When I was seventeen, my English class studied The World’s Wife, a collection of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy. As I recall, the boys in the class disliked it because after four months of Angela Carter it felt more like a feminism class than a literature class, and half the girls disliked it because in many ways the collection is one trick rehashed thirty times. Personally, it caught my imagination. The collection consists of the untold stories of women in history and mythology. Well, sort of. Striking a balance with poems about existing female characters, are poems that rather queer the male status quo: we have Thetis, Delilah, Medusa, and Eurydice, but alongside them we also have Queen Herod, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Icarus, and Frau Freud. The latter of these groups contains poems that tend to do one of two things: either they tell the stories of the male characters we know but through the often cutting and witty eye of their female partners, or they skew what we know into untold stories.
It occurs to me, as I write this, that the collection in fact sets up an interesting question about feminism: is it feminist to retell male history through female eyes, or does it in fact undermine the value of the truly untold stories of real women? It is a question I’m sure has been considered many times before, and one I will leave you to ponder for now. Because I want to talk about something else. Namely, sex.
Of course, sex. Amongst the many excellent qualities this collection holds, including wit, satire, and Duffy’s wonderful way with words, is some rather filthy sex. The question is, just how effective is the sex at telling story, conjuring eroticism, and enhancing the poetry? To aid in this question, I am going to narrow my search down to just two poems: Salome and Mrs Beast.
Salome is painted as a rich, modern, party girl, who decides “I needed to clean up my act, / get fitter, / cut out the booze and the fags and the sex.” I always rather liked this, as it seems to sit well with the cruel and cunning biblical figure who danced naked for Herod and then demanded, as reward, John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. The poem doesn’t depict the dance or talk about Herod at all, but swapping Salome’s biblical sins for modern day apathy seems like a fair trade. The poem doesn’t depict any sexual activity either, but there is inference as she “woke up with a head on the pillow beside me,” whose lips she kisses. In fact, until the very last lines, the poem is entirely suggestive and simply alludes to her promiscuous lifestyle with lines such as “hungover and wrecked as I was from a night on the batter.” My seventeen year old self didn’t pick up on the word ‘batter’ first time round, but looking at it now I do wonder if it’s a euphemism for come; albeit a rather comic and unsavoury one. Towards the end of the poem, in reference to the person in bed with her, she says “it was time to turf out the blighter, / the beater or biter, / who’d come like a lamb to the slaughter / to Salome’s bed.” There is something especially erotic about the words ‘beater’ and ‘biter’ when considered in a kinkier context. But the offhand voice, and the almost forced metaphor maintains the character’s apathy. The poem is not giving us passion or fire, but instead draws a very cohesive picture of casual sex between young people in the modern world. A picture that is aptly pervasive. In fact I remember reading the poem for the first time and being reminded of Amy Winehouse and songs that belie that same casual approach to sex, such as In My Bed. And I think there is a kind of honest eroticism to this. It’s the same eroticism that drew thousands of kids my age to shows like Skins, and parties that offered sex and drugs without the bother of love. Apathy becomes almost its own titillating emotion. But really it’s the cutting end that draws out both my interest and my erotic curiosity: “In the mirror, I saw my eyes glitter. / I flung back the sticky red sheets, / and there, like I said – and ain’t life a bitch – / was his head on a platter.” For so many of us, sex and the kind of romanticised death to be found in art, are so close. Romeo and Juliet are not the world’s most famous lovers because they lived happily ever after. Between sex and romance and death and tragedy is a cutting honesty that never fails to capture our erotic imaginations.
However, it is likely that in the case of Salome, the sexual suggestion is just titillation, and what really speaks to the reader is the contrast between apathy and violence, not apathy and sex. Whereas in the case of Mrs Beast, we are dealing with an entirely different, well, beast.
Mrs Beast is no Belle. No simpering victim of Stockholm syndrome. She is not the answer to the beast’s curse. She is his Dominant; his Mistress. She “had the language, girls. / The lady says Do this. Harder. The lady says / Do that. Faster. The lady says That’s not where I meant.” Although physically the beast is bigger, and rougher; predatory, she is in charge. She holds the cards, playing poker with “the Woman / who Married a Minotaur, Goldilocks, the Bride / of the Bearded Lesbian, Frau Yellow Dwarf” and there is such a cutting cynicism as she looks down upon the Little Mermaid for having “slit / her shining silver tail in two, rubbed salt / into that stinking wound, got up and walked, / in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed, / all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one / who’d dump her in the end.” Instead, Mrs Beast counsels her to “find yourself a Beast. The sex // is better.” There is such primal desire in this poem, and for a certain class of submissive people, there is definitely eroticism in the degrading way she describes the beast as “The pig in my bed” with “his horrid leather tongue” and “his hooked and yellowy claws” which could “scratch my back / till it bled.” She also remarks that “if his snout and trotters fouled / my damask sheets, why, then, he’d wash them. Twice.” marking his subservience and the erotic kink of their dynamic. The beast has met his match. At the same time, Mrs Beast holds something of Salome’s apathy; though perhaps in this case it is more like cynicism when, with the closing lines she makes her demands: “Bring me the Beast for the night. / Bring me the wine-cellar key. Let the less-loving one be me.” But again there is sexual tension and eroticism in the honesty of these words. Also, as I have mentioned, in the primality of their coupling, as “he steamed in his pelt” and her comments that there “was a bit of him like a horse, a ram, / an ape, a wolf, a dog, a donkey, dragon, dinosaur.” It’s crude, but it’s also passionately bestial.
Of course, neither of these depictions of sex will speak to everyone. Carol Ann Duffy certainly takes sex to its extremes, and it is understandable that many people like a little more passion than Salome and a little more romance than Mrs Beast. But for a few perverts, myself included, there is undoubted, and powerful eroticism hidden between the folds of The World’s Wife.
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