#10: ‘Look at me now.’

I never studied Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife at school, but one of the collection’s most interesting aspects is how self-reflexive it is. In poem after poem, Duffy looks at who owns words, sounds, language, who gets to use their powers to create or destroy. Male poets in particular take a beating – I have a suspicion that as a 17-year-old girl, the book might have made me think twice before having sex with anyone, and at least three times about ever having sex with a male poet. Today’s featured poem, ‘Medusa’, twists tropes of abandonment and ownership into a meditation on artistic control which reaches aggressively into the world beyond the text.

*

Medusa
by Carol Ann Duffy

A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes,
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.

My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
yellow fanged.
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?

Be terrified.
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
from home.
So better by far for me if you were stone.

I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebble fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
a handful of dusty gravel
spattered down.

I looked at a ginger cat,
a housebrick
shattered a bowl of milk.
I looked at a snuffling pig,
a boulder rolled
in a heap of shit.

I stared in the mirror.
Love gone bad
showed me a Gorgon.
I stared at a dragon.
Fire spewed
from the mouth of a mountain.

And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful?
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?

Look at me now.

*

Duffy’s treatment of the mythical figure she makes her own is both sinuous and sensuous. ‘Why did it have to be snakes?’ is here, as ever, a justifiable question. Duffy’s Medusa keeps some elements of the (malleable) classical tale, but not others. She jettisons some familiar origin stories that see Medusa suffering at the hands of men for a more internal change, ‘Love gone bad’ – a kind of poisoning from the inside out, which suits our modern sense of myth as psychological framework. Over the first two stanzas, Medusa’s ‘souring’ spreads from mind (‘suspicion’, ‘thoughts’), to body (‘scalp’, ‘yellow fanged’). The internal decay is externalised through a series of sensory images – hissing, spitting, stinking breath – that make it to the mind through the nose and the ear. It’s the first use the text makes of what we might call a kind of physical outreach.

In this case, there is something outside the text, and it is us. Duffy’s Medusa is a kind of weaponised Miss Havisham – her fangs turn outward towards the reader, who is cast (against his or her will) as the betraying, abandoning male, associated here with the ‘Greek God’ Perseus in a spin on his traditional role as heroic aggressor. And just before she addresses us directly (‘Are you terrified?’), Duffy jerks the situation three thousand years forward, with the startling apparition of ‘bullet tears’ in her character’s eyes. Throughout the collection, the universal tension of relationships gives Duffy carte blanche to juggle past and present images, an ongoing anachronistic (or timeless) switcheroo. The point might be that a quality shared by any myth which resonates is its inability to stay in the past.

‘Be terrified’ – the poem continues, and later closes, with an imperative which, every time it is read, challenges us in the present moment. That assertive force sustains the next three stanzas, in which the altering power of Medusa’s gaze is explored in such variety that the poem almost becomes a kind of perverse celebration. Yes, Medusa turns everything she sees to stone – but unlike the male gaze (passive, devouring), her vision has an action in the world. Like many poets might wish to do, she changes the properties of the things she observes; she creates pebbles, gravel, mountains. Bees, birds and dragons are perhaps more appealing to begin with, but Duffy grants Medusa a version of her own authorial power – poesis, the making of new things.

After such a firecracker display of the literalised process of metaphor, the arrival of the Perseus figure (the ‘you’ at the ends of the poem) can only be leaden, dull and predictable. Without wading into the early twentieth-century debate about what, if anything, constitutes a ‘feminine style’, it’s worth noting that most of Medusa’s lines curl around the page, following the extent of each thought rather than the strictures of a formal structure. Perseus, by contrast, is announced in four regular two-beat lines; masculinity enters the text with the square-jawed lock-step of a military column.

So where the traditional myth turns on the image of the ossified male victim, here we have a man who is rigid and bound even before his encounter with a female presence whose self-presentation is as supple and flexible as her proverbial reptilian barnet. The ending’s fluidity belies its authority: what seems like a morose reflection on a tragic fall reveals itself to be a gesture of defiant self-assertion. Turn our heads towards this suffering, the voice commands us, and we will be changed.

scallop-shell

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One thought on “#10: ‘Look at me now.’

  1. Pingback: The blogs I read (3) | Anthony Wilson

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