Feminist Sundays: "Girls, forget what you've read. It happened like this -"

For this week's Feminist Sunday, we thought we'd share one of our favorite poems with you: Carol Ann Duffy's Eurydice. But first a few words on the remarkable volume this poem is part of: The World's Wife. The World's Wife relies on a simple but effective idea: it takes familiar stories of male heroes, from history or fiction, and retells them from the perspective of a female counterpart. The refashioned narratives range from Greek mythology to Freud's biography, and from Grimms' Fairy Tales to Hollywood blockbusters. In most cases, the woman whose voice we hear is the wife or mistress of the hero (hence the book's title), but there are a few stories retold from the point of view of a sister, and a couple that break the mold entirely, by relating two female perspectives and mentioning a man only indirectly (Demeter), or by exploring a gender-swapped version of the original narrative (like in the awesome Queen Kong).
You can easily see why we'd love this book. Our favorite stories are in there - and getting a new twist on them is always nice - but there is more to it than that. Giving a voice to a neglected female character, making her front and center and letting her give her take on the hero, is more than an addition to the original story - it's a vindication. And what is awesome about it is that we don't simply get the same old stories told by a different narrator. Duffy engages with these narratives by bringing women's experiences and women's concerns to the table, making us aware of the patriarchal conventions that underlay the originals. In most cases, getting her side of the story doesn't complete the story, it changes it altogether (in poignant, funny, raunchy ways).

One of the most satisfactory aspects of this book is the subversion of the idea that the hero's love interest is awestruck by him and happy to be part of his story. This is the central point in Eurydice, the poem we have unanimously settled on as our favorite. We've always suspected that if the muse talked back, what she'd say wouldn't be particularly kind to the poet. And it isn't. It's funny (a lot of poems in this volume are), it's biting, it's not without its beautiful moments despite this ("Please let me stay./ But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.") - it's, in a word, perfect and you should all read it below.


Girls, I was dead and down
in the Underworld, a shade,
a shadow of my former self, nowhen.
It was a place where language stopped,
a black full-stop, a black hole
where words had to come to an end
And end they did there,
last words,
famous or not.
It suited me down to the ground.

So imagine me there,
out of this world,
then picture my face in that place
of Eternal Repose,
in the one place you'd think a girl would be safe
from the kind of a man
who follows her round
writing poems
hovers about
while she reads them,
calls her his Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
Just picture my face
when I heard -
Ye Gods -
a familiar knock-knock-knock at Death's door.
Big O.
Larger than life.
With his lyre
and a poem to read with me as the prize.

Things were different back then.
For the men, verse-wise,
Big O was the boy. Legendary. 
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals,
aardvark to zebra,
flocked to his side when he sang,
fish leapt from their waves
at the sound of his voice,
even the mute, sullen stones at his feet
wept wee silver tears.

Bollocks. (I'd done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And, given my time all over again,
rest assured that I'd rather write for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
        etc. etc.

In fact, girls, I'd rather be dead.

But the Gods are like publishers,
usually male,
and what you doubtless know of my tale
is the deal.

Orpheus strutted his stuff.

The bloodless ghosts were in tears.
Sisyphus sat on his rock for the first time in years.
Tantalus was permitted a couple of beers.
The woman in question could scarcely believe her ears.

Like it or not,
I must follow him back to our life -
Eurydice, Orpheus's wife -
to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,
octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
elegies, limericks, villanelles,
histories, myths...

He'd been told that he mustn't look back
or turn round,
but walk steadily upwards,
myself right behind him,
out of the Underworld
into the upper air that for me was the past.
He'd been warned
that one look would lose me
for ever and ever.

So we walked, we walked.
Nobody talked.

Girls, forget what you've read,
it happened like this -
I did everything in my power
to make him look back.
What did I have to do, I said,
to make him see we were through?
I was dead. Deceased.
I was Resting in Peace. Passé. Late.
Past my sell-by date...
I stretched out my hand
to touch him once
on the back of the neck -
Please let me stay.
But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.

It was an uphill schlep
from death to life
and with every step
I willed him to turn.
I was thinking of filching the poem
out of his cloak,
when inspiration finally struck.
I stopped, thrilled.
He was a yard in front.
My voice shook when I spoke -
Orpheus, your poem's a masterpiece.
I'd love to hear it again.

He was smiling modestly
when he turned
when he turned and he looked at me.

What else?
I noticed he hadn't shaved.
I waved once and was gone.

The dead are so talented.
The living walk by the edge of a vast lake
near the wise, drowned silence of the dead

"Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged." 
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  1. Good choice. I absolutely love The World's Wife. Duffy read extracts from it before it was published at Birmingham Book Festival, when I was an undergraduate, and I thought it was incredible. Between that and Germaine Greer's The Whole Woman, published around the same time, I finally had a name to give to the things I believed in. Wonderfully, extracts from The World's Wife have been on the UK English syllabus the entire time I've been a teacher and it's been an absolute joy to explore them year after year.

    1. Oh, it's so cool that you get to teach about this stuff. I get what you're saying about thinking it incredible, it was my first reaction as well. I don't know much about The Whole Woman, but it (along with The Female Eunuch) keeps popping up in conversations like this, so I am more than intrigued. Will get around it eventually.

  2. I love love love The World's Wife. Twisting old stories is always amazing, but twisting them with feminist-y goodness is the absolute best.