Book Review: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

Book Review: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy


The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The World’s Wife is utterly fascinating. I’m not commonly a consumer of poetry, though I tend to enjoy it when I do think to pick it up. But this collection is unlike any poetry I’ve ever read. The theme here, peering into the minds of fictional, classical, historical women, often overshadowed by their more famous spouses, or gender-bent versions of famous male characters, is incredibly unique. And every single poem in the collection delivered something witty or clever. They made me think, which I think is one of the best compliments I could give this type of work. I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, so the thoughts below are a bit… untamed, if you will. So I’ll sum up my thoughts like this: if you’re looking to dip your toes into the waters of poetry and you happen to love fantastical stories with a strong female voice, The World’s Wife is the collection for you.

My favorite entries tended to be those inspired by either Christian scripture or classical mythology. Of those more classically inspired, I especially loved the poem about Thetis. The descriptions of her fight for freedom, of her transformation into so many wildly varying creatures, was enchanting. I could feel her defeat as if it were my own. I also loved the poem from Penelope’s perspective, detailing how she sank into her weaving after Odysseus didn’t return home and found herself maid the strands. She claimed to have “lost {herself} completely in a wild embroidery of love, lust, loss, and lessons learned,” and I loved how that sentiment was worded. By the time he returned, he was no longer missed. At least, so her story plays out in this particular poem. There was something prettily maudlin about “Penelope” that I truly adored.

And then there were the biblical entries. The amount of symbolism in “Queen Herod” is insane. There are layers upon layers of meaning here. It’s a poem that could be read half a dozen times and the reader would notice something new each time. I found the motivation behind her decision to have all the boy-children killed incredibly interesting, and vastly different from that of the biblical King Herod. I found “Salome” to be an interesting take, as well, though that one was far more tongue-in-cheek. Can you imagine waking up with a killer hangover only to find a severed head in bed with you? Yikes.

I appreciated the way Duffy’s style and meter changed poem by poem. In “Anne Hathaway,” her poem from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, she gives us an actual fourteen-line Shakespearean sonnet, which I thought was a lovely touch. The same can be said of the poem from Eurydice’s perspective. I loved that she kept referring to “the girls,” as if she was telling the Muses, or perhaps the Greek chorus that so often narrated stories, a story for once, instead of the other way around. While the collection was largely free-verse, I feel that I can say little about the style and meter because it did change so radically from poem to poem. What I can say is that, even when I felt I was missing some deeper meaning that I could sense but not see clearly, I never got tangled up in the writing itself. I found every single entry in this collection easy to read.

“Queen Kong” was a very unique poem. How differently would a gender-swapped King Kong act in regards to her love interest? The piece took a surprising, gruesome turn right at the end that actually made me gasp aloud. And then there were “Mrs. Rip Van Winkle,” “Mrs. Icarus,” “Mrs. Aesop,” and “Frau Freud.” All of these poems made me laugh, or at least chuckle internally. Not to be sexist, but I’m not sure exactly how much a man would enjoy this collection. The male half of the population is never shown in a flattering light within these pages. There’s a bitterness, aimed toward men, running through the entirety of the collection. While I understand it, and that choice does make sense with the idea of the whole, it grated and grew a bit tedious after the fifteenth poem or so. These lines from “Mrs. Beast” convey the misandric tone of the collection:

“…they’re bastards when they’re Princes,
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex is better.”

The imagery in some of these poems is by turns beautiful and vulgar, lovely and jarring. In “Medusa,” her former love is described as having “a shield for a heart and a sword for a tongue.” In “Mrs. Quasimodo,” she is scorned by her husband and gets revenge, her destruction called “the murdered music of the bells,” which I found incredibly evocative. But there were other turns of phrase that just made me uncomfortable. Which was most likely the intent, but it jarred me right out of my enjoyment of whichever poem I happened to be reading.

Some of thes entries in this collection, such as “The Devil’s Wife,” were a bit over my head. While I understood the main thrust of the poem, I felt like there was a deeper meaning I was missing. There were a few I didn’t care for, and others that I really loved in the beginning that included a line or thought that soured the lines before it. But some, like “Thetis” and “Queen Herod,” “Penelope” and “Mrs. Lazarus,” were wonderful.

I ended up very much enjoying The World’s Wife, and can actually see myself rereading it. All of these poems, whether I liked them or not, gave me a lot of food for thought. This is a very feminist collection that rewards a familiarity with classical stories while shattering them and piecing the splinters into something new. Whatever qualms I might’ve had, I can’t deny that it was wholly fascinating.

You can purchase this book from: Blackwell’s | Bookshop.org (Support Independent Bookstores)Amazon US | Amazon UK | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)

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