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Who? Him. The Husband. Hero. Hunk.The Boy Next Door. The Paramour. The Je t'adore.Behind every famous man is a great woman—and from the quick-tongued Mrs. Darwin to the lascivious Frau Freud, from the adoring Queen Kong to the long-suffering wife of the Devil himself, each one steps from her counterpart's shadow to tell her side of the story in this irresistible collection. Original, subversive, full of imagination and quicksilver wit, this is Carol Ann Duffy at her beguiling best.
About the Author
Carol Ann Duffy has been Britain's Poet Laureate since 2009. Her collections include The World's Wife, Rapture, and The Bees, which won the Costa Poetry Award. She has also received the Whitbread, Forward and T. S. Eliot Prizes, and the Lannan and E. M. Forster Prize in the U.S.
Read an Excerpt
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
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 open mouth.
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said,
licking his chops.Assoon as he slept, I crept to the back
of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with
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.
I shrank myself
to the size of a bird in the hand
of a man.
Sweet, sweet, was the small song
that I sang,
till I felt the squeeze of his fist.
Then I did this:
shouldered the cross of an albatross
up the hill of the sky.
Why? To follow a ship.
But I felt my wings
clipped by the squint of a crossbow's eye.
So I shopped for a suitable shape.
Size 8. Snake.
Coiled in my charmer's lap,
I felt the grasp of his strangler's clasp
at my nape.
Next I was roar, claw, 50 lb paw,
jungle-floored, meateater, raw,
a zebra's gore
in my lower jaw.
But my gold eye saw
the guy in the grass with the gun. Twelve-bore.
I sank through the floor of the earth
to swim in the sea.
Mermaid, me, big fish, eel, dolphin,
whale, the ocean's opera singer.
Over the waves the fisherman came
with his hook and his line and his sinker.
I changed my tune
to racoon, skunk, stoat,
to weasel, ferret, bat, mink, rat.
The taxidermist sharpened his knives.
I smelled the stink of formaldehyde.
I was wind, I was gas,
I was all hot air, trailed
clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane,
when out of the blue
roared a fighter plane.
Then my tongue was flame
and my kisses burned,
but the groom wore asbestos.
So I changed, I learned,
turned inside out or that's
how it felt when the child burst out.
Ice in the trees.
Three Queens at the Palace gates,
dressed in furs, accented;
their several sweating, panting beasts,
laden for a long, hard trek,
following the guide and boy to the stables;
courteous, confident; oh, and with gifts
for the King and Queen of here Herod, me
in exchange for sunken baths, curtained beds,
fruit, the best of meat and wine,
dancers, music, talk
as it turned out to be,
with everyone fast asleep, save me,
those vivid three
till bitter dawn.
They were wise. Older than I.
They knew what they knew.
Once drunken Herod's head went back,
they asked to see her,
fast asleep in her crib,
my little child.
Silver and gold,
the loose change of herself,
glowed in the soft bowl of her face.
Grace, said the tallest Queen.
Strength, said the Queen with the hennaed hands.
The black Queen
made a tiny starfish of my daughter's fist,
said Happiness; then stared at me,
Queen to Queen, with insolent lust.
Watch, they said, for a star in the East
a new star
pierced through the night like a nail
It means he's here, alive, new-born.
Who? Him. The Husband. Hero. Hunk.
The Boy Next Door. The Paramour. The Je t'adore.
The Marrying Kind. Adulterer. Bigamist.
The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat.
The Heartbreaker. The Ladykiller. Mr Right.
My baby stirred,
suckled the empty air for milk,
till I knelt
and the black Queen scooped out my breast,
the left, guiding it down
to the infant's mouth.
No man, I swore,
will make her shed one tear.
A peacock screamed outside.
Afterwards, it seemed like a dream.
The pungent camels
kneeling in the snow,
the guide's rough shout
as he clapped his leather gloves,
hawked, spat, snatched
the smoky jug of mead
from the chittering maid
she was twelve, thirteen.
I watched each turbaned Queen
rise like a god on the back of her beast.
And splayed that night
below Herod's fusty bulk,
I saw the fierce eyes of the black Queen
flash again, felt her urgent warnings scald
my ear. Watch for a star, a star.
It means he's here ...
Some swaggering lad to break her heart,
some wincing Prince to take her name away
and give a ring, a nothing, nowt in gold.
I sent for the Chief of Staff,
a mountain man
with a red scar, like a tick
to the mean stare of his eye.
Take men and horses,
knives, swords, cutlasses.
Ride East from here
and kill each mother's son.
Do it. Spare not one.
The midnight hour. The chattering stars
shivered in a nervous sky.
Orion to the South
who knew the score, who'd seen,
not seen, then seen it all before;
the yapping Dog Star at his heels.
High up in the West
a studded, diamond W.
And then, as prophesied,
blatant, brazen, buoyant in the East
The Boyfriend's Star.
We do our best,
we Queens, we mothers,
mothers of Queens.
We wade through blood
for our sleeping girls.
We have daggers for eyes.
Behind our lullabies,
the hooves of terrible horses
thunder and drum.
It was late September. I'd just poured a glass of wine, begun
to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen
filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath
gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,
then with my fingers wiped the other's glass like a brow.
He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.
Now the garden was long and the visibility poor, the way
the dark of the ground seems to drink the light of the sky,
but that twig in his hand was gold. And then he plucked
a pear from a branch we grew Fondante d'Automne
and it sat in his palm like a light bulb. On.
I thought to myself, Is he putting fairy lights in the tree?
He came into the house. The doorknobs gleamed.
He drew the blinds. You know the mind; I thought of
the Field of the Cloth of Gold and of Miss Macready.
He sat in that chair like a king on a burnished throne.
The look on his face was strange, wild, vain. I said,
What in the name of God is going on? He started to laugh.
I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.
Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.
He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the
He asked where was the wine. I poured with a shaking hand,
a fragrant, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched
as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.
It was then that I started to scream. He sank to his knees.
After we'd both calmed down, I finished the wine
on my own, hearing him out. I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn't mind. I couldn't believe my ears:
how he'd had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you'll be able to give up smoking for good.
Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.
And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live
with a heart of gold? That night, I dreamt I bore
his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue
like a precious latch, its amber eyes
holding their pupils like flies. My dream-milk
burned in my breasts. I woke to the streaming sun.
So he had to move out. We'd a caravan
in the wilds, in a glade of its own. I drove him up
under cover of dark. He sat in the back.
And then I came home, the woman who married the fool
who wished for gold. At first I visited, odd times,
parking the car a good way off, then walking.
You knew you were getting close. Golden trout
on the grass. One day, a hare hung from a larch,
a beautiful lemon mistake. And then his footprints,
glistening next to the river's path. He was thin,
delirious; hearing, he said, the music of Pan
from the woods. Listen. That was the last straw.
What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed
but lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold
the contents of the house and came down here.
I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,
and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,
even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.
from Mrs Tiresias
All I know is this:
he went out for his walk a man
and came home female.
Out the back gate with his stick,
wearing his gardening kecks,
an open-necked shirt,
and a jacket in Harris tweed I'd patched at the elbows myself.
He liked to hear
the first cuckoo of spring
then write to The Times.
I'd usually heard it
days before him
but I never let on.
I'd heard one that morning
while he was asleep;
just as I heard,
at about 6 p.m.,
a faint sneer of thunder up in the woods
a sudden heat
at the back of my knees.
He was late getting back.
I was brushing my hair at the mirror
and running a bath
when a face
swam into view
next to my own.
The eyes were the same.
But in the shocking V of the shirt were breasts.
When he uttered my name in his woman's voice I passed out.
* * *
Life has to go on.
I put it about that he was a twin
and this was his sister
come down to live
while he himself
was working abroad.
And at first I tried to be kind;
blow-drying his hair till he learnt to do it himself,
lending him clothes till he started to shop for his own,
sisterly, holding his soft new shape in my arms all night.
Then he started his period.
One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.
to the powers that be
demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year.
I see him still,
his selfish pale face peering at the moon
through the bathroom window.
The curse, he said, the curse.
Don't kiss me in public,
he snapped the next day,
I don't want folk getting the wrong idea.
It got worse.
* * *
After the split I would glimpse him
out and about,
entering glitzy restaurants
on the arms of powerful men
though I knew for sure
there'd be nothing of that
if he had his way
or on TV
telling the women out there
how, as a woman himself,
he knew how we felt.
His flirt's smile.
The one thing he never got right
was the voice.
A cling peach slithering out from its tin.
I gritted my teeth.
* * *
And this is my lover, I said,
the one time we met
at a glittering ball
under the lights,
among tinkling glass,
and watched the way he stared
at her violet eyes,
at the blaze of her skin,
at the slow caress of her hand on the back of my neck;
and saw him picture
her bite at the fruit of my lips,
my red wet cry in the night
as she shook his hand
saying How do you do;
and I noticed then his hands, her hands,
the clash of their sparkling rings and their painted nails.
Firstly, his hands a woman's. Softer than mine,
with pearly nails, like shells from Galilee.
Indolent hands. Camp hands that clapped for grapes.
Their pale, mothy touch made me flinch. Pontius.
I longed for Rome, home, someone else. When the Nazarene
entered Jerusalem, my maid and I crept out,
bored stiff, disguised, and joined the frenzied crowd.
I tripped, clutched the bridle of an ass, looked up
and there he was. His face? Ugly. Talented.
He looked at me. I mean he looked at me. My God.
His eyes were eyes to die for. Then he was gone,
his rough men shouldering a pathway to the gates.
The night before his trial, I dreamt of him.
His brown hands touched me. Then it hurt.
Then blood. I saw that each tough palm was skewered
by a nail. I woke up, sweating, sexual, terrified.
Leave him alone. I sent a warning note, then quickly dressed.
When I arrived, the Nazarene was crowned with thorns.
The crowd was baying for Barabbas. Pilate saw me,
looked away, then carefully turned up his sleeves
and slowly washed his useless, perfumed hands.
They seized the prophet then and dragged him out,
up to the Place of Skulls. My maid knows all the rest.
Was he God? Of course not. Pilate believed he was.
By Christ, he could bore for Purgatory. He was small,
didn't prepossess. So he tried to impress. Dead men,
Mrs Aesop, he'd say, tell no tales. Well, let me tell you now
that the bird in his hand shat on his sleeve,
never mind the two worth less in the bush. Tedious.
Going out was worst. He'd stand at our gate, look, then leap;
scour the hedgerows for a shy mouse, the fields
for a sly fox, the sky for one particular swallow
that couldn't make a summer. The jackdaw, according to
envied the eagle. Donkeys would, on the whole, prefer to be
On one appalling evening stroll, we passed an old hare
snoozing in a ditch he stopped and made a note
and then, about a mile further on, a tortoise, somebody's pet,
creeping, slow as marriage, up the road. Slow
but certain, Mrs Aesop, wins the race. Asshole.
What race? What sour grapes? What silk purse,
sow's ear, dog in a manger, what big fish? Some days
I could barely keep awake as the story droned on
towards the moral of itself. Action, Mrs A., speaks louder
than words. And that's another thing, the sex
was diabolical. I gave him a fable one night
about a little cock that wouldn't crow, a razor-sharp axe
with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle.
I'll cut off your tail, all right, I said, to save my face.
That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.
7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of