Tag Archives: Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels

Carol Ann Duffy, Feminine Gospels (2002, Picador 2017)

gospels.jpgThis 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;

——————————been there
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:

Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
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.

SWF 2017 Sunday

Just two events on the last day, both being read to.

10 am The Big Read
The Emerging Artist and I have been saddened to watch the Big Read shrink over the years from ninety minutes to an hour, and take place in ever smaller venues, in spite of being dependably booked out. The organisers seem determined to wean us of the pleasure of being read to. This year, as if being prepared for the axe, the Big Read moved to early Sunday morning. What’s more, Annette Shun Wah has disappeared from the hosting chair. Still, the show did go on, the Philharmonia Studio was packed, and Patrick Abboud had plenty of charm as rookie MC.

Desi Anwar kicked off with a reading from her collection of newspaper columns, Being Indonesian. The piece she read was a light essay on the terrible traffic in her home town, Jakarta. She set it up by saying how beautiful Sydney was by comparison, but it wasn’t hard to find parallels.

Anuk Arudpragasam (a strikingly young man initially from Sri Lanka, now based in New York) read from The Story of a Brief Marriage a gruelling account of experiencing shellfire near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Patrick Abboud invited members of the audience to say how the reading made them feel. One woman redeemed the mistake by speaking eloquently about how Australia’s current immigration policy penalises people who seek asylum here having escaped from the kind of experience we’d just heard.

Natalie Haynes (from England) read from The Children of Jocasta. ‘I’m very funny in person,’ she said by way in introduction, ‘but there aren’t many laughs in this book.’ She did explain that the reading included an extremely recondite joke about Linear B. The book tells the Oedipus story, from Jocasta’s point of view, and it certainly starts out grimly, though compellingly written.

The tremendously charismatic Witi Ihimaera read from his childhood memoir Maori Boy, a charming passage about his grandmother’s benign interventions on his first days at Pakeha school. He invited us all to join him in reciting a couple of nursery rhymes that were part of his story, and he ended with a beautiful song in Maori ‘for all grandmothers’.

In the end, though I still lament the smaller venue and shorter time, the greater intimacy allowed for some interesting audience engagement.

Then a big gap including lunch and some time at home, before:

4.30  Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

When I booked for this session, Carol Ann Duffy was advertised as speaking with Sarah Kanowski. What we got was arguably better: a little more than 50 minutes of Carol Ann reading her poetry.

She started out with the two poems she had read at the first event I attended, and it was a little unnerving that she introduced them with the identical patter, including the vacant stare offstage when she told us that Tiresias was punished by the gods by being turned into a woman. Clearly she has done this gig a thousand times before, and Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ are reliable ice-breakers. She followed them up with ‘Mrs Faust’, which she said she will rename ‘The Third Mrs Trump’ for the next edition of The World’s Wife.

Then it got serious, with a series of poems from her book Rapture, each poem representing a moment in a relationship.

Ms Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the UK, and most of the poems she read in the remainder of the session were very UK-specific: ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ (a response to having one of her poems banned because of an examination invigilator; a protest about a directive from the UK Post Office not to name Counties on envelope addresses; a response to the inquest findings about the Hillsborough Inquest. I suppose its reasonable to assume that an Australian audience will recognise these references – we are after all a former colony. But it did rankle a little: I mean, do we really care how people in the UK address their letters? and I’d love to know how many people felt the need to Google Hillsborough after the event.

All the same, when she read the poem ‘Prayer’, dedicating it to her home town of Manchester. all was forgiven.

And my Festival was over. The theme of ‘Refuge’ didn’t have much bearing on my experience. Of all the fellow-punters I talked to, none had been to the same events as I had, so I don’t think I can comment on the festival as a whole. I missed the PEN chairs, which in past years have sat empty at the edge of the stage representing a writer in prison somewhere in the world. I wish the Acknowledgements of Country had happened more consistently, and that chairs from abroad or out of Sydney had been encouraged to learn to pronounce ‘Gadigal’ and ‘Eora’. I would prefer overseas guests to be interviewed or moderated by locals so the audience isn’t left eavesdropping on people who don’t necessarily share our concerns. I hope the festival can stay at Walsh Bay. I’ve come away with a list of books to read, and look forward to listening over the next year to more than a hundred podcasts of sessions I missed.

SWF 2017 Thursday

It was T-shirt weather for my first day of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. The crowds and queues were big enough to create a buzz without  inducing panic. Having collected my tickets for the next five days I started out with a free event in the early afternoon:

1.30 And the Award Goes to…

This is a regular event showcasing winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Not all of them, of course: this year’s it was Heather Rose, who won the Christina Stead prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, and James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe, who won the Ethel Turner Prize for their A Thousand Hills. Suzanne Leal, the Senior Judge of the Awards, chaired.

Heather Rose spoke of the advantages of obscurity: The Museum is her seventh novel, all the others having been published to little acclaim. Add that she lives in Tasmania, and she has been able to write as she wants, without having to meet someone else’s marketing or other agenda. She said she wrote this novel as a love letter to women in art, who do marvellous work and then are sidelined by art historians. Marina Abramovich, whose performance piece The Artist Is Present is central to the book, became famous when the novel was well under way, and her new celebrity meant significant changes in the book: if I heard properly, at that stage the character in the novel had to be Marina herself rather than a fictional Marina-like character.

James Roy had a different take on obscurity. He opened with something he would have liked to say at the awards ceremony but realised it would have been graceless: even though he has been well supported and has won substantial prizes, he knew on Sunday night that if he won the award on Monday night, he would still have to turn up for his job in retail on Tuesday morning. (Suzanne Leal interjected that she had recently interviewed some women who had collaborated on a writing project because they wanted to earn a lot of money – cue disbelieving laughter.)

Noël Zihabamwe’s own story is similar to that of the book’s hero – both lost their families in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. So for him the writing was an intense experience. He told us that one effect of having the book published was to feel that he was acknowledged: ‘I’m not nothing. I’m something.’ He read from the book, and the conversation addressed the big question, how to write about such a monstrous event and keep some sense of hope.

All four people on the stage were warm, open, smart. James Roy did a nice favour to those of us who couldn’t be at the awards ceremony. He quoted a number of times from Joanna Murray-Smith’s address. An image that resonated with him and, he thought, with every writer, is that every work begins as a tiny burning wick, which if you persevere expands until it lights up all the corners of the room. I think it’s fair to say that the Sydney Dance 2 was lit up by these four luminaries.

I sat next to a young man who arrived clutching a copy of Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (which won Book of the Year). I asked if he’d seen the play at Belvoir Street. No, but he had seen the archive video – evidently you can contact the Belvoir and arrange a time to see the archive version of any of their productions. How good is that bit of incidental learning?

3 pm: Poetry and Performance
Poetry has moved up the status chain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This event didn’t happen in the tiny sun-drenched mezzanine room at the end of the wharf that we have been accustomed to, but in the main theatre across the road with more than ten times the capacity. And it wasn’t free.

But maybe of course it’s not poetry as such that’s moved up. Maybe today’s crowd was drawn by clickbait titles like Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind,  or fusses about menstrual images on Instagram, or the prestige of poet laureateship, or other forms of cool, rather than the art of purifying the language. Whatever, this was a terrific event. In order of appearance:

  • Miles Merrill, who has done more than anyone to foster spoke word in Australia, emceed, opening proceedings with some of his trademark mouth noises, which he told us was a work called ‘Some poems can’t be written down’
  • Carol Ann Duffy, proving that a UK poet laureate can be fun, read from a lectern at the side of the stage  from her collection The World’s Wife. The witty, acerbic narratives of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ were perfect for the occasion. ‘Mrs Tiresias’, a monologue by the wife of Tiresias, a man who was turned into a woman for seven years, lightly challenges some modern pieties about gender fluidity.
  • Hera Lindsay Bird (who wrote the aforementioned clickbait) walked to centre stage and read a number of poems, including one that revolved around her dislike for the character Monica in the TV sitcom Friends. So pop culture reference, frequent use of the work ‘fuck’, and a preoccupation with relationships: not my cup of tea.
  • Canadian Ivan Coyote started out by saying, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m a story teller,’ and read us a number of ‘Doritos’, which would certainly pass for poems. Most of them dealt with other people’s struggle with Coyote’s challenge to seeing people in terms of  gender binaries. I loved the moment when a small child, told by his mother to stop bothering (her) Coyote, looked long and steady ito COyote’s eyes and said,  ‘I don’t think he’s a lady. I think he’s a man, but with pretty eyes.’
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann took things to a different place: she began with an acknowledgement of country, reminded us that this is the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, and said that more Aboriginal children have been removed from their parents in recent years than ever before in Australian history. Having grabbed our attention, she then held it with poems from a number of her books, including the marvellous Inside My Mother.
  • Rupi Kaur (who has been the subject of a big fuss on Instagram) read some poems and then performed a couple of spoken word pieces. I think I would have preferred to hear her (and Hera Lindsay Bird) at a spoken word event, where audience response is so much part of things. No clicking of foot-stamping or voting here, so lines like  ‘I want to apologise to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave’ end up sounding a little glibly correct-line.

Even if people came for the sexy controversy, they got poetry, and a fabulous variety of it.

Then I got to sit in the sun and read, occasionally chatting to passing strangers (including one man who had been to school with Tom Keneally), and back to the big theatre a bit later for:

6.30 pm The Politics of Fear
David Marr and John Safran chatted with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black about Pauline Hanson’s followers and Australia’s extreme right. Sophie introduced them by saying they would join the dots between those two groups, but not a lot of dot-joining happened, or really was needed.

David Marr spoke to his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, and John Safran to his Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Both were interesting and insightful, and at times surprising. It was an excellent conversation, an I left it wondering if there isn’t something futile about too much close reading of the far right, with the end message that even though these people are a small minority they wield a lot of power because of the way our electoral system works. As David Marr said towards the end, the vast majority of Australians – including most Hanson followers – think same-sex marriage and euthanasia should be legalised and penalty rates should stay in place, but governments simply won’t or can’t follow the clear will of the people. It took one of the questioners at the end to ask what is to be done, and the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying.

So we went home glad we’d been but a little disgruhntled through the final run-throughs of a number of Vivid installations (opening the next night).

Picture book for grown ups

Jenny Joseph and Pythia Ashton-Jewell (illustrator),  Warning : When I am an old woman I shall wear purple (poem © 1962, this edition Souvenir Press 1997)

0285634119I was mooching a book from someone in England, and they wanted me to take more than one book to make it worth their while. They had this illustrated Warning on their inventory. It’s a poem I’ve seen on feminist fridges for more than 30 years, so I added it to my list. I had it in mind to give to someone as a gift, but by the time it arrived – by surface mail – yesterday I’d forgotten who. So I gave it to the self-described poetry loather I live with.

She read it, said it had more in it than she remembered, and read it to me. Helped by the layout – one or occasionally two lines a page – she read it beautifully, slowly, thoughtfully. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that Jenny Joseph has said she wishes she’d never written the bl*dy thing. Certainly she’s famous for issuing take-down notices when her many fans put it up on their sites without thinking to ask. But it’s a good poem.

There’s a lot to be said for publishing poems with illustration. This is something I had used to agonise over when publishing a children’s magazine. By presenting poems with illustration were we straitening the readers’ responses, telling them how to read the poem rather than giving the words free play? It made the page more inviting, but at what expense?

I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that make me think there should be much more of it.

When Carol Ann Duffy was recently appointed Poet Laureate, I came across an animation of  one of her poems, and though I found the animation not at all to my taste, or a fair reflection of the poem, it slowed my reading down, and let the poem sink in – it’s a good poem. I’ve just found it on YouTube.

A couple of years ago, I was very taken with the Poetry Foundation’s sadly brief series Poem as Comic Strip, which similarly slowed the brain down to receptive speed. I particularly liked the Emily Dickinson–Gabrielle Bell page (this link is to a 580k PDF). See what you think.