Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The world's wife

Hat-tip to Sue, who recommended the following poem:

Little Red-Cap

At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
into playing fields, the factory, allotments
kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men,
the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan,
till you came at last to the edge of the woods.
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.

He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw,
red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me,
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,

my first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry.
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods,
away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake,
my stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes

but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night,
breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem.
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
and went in search of a living bird – white dove –

which flew, straight, from my hands to his hope mouth.
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said,
licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books.
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head,
warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood.

But then I was young – and it took ten years
in the woods to tell that a mushroom
stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out,
season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe

to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
to see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
the glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones.
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up.
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.

Carol Ann Duffy 1999

I know Val and I have the collection from which this comes, "The World's Wife", but do any of the rest of you know it? Delighted to lend you the (slim) volume if not - is enormous fun, and very stimulating (and very slim). Helen had asked for poems, and I wondered if you'd fancy discussing this, or indeed other poems from the book. Thoughts on this suggestion, please! I think this volume was also one of Mari Strachan's favourite three ever, or something - am I right there, Val?

Personally, I really enjoy the above poem and the book generally. I find Duffy constantly going in unexpected directions and catching me out. Which is good. I hardly know where to start with the poem - it's so rich - but I did read some very interesting stuff about fairy tales a while back. The author said that fairy tales are naturally subversive (and disturbing to parents) because they articulate many children's fears and give them a space to explore those taboo fears (death, bad parenting etc), reassured by their parents' tacit acceptance of their right to explore (because the parents are reading the story to them). Bowdlerized fairy tales where the stepmother isn't evil, people/animals aren't eaten etc, might feel safer to parents, but doesn't have the same therepeutic value for children. Another psychotherapist I read explained that, much as we don't like it, children DO have to process things like the Oedipal complex, and trying to pretend that they don't have taboo feelings to come to terms with is ultimately counter-productive. Which I suppose is validated by the poem: the girl goes and does the dangerous things and comes out the other side wiser and more independent! But what do you think of it?

We could look at "The World's wife" after the Morrison and then the Munro. I know that's a way ahead, so no pressure at all, just so we know where we are and can pick and choose which ones suit us best if we can't each manage them all.