I have been a fan of Carol Ann Duffy’s for some years now; she is a wonderful poet, whose work always speaks to me. I was in awe when I read The Bees, and cheering for girl power when making my way through The World’s Wife. Her Christmas books are an absolute delight, and she has even introduced one of my favourite novels, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in the Vintage Classics edition. When I therefore found two of her poetry books whilst in an Oxfam bookshop, preparing for their Scorching Summer Reads project, I snapped them up immediately. I loved Rapture, but the second volume, Feminine Gospels, was something else entirely.
Firstly, I must say that I absolutely love what Feminine Gospels has set out to do: ‘Exploring issues of sexuality, beauty and biology, Carol Ann Duffy’s poems tell tall stories as though they are unconditional truths, spinning modern myths from images of women as bodies – blood, bones and skin – and corpses, as writers and workers, shoppers and slimmers, as fairytale royals or girls next door’. Its style and focus was reminiscent of The World’s Wife for me.
Feminine Gospels marks the first time in which I have read any of Duffy’s longer poems; some of those collected here are almost of Tennyson length. Her style lends itself incredibly well to these longer works. Throughout, Duffy makes some shrewd observations, and poses some fascinating thoughts and questions; in ‘The Long Queen’, for instance, she asks: ‘What was she queen of? Women, girls, / spinsters and hags, matrons, wet nurses, / witches, widows, wives, mothers of all those’. She praises difference and diversity – for Duffy, all women matter (as, of course, they should in the real world too).
Duffy’s brand of magical realism is glorious and memorable. ‘The Map-Woman’ is a powerful and thoughtful poem, about the experiences and places mapped upon a body; ‘Beautiful’ holds a few echoes of ‘The Lady of Shallot’; ‘The Diet’ is about a woman who starves herself so much that she ends up shrinking. Duffy describes her as ‘Anorexia’s true daughter, a slip / of a girl, a shadow, dwindling away’. Allow me to share a passage from ‘The Woman Who Shopped’, in which a materialistic lady effectively turns into a department store:
‘… Her ribs
were carpeted red, her lungs glittered with chandeliers
over the singing tills, her gut was the food hall…
She loved her own smell, sweat and Chanel,
loved the crowds jostling and thronging her bones, loved
the credit cards swiping themselves in her blood, her breath
was gift wrapping, the whisper of tissue and string…’
As with all of Duffy’s work which I have read to date, her vocabulary has been carefully selected to create startling imagery, and originality prevails: ‘The sky was unwrapping itself, ripping itself into shreds’ (from ‘The Woman Who Shopped’). So much emphasis has been placed upon all of the senses, and the generational scope too is nothing short of masterful.
In Feminine Gospels, the woman – in all of her many shapes and forms – has been presented as the oracle. So much of the poetry here is to do with growth, whether physically or emotionally. There is much importance here, too; she weaves together the stories of women with history, conflicts, and the family, and all has been masterfully interconnected. Feminine Gospels is an incredibly powerful book, which every woman should pick up at some point in her life.