Get rid of time and everything’s dancing

Patrick McGuinness

  • The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
    Picador, 76 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 330 37222 X
  • Her Book: Poems 1988-98 by Jo Shapcott
    Faber, 125 pp, £8.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20183 0
  • Zero Gravity by Gwyneth Lewis
    Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £6.95, June 1998, ISBN 1 85224 456 9

Thetis, the mythical self-transforming nereid, could be the shape-shifting guiding presence behind these three books. Carol Ann Duffy and Jo Shapcott write poems about her, or more exactly through her, while transformation and metamorphosis, travel through time, space and states of being lie at the core of Gwyneth Lewis’s second English-language collection, Zero Gravity (her mother tongue is Welsh). Zeus married Thetis off to Peleus after Themis prophesied that her son would become more powerful than his father. It was Thetis Creatrix, both object and victim of male desire, who, after her rape by Peleus, gave birth to Achilles. In Shapcott’s ‘Thetis’, violence begets violence; it is transmuted, but remains insistently there amid its tranformations, passed from shape to shape, mother to son, until we are left with Achilles ready to blaze through the ancient world in a trail of orphans and widows:

Put out a paw
to dab a stone, an ant, a dead lamb. Life,
my life, is all play even up to the moment
when I’m tripped up, thrown down, bound,
raped until I bleed from my eyes,
beaten out of shape and forced to bring forth War.

The women in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife don’t need to wait for their progeny to have their say. Mrs Midas, Mrs Sisyphus, Mrs Faust, Queen Herod, Pope Joan and Mrs Tiresias are among the speakers in this book, as Duffy adds new dimensions to the old stories, finds new tellers for the old tales or, more exactly, a new tale with each new teller. Queen Kong, for instance, cradles her tiny man, ‘shaking him,/ like a doll, licking his face, breast, soles of his feet,/his little rod’, before stuffing him and wearing him as a necklace. We have the Kray Sisters patrolling their patch:

Straight up, we knew,
even then, what we wanted to be; had, you
could say,
a vocation. We wanted respect for the way
we entered a bar, or handled a car, or
shrivelled
a hard-on with simply a menacing look, a
threatening word
in a hairy ear, a knee in the orchestra stalls.
Belles
of the balls. Queens of the Smoke.

Duffy niftily captures the violence beneath the glamour, here tinged with sexual menace, and the cheesy sentimentality which reinvents the brothers as tabloid heroes, blokes who loved their mam and made the streets safe, unlike now:

Have a good butcher’s at these –
there we for ever are in glamorous black-and-
white,
assertively staring out next to Germaine,
Bardot,
Twiggy and Lulu, Dusty and Yoko, Bassey,
Babs,
Sandy, Diana Dors. And London was safer
then
on account of us. Look at the letters we get –
Dear Twins, them were the Good Old Days

Duffy has always been able to throw her voice, and the monologue is her perfect form, inventing both the speech and the tone in which to speak. In ‘Poet for Our Times’ (The Other Country, 1990) her brash and zeitgeist-riding poet says: ‘Thing is, you’ve got to grab attention/with just one phrase as punters rush on by.’ Duffy has followed this precept unerringly, though without the tacky ‘New Gen’ hype such soundbites come wrapped in (though the dust-jacket on the hardback edition of her latest book sails close to the wind: ‘These poems have the pull of the past and the crack of the contemporary. Poems for a new century’). Duffy can get into any shape she likes and make it speak, and the achievement of The World’s Wife is that each of the characters sounds different from the others. Often, with the contemporary craving for ventriloquising poetry and the eggshell-thin mask, the speaker is less a credible character than a monologue-deflector for the poet. With Duffy there is such a range of tones that her work seems thematically unified and, at the same time, fascinatingly various. Each speaker has an accent and a rhythm of her own, and the book becomes a kind of assertive interlinear to the old stories, with the margins clambering centre-page. It reminds me of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls in its ability to evince, across ages, cultures and occupations, an unconstraining ‘situation rhyme’ to link the very different women who come together in the drama.

The languorous adolescent world of Wilde and Beardsley is revisited in ‘Salome’. The decadent 1890s, which D.H. Lawrence described as full of ‘crop-haired chemicalised women of indeterminate sex, and wimbly-wambly young men of sex still more indeterminate’, are here reimagined in glorious sexual assertiveness, hard and sensual and deadly. Salome is a hungover slapper, the morning after the night before, bleary-eyed after a murderous blackout and finding ‘a head on the pillow beside me – whose?’ Promising to cut out the booze and the fags and the sex, she prepares to turf the stranger out of her bed. Where a kick in the orchestra stalls might have been enough for the Kray Sisters, Salome has other methods:

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.

Sometimes the book reads not just as a reply to the men – Lazarus, Icarus, Elvis – but to the men who write about the men, such as Auden (‘The Fall of Icarus’), Thom Gunn (the two ‘Elvis’ poems) or Eliot (‘Tiresias’). Duffy’s Mrs Lazarus, an altogether gentler creature than Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, muses on her husband’s death and her all too brief new life:

The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from
the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Beckett’s Murphy had aspired to be ‘happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark’: here it’s Mrs Lazarus who suffers the consequences of the overstepping:

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting
shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack
chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out
of his time.

As often with Duffy, the seeming ease of her work belies the intricacy with which these poems are put together, while the relentless hipness of address makes you forget the breadth of reference this book works with.

Shapcott, too, is adept at throwing her voice (indeed, her ‘Mrs Noah’ seems to make good an omission from the cast of The World’s Wife), but her poetry sometimes seems too reliant on metamorphic tricks. Her Book, effectively a generous Selected Poems, assembles work from Shapcott’s three collections in the Oxford Poets series, Electroplating the Baby, Phrase Book and My Life Asleep, and comes with a new envoi, ‘To Her Book’. Her most famous (and most anthologised) poems, such as ‘The Surrealists’ Summer Convention Came to Our City’ or ‘Phrase Book’, rely on a methodical insertion of the strange into the habitual, so that there remains a logic to all the surreality. Usually there are only minor adjustments to the order of things. The best poems in My Life Asleep, however, are more fluidly strange and unsettling. Shapcott’s fine and sinewy translations of 15 of Rilke’s Les Roses sonnets are particularly striking (the sequence is omitted from Her Book). Her animals – pig, hedgehog, cheetah – echo perhaps the animals of his Neue Gedichte, but where Rilke looked from the outside in, Shapcott seems to look from the inside out. These imaginative deflections are her themes, and her way of seeing, or at any rate conveying, the world. Among her most extraordinary creatures is the Mad Cow, whose ruminations can be found in Phrase Book and My Life Asleep, and who appears to be one of her more enduring figures. Shapcott is at her best in these racy and frightening poems. ‘The Mad Cow in Space’, for instance, looks down at the Earth through what must be an abattoir-tinted lens:

Believe me, every smash
every shot, every crack and blast is visible
and going right to plan but I can’t stand
the Earth’s screams as the blood touches
her prissy skirt.

Elsewhere – in ‘Mad Cow is a Vogue Model’, for instance – there is a threatening eroticism at work:

And what will be at stake in this photo?
It’s not an explicit language, but look
how I am snarling at the photographer.
I am snarling at his lens and through it a
world
which wants my teeth, my eyes, my taste –
and not
these words, these little deaths, these
individual
devils, these visions of the whole damned lot.

The few poems in which Shapcott seems not to be playing the metamorphic game are perhaps the most disappointing: the odd, slightly lumbering reminiscence (‘The Swallows Move in’, ‘Northern Lights’) and the last poem in the book, the showy public introspection of ‘A Letter to Dennis’, a consideration of ‘the complicated shame/ of Englishness’. In the book’s penultimate poem, ‘Motherland (after Tsvetaeva)’ we find the lines ‘the dictionary laughs when I look up/“England”, “Motherland”, “Home”,’ and this is obviously part of a long drawn out tussle, among certain English poets, with their Englishness, a perceived need to lay claim to some form of legitimising alienation. Here the search for a situation rhyme – of exile perhaps, of distance, of an ill-fitting language – seems imposed rather than uncovered.

After the sometimes tricksy ventriloquising of Duffy and Shapcott, it is good to reach the clear air of the long sequence, spoken in something like propria persona. Gwyneth Lewis’s beautiful long poem ‘Zero Gravity’, which opens her new English-language collection, binds together death and space travel into a 16-part sequence subtitled ‘A Space Requiem’. The poem’s circumstances, the death of a sister-in-law from cancer and the launch of a cousin into space (Joe Tanner was one of the crew of STS-82, sent up in 1997 to repair the Hubble telescope), provide the material for the sometimes simultaneous, sometimes alternating unfolding of narratives.

‘Zero Gravity’ is an intricate and moving poem, characteristic of Lewis’s poetry in both her languages (she is the author of three collections in Welsh). The key is an unfussy formal precision – a kind of subliminal structural tightness. Perhaps this is the only way to deal with such vast disparities of scale, between the domestic and the astronomical, enabling her to write with a constant broad-angling out and telescoping in of perspectives. Distance is ‘a matter of seeing;/faith, a science/of feeling faint objects’, and whether it is emotional, geographical or astronomical it is so gracefully bridged that the parallels between the different worlds of the poem seem found rather than forced. In Section VI, the astronaut is prepared for take-off, and the long preparation is envisioned as a mixture of marriage and burial: ‘You carry your helmet like a severed head./We think of you as already dead.’ When, in the beautiful take-off poem, the shuttle is launched into space, Lewis imagines it as both a catastrophe and a fulfilment:

With a sonic crack
the spaceship explodes to a flower of fire
on the scaffold’s stamen. We sob and swear,
helpless, but we’re lifting a sun
with our love’s attention, we hear
the Shuttle’s death rattle as it overcomes
its own weight with glory

In Section XII, Lewis describes Joe Tanner working on the Hubble; the sense of a painful distension of time is mingled with the knowledge of terrifying speed and risk:

The new spectrograph
you’ve installed in the Hubble to replace the
old
makes black holes leap closer, allows us to
grasp
back in time through distance, to see stars
unfold
in nuclear gardens, galaxies like sperm
swirled in water, rashes of young hot stars,
blood-clot catastrophes, febrile swarms
of stinging explosions.

This is followed by the other journey, into another dimension, in Section XIII:

She’s sped
vast distances
already, she’s shed
her many bodies –
cancer, hope, regard,
marriage, forgiving.
Get rid of time,
and everything’s dancing

Followed, in XIV, by the Lazarene return, the rebirth:

There are great advantages to having been
dead.
They say that Lazarus never laughed again,
but I doubt it. Your space suit was your
shroud
and at night you slept in a catacomb,
posed like a statue. So, having been
out to infinity, you experienced the heat
and roar of re-entry, blood in the veins
then, like a baby, had to find your feet

‘Zero Gravity’ is a triumph of imaginative sympathy certainly, but also of the unobtrusive patterning of themes. Lewis’s new book in Welsh, Y Llofrudd Iaith (‘The Language Murderer’),[*] is cast as a detective investigation, a kind of polyphony of witness statements where each of the suspects claims to be the guilty one. The detective story is as much of a structure as a requiem, and we may see that patterns and structures are themselves themes in her poetry. It is at once a religious and a scientific fascination, not with the structures and patterns that explain or console, but with those that mystify and make strange.

[*] Barddas, 44 pp., £6.95, 28 November 1999, 1 900437 35 x.