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Good, and Occasionally Great,
This review is from: Feminine Gospels (Paperback)
After reading the ecstatic newspaper reviews, I opened Feminine Gospels expecting not so much a volume of poetry as a quasi-religious experience; I didn’t quite receive one, but the collection is nevertheless very strong – if not quite up to the standard of her previous book, The World’s Wife.
As always, Carol Ann Duffy’s language is brilliantly structured, with rhymes cropping up unexpectedly and imagery that is both fresh and well chosen; this sets her work apart from much modern poetry, where the metaphors and similes are often original but try too hard to be smart, with the result that they are inapposite, conjuring up nothing other than confusion for the reader. In ‘A Dreaming Week’ the poem’s narrator is ‘dreaming/on the monocle of the moon/a sleeping S on the page of a bed/in the tome of a dim room.’ That scholastic imagery is palpably sharp, and the fact that the poet has achieved the lines’ musicality without making them seem either trite or dated bears testament to her skills.
The collection, focused (as the title suggests) on women, contains mostly very good poems, with a few great ones. ‘Beautiful’ is a moving history of strong women suffering in a male world, in which the leading character changes from Helen of Troy to Cleopatra, then to Marilyn Monroe, and finally to the less mourned-over Princess Diana, who ends the poem with ‘History’s stinking breath in her face.’ ‘The Diet’, about a woman who starves herself until she is size of an atom, ends with a marvellously literal take on the idea that inside every fat woman there’s a thin one trying to get out.
There are some weaker moments. ‘Sub’, in which the narrator recounts her role in various moments of male success (such as scoring Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup Final, while menstruating) does not convince. Although the mixture of heroism and prissy separateness (she ‘skipped the team bath with the lads/sipped my champagne in the solitary shower’) is funny, the inadvertent falseness of the poem is best summed up by the misspelling of Muhammad Ali as ‘Mohammed Ali’, and by the claim that the ’66 hat-trick was scored in extra time: it wasn’t. (Both errors may, of course, be intentional, but I can’t see why they should be.) The collection’s set-piece, a long prose poem entitled ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High’, is hit and miss. Occasionally, the writing here is neither poetry nor particularly good prose, but the accurate portrayal of a repressed grammar school does ultimately hit the mark, and the sign-off is exquisite: ‘Higher again, a teacher fell through the clouds with a girl in her arms.’
So, essentially a success, and still way ahead of most of her peers’ efforts. Carol Ann Duffy’s slight problem, though, is that being one of the best poets of modern times she is marked according the highest standard – that of her own previous work.