Although published twenty years ago, this collection still feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Due to its place on A Level set text lists in the UK, the poems in this collection are probably familiar to many poetry fans, so there’s no need for a long introduction.
In this collection Duffy takes a whole host of stories and characters and presents them through the eyes of a female character. Some of these stories are accurate (ie Salome), others have been subverted so the protagonist has been re-imagined as a female (the Kray Sisters) – but they all revisit history from a more feminist perspective, raising questions about equality and gender politics.
A collection of angry feminist poems may not sound like the most relaxing read, but Duffy injects a fair helping of humour into these poems. Her choice of language veers towards the colloquial, with phrases such as “I frighten cats.” (‘Mrs Quasimodo) and the listing of slang terms for a penis in ‘Mrs Freud’ adding unexpected hilarity to poems heavy with violence such as “ripped out her brazen tongue” in ‘Mrs Quasimodo’ or the comical image in ‘Queen Kong’ “I wear him now about my neck”
Duffy’s use of rhyme makes some of these poems sound more like nursery rhymes – but that’s not to say that it’s simply done. The subtlety of the rhyme in ‘Salome’ only serves to push the poem towards the shock of the last word of the poem: “his head on a platter.”
We relish in these women and their stories. The men in the poems are generally presented as fools (‘Mrs Midas’ is particularly scathing about her husband’s idiocy) or inconsequential and weak (‘Delilah’ tells a very different tale). However, there is enough tenderness to add depth and make sure that this collection is much more than an angry tome of feminist revisionism. I found the close of ‘Anne Hathaway’ particularly poignant:
“My living laughing love-
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.”
It is these little glimpses of emotion and the delicate phrasing of
“I sunk like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot.” (‘Mrs Rip Van Winkle’)
paired with the cutting satire of the angrier poems that make this such an entertaining collection. Little wonder it’s been on so many ‘must-read’ lists. If you’re new to poetry, this is an excellent place to start.