Stride Magazine -


Femine Gospels, Carol Ann Duffy [Picador, £12.99 hbck)
Portrait of my Lover as a Horse, Selima Hill (Bloodaxe, £7.95)

The Duffy of Rumpelstiltskin and other Grimm Tales is in evidence in Feminine Gospel’s cover of a row of women’s feet with one pair of bright red shoes standing out from the others. Her sequel to The World’s Wife, a playful look at the wives of famous men, opens in similar vein with ‘The Long Queen’, a guardian of the female sex who, like Elisabeth 1st, took ‘Time for a husband’. ‘The Map-Woman’ which follows makes the archetypal nature of the volume, and its weaknesses, clear. Memento-like, a woman’s skin becomes a map of her habitat which she sloughs as her environment changes. Yet a tendency to be over-expansive results in a surfeit of lists.

A woman’s skin was a map of the town
where she’d grown from a child.
When she went out, she covered it up
with a dress, with a shawl, with a hat,
with mitts or a muff, with leggings, trousers
or jeans, with a an ankle-length cloak, hooded
and fingertip-sleeved.

Later, the motorway is

a roaring river of metal
and light, cheerio, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, ciao.

Duffy is more than capable of being particular, and over a volume you long for the individual, the personal that doesn’t go to narrative (fairytale) extreme.

Feminine Gospels has a strong feminine voice and emphasis. The wry ‘Sub’ could be an outtake from The Worlds Wife, documenting Woman’s Zelig-like ability to avoid praise. ‘Anon’ plays on the old joke about this prolific poet, nodding to the anonymous women’s verse which kept the female voice alive over the centuries. ‘Beautiful’ examines Helen, Cleopatra, Marilyn and Diana, successful, recognised women, with one wrong note in the description of the well-read Monroe as a ‘dumb beauty’. As in ‘Tall’, which references the September 11 attack in the final verse, it concludes from a surprising perspective, allowing Diana to witness

the flashbulbs,
the half-mast flags, the acres of flowers,
History’s stinking breath in her face.

Elsewhere, the techniques of oral tradition are employed. ‘Work’ is structured like a counting game, ‘The Woman Who Shopped’ is transformed into a shop, and ‘The Diet’ follows another idea to its logical extreme. As always, it’s nicely done, particularly the perceived purity in the phrase ‘Anorexia’s true daughter’, yet it follows a prescribed pattern. 

Duffy’s fascination with fairytale has led to an obsession with frame, as in the seven verses of ‘A Dreaming Week’. Where are personal poems written out of the need to express them? The medium seems to dominate, and rather than being too restrictive is too lax. Or is that Duffy’s ease? One of the most personal is ‘White Writing’:

No prayers written to bless you,
I write them white
your soul a flame,
bright in the window of your maiden name.    

It concludes with several poems concerning death, and the failure of transformative poetry in its wake.

In the extended ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High’ all the paraphernalia adds up to one word: ‘Girls’. A nice mix of comedy and detail, (‘the moon pinned like a monitor’s badge’), featuring a girl called Carol Ann and her classmate Anthea Meg, it nods to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides and finally Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Laughter spurs the teachers to create anagrams from words and follow their ambitions rather than thinking and teaching by rote. Duffy has a contagious enthusiasm for life and poetry, as evident in her quotation of  ‘hey nonny / hey nonny / hey nonny no’ in ‘Anon’, and this great description of writing brings the two together;

Miss Nadimbaba put down her pen and read through her poem.
The palms of her hands felt light, that talented ache. She altered
a verb and the line jumped on the page like a hooked fish. She needed
to type it up, but the poem was done. She was dying
to read it aloud to her aunt. She would open some wine.

The short poems in Selima Hill’s Portrait of my Lover as a Horse
are all entitled ‘Portrait of my Lover as a …’. There are some that will find this sublime, but images alone are not enough to justify a book. She does well within the schema, being at turns empowered (‘… Beetle’) and interesting (‘… Blanket’). Yet, whenever one would want her to go further she cannot for fear of departing from her framework. The devotional element – the lover is referred to as ‘O Lord’ – is married to a strong sexual sense described in interesting language; ears, mercy and mud reappear in strange contexts. In the agreeable ‘… with Chocolate Biscuits’, her ‘Beautiful Lord’ comes rising out of the snow ‘with large bejewelled hands and chocolate biscuits’. This image is later extended in the bold ‘…with a crochet hook’ in which sex is compared to sweetness ‘chunky   as cake’, and her lover picks sorrow from her brain ‘like crab’. Hill’s own ‘How do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways’ is an interesting series of conceits, at times as satisfying as ‘… a fall of snow’.

Matt Bryden 2002