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ISSUE 11

THE WORLD'S WIFE by Carol Ann Duffy. Picador. ISBN 0-330-37221-1. £10.

Carol Duffy's best work is her love poetry, as more than one correspondent has pointed out in the course of their responses to the piece on her in Penniless Press 10. The rest, one respondent wrote, the stuff for which she has become famous and which goes down well with audiences is vaudeville stuff. This is what is presented here, with a few exceptions. The journalists, as you'd expect with such a high-profile writer, have been kind to this collection. Some of the praise has been typically fulsome, with that thoughtless fulsomeness of the sycophantic scribbler looking for a hook. One or two comments have been made about the weaker pieces, the silly little non-poem about Darwin, for example, which is just a cheap attempt at a laugh and falls flat. But the real weakness lies in the conceit: done once, it might work, but repeated over and over in a themed collection it destroys surprise, embeds predictability and flatters the reader's sense of expectation.  

It was Christopher Lasch, author of the splendid Women and the Common Life, who pointed out that feminism, in its attempt to rid women of the role of victim and shrew, had made them ever more shrewish in their daily encounters with men. The descent of the noble and long-needed attempt of the best feminists to establish relations between men and women on a footing of mature equality, into a culture of adolescent put-downs where the ancient disdain of men for woman, product of their fear and lack of insight, becomes an equally wearying disdain of women for men, is a tragi-comic spectacle which brings to mind Peguy's adage that tout commence en mystique, tout finit en politique This collection partakes, jokily, of that decline. Duffy doesn't hate men, but she is uncomfortable with the fact of sexual difference. That's no disgrace, of course. It's an uncomfortable fact. Its discomfort is overridden in the taxing ideal of love which is why Duffy rises to her heights in her love poetry. But when we descend we are faced with the grubby facts of the perennial struggle for power. The power of men over women is a strange historical fact which can't be explained by reference to men's individual shortcomings. It is a social fact, obvious in cultures disparate in time and space. It is a prominent feature of human tragedy. So many females lives wasted, ruined, betrayed. It is heartbreaking and mind-arresting that human society should ever have made the intrinsic inferiority of women part of its assumptions. Nonetheless, the Darwinians may have a point: we are hard-wired to pass on our genes. For this to happen, children must be cared for. As the anthropological record suggests, all societies have tough rules about this. The Christian view of marriage is mistaken: it doesn't exist because sex is sinful and it is better to marry than to burn ( not everyone would agree with that anyway), but to ensure legitimacy. All societies have strict rules about legitimacy, even when they have very relaxed sexual mores. The suppression of women probably emanates from this. They have paid the price for the importunate need to ensure that children are cared for closely over the long period of maturation. This is no excuse, but it's better than pretending the explanation lies in the fact that all men are bastards. Though many of them are.  

Neglected wives turning the tables on their famous menfolk. But doesn't this, in a way, confirm their status as wives? Shouldn't they be people in their own right?  

They're not all wives though. The opening poem is one of the book's best. Little Red Riding reworked becomes a knowing young woman of the mid-twentieth century on the poetic make ? Is this Duffy’s own well-known initiation ? In any case, it's a suggestive and tantalizing and amusing piece which is perhaps saying something about the price that has to paid (that she herself has paid ?) to become a famous poet. It's put together with plenty of her characteristic techniques but there's a shyness, an allusiveness at the heart of the poem which makes you want to go back to it to see if you can discover a little more of it's secret. The best poem is Anne Hathaway, a love poem, a poem of love remembered which plays nicely upon the bequest by Shakespeare of his second best bed to his wife, where their best love was made. In her love poems she entices you, the poem becomes a space you can explore. This is to do with the fact of the depth intimacy. As we all know, in our most intimate relationships we can communicate significantly without words and when words are used to point to, to gain purchase on that depth (which is also the best in our nature ) they take on the colouration of a primary emotionality which makes subjectivity come alive and suspends that harsh tenor of those ulterior relationships which constitute the dumb show of much of our social life. Duffy weaves language and love, Shakespeare's skill in both and her response to the latter to convey how the strong magic of love-making could create transcendence between the couple like the magic of Shakespeare's poetry between himself and his readers.  

In contrast to these lovers, Mrs Rip Van Winkle bids a none-too-fond farewell to sex. This is her delight. He sleeps and she no longer has to put up with the physical side of their relationship. But there is no depth here and the superficial joke of the poem reaches its pitiful climax In Its final rhyme:  

I came home with this pastel of Niagara  
and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagara.  

You can imagine the knowing titters at the reading. This really is Vaudeville. It would probably be better for her writing, though much worse for her income, if Duffy stopped doing readings. My suspicion is that poets who spend too much time on the circuit, who get used to the buzz of an instant response, start to move away from the kind of writing that takes time to absorb. At its best, that can produce a poetry of real spontaneity. At its worst, lines like those above.  

The section, The Devil's Wife treats of Myra Hindley. Why are people so morbidly fascinated by her ? Perhaps in the future it will be Harold Shipman. Human nature can be subject to great perversion and it doesn't take much abuse or neglect or disappointment to do it. I find these poems, granting a voice to Hindley, unconvincing and dull. She doesn't know herself. That's her problem. Her voice isn't fully human and these poems which try to make her speak leave her as inarticulate as ever.  

There are classical references here that make some of these poems more telling. Not everyone in an audience would know enough about Circe or Thetis or Medusa or Eurydice to get all the poems' references instantly ( I had to look some of them up). Yet even these poems suffer from the exaggeration of the demotic impulse. I was intrigued to find, though, a confirmation of Freud in the poem in his wife's voice. Freud would have nodded in assent. Women do tend to find the male genitalia pitiful and laughable for precisely the reasons Freud enunciated, Just as men tend to be fascinated by the female genitalia for exactly the same reasons. Plus ca change.  

 

ANOTHER BOOK TO BURN Ed J.N.Reilly.Bootleg editions, Knightsbridge St. Glasgow, G13 2YN. 

The customary wisdom that politics and art don't mix, that the narrow focus of politics is a disaster for the imagination in its broad or wild eclecticism and depth, is cast aside here as analysis and polemic rub shoulders with poetry and imaginative fiction. Neither seem to suffer from the liaison but the politics here is politics in a less niggardly sense than that of parties. Since when has it been the case that an acute sense of injustice is the enemy of art ? Since when has it been the case that art is diminished by addressing the human capacity for cruelty and self-deception ? All the writers featured here are on the side of Scotland and against that very English settlement which goes by the curious appellation of the 'third way.’ Jeff Torrington contributes a rumbustious, hilarious chapter, Myles Campbell's poetry is both readable and memorable, there's a smashing little essay on St Kilda by Sarah North, a sharp, well-argued attack on the old injustice of New Labour by Richie Venton, a long, narrative poem by David Craig   It's hard to imagine anything like this coming out of England today. There are no claims of greatness to be made for the writing, but at least there is a heartening absence of pusillanimity. The courage and hope in the writing together with a high level of skill and, where appropriate, knowledge and research, make this book about Scotland something every English person should read.

LETTER TO RANDALL SWINGLER by Andy Croft.  
REACHING FOR A STRANGER by Michael Tolkien.  

INCOMERS by Mike Sharp.
Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Aye, Beeston,

Three very well-produced pamphlets from John Lucas's excellent press. Short and affordable and readable. Michael Tolkien and Mike Sharp are both poets who speak, for the most pert, in a relaxed voice. Neither seek deliberately for significance and both know how to work within limits that keep the poems sweetly contained. They find their material in the ordinary, the domestic at times, and seek to invest it with a personality which can create an echo in our own experience. For the most part they are successful and an hour spent with these two is not wasted. I liked the Andy Croft most, however. He files in the face of orthodoxy and writes strictly rhyming poetry. But he does it with great aplomb. He addresses a dead communist poet hardly anyone has ever heard of and whose work is largely ignored or dismissed. Croft has written a biography and this is a farewell both to the man and to that enterprise. Though Croft stayed loyal to the CP to the end, had he lived in the Soviet Union he would have been sent to the gulag. He's human, humane, humorous, gentle, ironic. He's a communist of the heart: he likes people (even if they're poor) and thinks they deserve respect (even if they're powerless). This is a warm, funny, very well-written self-deprecating poem. I fall to see how anyone who likes poetry at all could not enjoy it. Someone should send a copy to Kenneth Baker, the Tory versophile. I enjoyed especially this stanza, for obvious reasons:

The poetry scene, you'll find's full of surprises  
It's popular (or so we like to claim),  
And London's now awash with bloody prizes,  
And poets these days have to make their name  
In sassy, smart, ironical disguises  
(And yet somehow so many sound the same).  
Accountants celebrate the verse revival  
While poetry mags still struggle for survival.  

See what I mean ? Buy it.