including that sense of a notorious event seeping into childhood consciousness and somehow betraying the innocence that once was. Reading The Devil's Wife in that light, and knowing that it is a sequence of poems about the Moors Murders and quite how Myra Hindley became possessed by Ian Brady, makes for very salutory reading indeed.
But as I said on the programme, for all that I love the poems like Elvis's Sister ...did you know Elvis was one of twins boys, the other, Jessie, died at birth, but Carol Ann Duffy reinvents that twin as a sister, now a nun living in a 'Graceland' of her own ...or The Kray Sisters busy patrolling their manor and keeping things in nice order until finally it's time for Sinatra to sing for them...except don't expect it to be Frank singing My Way...no indeed Nancy had a song much better suited to the sisters....
....for all that I love those, I still love to turn the final page of this book and read Demeter , the poem I was fortunate enough to be able to read out on the programme. So much mythology and poetic depth to interpret here, this poem could go in as many directions as there are readers but isn't that the joy of poetry?
I read it and am always reminded of that moment when I too looked down on my newborn daughter's 'small shy mouth of a new moon'.
Where I lived – winter and hard earth.
I sat in my cold stone room
choosing tough words, granite, flint,
to break the ice. My broken heart –
I tried that, but it skimmed,
flat, over the frozen lake.
She came from a long, long way,
but I saw her at last, walking,
my daughter, my girl, across the fields,
in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers
to her mother’s house. I swear
the air softened and warmed as she moved,
the blue sky smiling, none too soon
with the small shy mouth of a new moon
Please scroll down for World Book Night gifts... as if I'd forget all of you on such a special day of bookish celebration.