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.

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