My first taste of her work was from her fifth collection The World’s Wife, which to this day is my favourite. However, like a loved track that is listened to on repeat for days on end, its familiarity has become a little too much. I now usually only dip into it to remind myself of a specific poem that has been sparked in my brain. Usually Medusa or Little Red Cap. This is a shame, as the book is a treat. If you don’t have it, you must get it.
Her latest collection, The Bees, is her first since her appointment as Poet Laureate in 2009. I’m distrusting of the post, having previously seen it as placing a requirement for sycophantic tat on the poor holder, but Duffy has thrown that to the wind. Her first poem as Laureate was a criticism of MPs’ bullshit in the wake of the expenses ‘scandal’ (about which, incidentally, I remain bored and unscandalised) – now you can’t call that an apolitical pat on the head to those who appointed her! Interestingly, the version of that poem in the book is slightly different. Better. The one published in the Guardian appears specifically negative towards the previous Labour government, whereas the book version is more widely critical of the whole institution.
‘Ariel’, a riff on the Shakespeare passage “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” is clearly about something – talking of neonicotinoid insecticides, a pastoral & agricultural setting (“in fields purple with lavender, yellow with rape,“) is blighted by words like ‘monotonous’, ‘sour’, ‘systemic’ and ‘seething’. It’s patently evident that although alluding to Shakespeare in title, first, third, and last three lines, this is actually a poem about agricultural pollution. It probably very deliberately chose which yellow flower to use, too.
This to me feels in contrast to ‘Achilles’ – Duffy’s poem “about” David Beckham’s injury before the World Cup (“Without him, it was prophesied, / they would not take Troy.“). This may say more about me than the poetry though – I hate football and celebrity, and have zero interest in individual sports people – especially Beckham (“a slippery golden boy“). Though the more I think about him now, the more I have to admit that actually… he’s pretty easy on the eye. Whilst with ‘Ariel’ the “actual” subject matter is immediately apparent despite the Shakespeare hat tip, it (embarrassingly, now I come to think of it) took a second read before I remembered that ‘Achilles’ wasn’t just a poem based in Greek mythology and the Iliad – it was about a footballer (“it was sport, not war, / his charmed foot on the ball…“). I wonder how often I don’t work out what a poem is “really” about – just seeing rhythm, pretty (or otherwise) imagery, and roots in mythic traditions. I wonder if it matters (my gut says no). Then I feel some sympathy for the school teachers I was so scathing of the other day when discussing Wendy Cope.
What is particularly good about this collection is that it contains something for everyone. If your favourite Duffy was The World’s Wife, you will love ‘Scheherazade’ (“ Dumb was as good as dead; / better to utter. / Inside a bottle, a genie. / Abracadabra. / Words were a silver thread / stitching the night. / The first story I said / led to the light.“), there are some lovely tributes to her daughter as she grows up, her mother as she dies, some politics, and lots of bees. You can hear the alliterative voice of a river (“When I went, wet, wide, white and blue, my name Nile, / you’d kneel near to net fish, […] I gushed, fresh lake, salt sea, / utterly me, source to mouth, without me, drought, nought, / for my silt civilised –“), sample several (23) whisky themed haikus (“ Not prose, poetry; / crescendo of mouth music; / not white wine, whisky.“), choose from an eclectic list of items available in ‘Oxfam’, pay respects to several soldiers, and notice very much mythological reference.
Tell she is well in these arms;
synonymous, her heartbeat to mine;
the world a little room; undone
all hurt; her inbreath, breath,
love where death, where harm, hope,
flesh where stone; my line – O
she’s warm! – charm, blessing, prayer,
spell; outwith dream, without time;
enchantment tell, garden from grave
to garland her; above these worms,
violet, oxlip, primrose, columbine;
she wakes, moves, prompted by her name.
See the introduction/roundup.