The World’s Wife

The partner bought me Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife in 2009. The collection features works ostensibly narrated by the wives of well-known historical and fictional men, famous men reimagined as women, or women who were well-known in their own right.
Some of the subjects include Mrs Midas, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Faust, Anne Hathaway, Queen Kong, Pygmalion’s Bride, Mrs Icarus, Frau Freud, Salome, Eurydice, Penelope, Mrs Beast and Demeter. I found the poems largely amusing but thought one can’t read them all in one sitting or the poems become repetitive and lose their effect. All the same, when the partner once again surprised me with tickets to Linda Marlowe‘s dramatic interpretation of selected poems from the book, I was thrilled.
The reading was at Trafalgar Studios, located predictably enough just off Trafalgar Square. In the theatre, there are two studios and our performance was in the smaller one, a cosy fringe-style venue.
Marlowe turned out to be a potent and versatile performer, able to switch easily from young maiden (e.g. “Little Red Cap”) to cynical wive (e.g. “Mrs Faust”, “Mrs Beast” and “Mrs Darwin”) to emotionally vulnerable  hunchback (“Mrs Quasimodo”) to love-struck ape (“Queen Kong”). For me, her turn as “Mrs Quasimodo”, a hunchback who thought she had found her love in Quasimodo only to discover that he was more attracted to normal-looking women was particularly heart-breaking:
Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.
better to be slim, be slight,
our slender neck quoted between two thumbs;
and beautiful, with creamy skin,
and tumbling auburn hair,
those devastating eyes;
and have each lovely foot
held in a bigger hand
and kissed;
then be watched till morning as you sleep,
so perfect, vulnerable and young
you hurt his blood.
(from “Mrs Quasimodo”, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, p. 37)
But the night was not all so serious and many of the selected poems highlighted Duffy’s unique brand of humour. The poem that got the most laughs was “Mrs Faust”, which ends with the lines: “I keep Faust’s secret still — / the clever, cunning, callous bastard / didn’t have a soul to sell” (p. 27).
Of course, much of the power and humour of the night came from the poet’s sharp writing and strong language. Hearing the poems read out loud, I was particularly struck by their rhythm, a reminder that sometimes literature needs to be read out loud to be fully appreciated. I could only imagine what it would have been like to hear Dickens the master perform his work.
On the train back home, I was re-reading the poems, and I could almost hear Marlowe reading them; it was as if she were lending me her voice, and thus giving me an understanding of rhythm that I am not sure I had before. This reminded me that a male poet living in Hong Kong, who I shall not identify except to say that his ego is so big it needs its own chair, told me that my poetry was completely lacking in rhythm. After the evening, I am still not sure if my poetry will scant perfectly, but at least I will be able to read other people’s work with a keener ear.

The performance was on 16 January, 2010.

Gontran wrote: “I know Mrs Darwin’s poem, which is very funny. But it originally comes from another collection, doesn’t it? Do you know Eliana Tomkins’s CD jazz adaptation of Duffy’s collection “Rapture”? You might like it. Here’s the place where you can buy it: http://www.jazzcds.co.uk/artist_id_638/cd_id_658
(I’m afraid I’ve never found a place, on the Internet, where you could listen to it… sorry… but maybe you’ll find something).
t wrote: “Dear Gontran, you are great. Yes some of the poems first appeared elsewhere before they were collected in The World’s Wife. I am a big fan of the poem “Mrs Darwin” and the audience absolutely loved it too. I will look at Eliana’s jazz adaptation of the award-winning collection Rapture. I read some poems in it; I should get a copy, actually.”


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