Carol Ann Duffy, Feminine Gospels (2002, Picador 2017)
This book is on the curriculum in UK schools, and that is definitely a good thing: its wholehearted focus on female experience is a welcome corrective to the existing gender imbalance. The surreal, shaggy-dog story form of most of the poems – a shopping woman accumulates huge quantities of stuff, goes broke and eventually metamorphoses into a shop; a character named Beauty becomes a series of celebrated women, from Helen of Troy to Diana Spencer; one girl’s unstoppable giggling in class infects the whole school, leading eventually to the school closing its doors as all its teachers leave to follow their dreams – provides plenty of scope for classroom dissection and discussion. And there’s much joy to be had in the way the words sound and work on the page.
I’d better give a warning to any students who stumble on my blog looking for help with an assignment. I’m a seventy-something man from Australia who likes to read and to write something about everything I read. I would probably fail the A Levels.
I’ll stick to my rules and single out just one poem. There is handful of wonderful, memorable and readily memorisable lyrics at the end of the book, of which I especially liked the love poem ‘White Writing’ and the elegiac ‘Death and the Moon’. But the poem that struck me most forcefully on second reading is ‘History’, not actually a tall-story poem, but a close relative. You can read the whole thing here – it’s not long.
The poem begins with a picture of an old woman ‘not a tooth / in her head, half dead … smelling of pee’. who is a personification of History. There follows a list of events she has witnessed, and from a particular Eurocentric/Christian sample of world history:
She’d seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;
——————————witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name
I love ‘the air of Rome / turned into stone’ as a way of capturing the transformation of the fluid, liberatory Jesus movement into a hard, authoritarian institution, and then the way that transformation segues to the wars and crusades.
There’s a bit of a leap in the next bit:
Babi Yar, Vietnam.
These are not crusades, three of them aren’t even wars. Bannockburn (1314) was an important victory against the English for Duffy’s native Scotland, and the rest are emblematic moments of violence in the 20th century: the battle of Passchendaele (1917) of the First World War (and incidentally the subject of Paul Ham’s book that won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction this year); the massacre of Babi Yar (1941), the Second World War and the Holocaust; and the Vietnam War (1955–1975), known in Vietnam as the American War, a dominating feature of the first 20 years of Duffy’s life. If the poem had been written a few years later, it might well have included George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the rise of Isis.
The slide from religion to mass violence is then repeated in the next section, this time in relation to the suffering of individuals: the old woman has witnessed the deaths of martyrs and of murderers, and then ‘the dictator strutting on stuttering film’. Finally, in a heartbreaking return to the Holocaust, she has seen
——————————how the children waved
their little hands from the trains.
So far, so rich in possibilities for classroom explication and discussion! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Then the poem ends like this, and it’s the ending that makes me love it:
—————————————————-She woke again,
cold, in the dark,
——————————in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.
So far, History has been imagined as a feeble, weary old woman, worn down by the burden of witnessing the horrors of the Christian era, and especially of the twentieth century. The reader thinks he (in my case) gets it. But now it turns out it’s more than that: she is being actively harassed and humiliated. It’s hard to pin these final lines down to a specific allegorical meaning. The old woman is a personification of History, but who are the thugs who are attacking her, and what is signified by the bell, the graffiti and the shit through the letterbox? In a way it doesn’t matter: the sudden, visceral power of the final image takes the poem to a whole different level.* It’s no longer asking for polite applause, but doing what we always hope poetry will do, changing the way we see and feel about the world, or at least helping us to see and feel with more clarity and precision. It makes me want to leap up and shout, ‘That’s what the Trumps and Duttons and Bolts and Devines and Kennys are doing with their lies and half-truths: they ring History’s doorbell and run away before she can answer. And they shove shit through her letterbox!’
Thanks, Carol Ann.
* This could be an idiosyncratic response on my part, due to my mother-in-law having dog shit pushed into her letterbox during the American/Vietnam war. But it is my response.