AWP 2012 – Walking Among Words: U.K. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

March 5, 2012 § 18 Comments

By Betsy Andrews Etchart

I had played hooky from the conference for three hours the day before and so when, at 8 pm Friday evening, the urge to stay in my room instead of attend a poetry reading pushed me further into my mattress, I fought it.  It was Philip Levine, after all. And someone named Carol Ann Duffy.

I stripped off my pajama bottoms and put my pants back on.

I didn’t regret my choice to abandon writing panels the previous afternoon. I’d walked four cold minutes east on Adams to the Art Institute. Museums are my weakness. Or rather, museums give me strength. Since my days as an undergrad studying Michelangelo and Monet, each old master feels like a time-honored friend. Museums swap paintings more often than you’d think, and so each time I meet one of my old friends, we reminisce about the last time we met.

I had never been to the Art Institute. I mounted the Grand Staircase and found myself face-to-face with Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day.” Suddenly I was in Los Angeles in 1994. I’d flown in ostensibly to see the Caillebotte exhibition but really to meet a man who had already left me, who had never really belonged to me, but I didn’t know it then. After he broke my heart, he would give me an umbrella with this painting printed on the canopy. It protected me like the dome of St. Peter’s protects sinners.

At 8:15, repanted, I shrugged on my down parka and ducked across the street, found the International Ballroom?, filling to its capacity of nearly two thousand. One of the great things about traveling solo is that you can find single seats near the front.

The day before, one floor below the Caillebotte, I’d paused before a sculpture called “The Forest,” by the twentieth century French artist Jean Dubuffet. It’s about twice as wide and tall as a table at the book fair. Constructed of polystyrene and painted with white vinyl paint, it consists of undulating, simplified tree forms like awkward mushrooms connected at the canopy, delineated with curving black lines, like a white 3D jigsaw puzzle. If you were two feet tall you could walk among the trees. Get lost in them. Get found. Dubuffet intended this, for the man in the street to engage, and indeed, across town at the James R. Thompson Center Plaza, visitors do wander under the arches of his enormous “Monument with Standing Beast.”

Introductions were made. Ms. Duffy read first. She began with her 1999 book, The World’s Wife, in which she retells tales of men from mythology and literature from the point of view of their wives: Midas, Tiresias, Faust. All children know of King Midas, the foolish king who wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. He appeared most enduringly in Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses.

“As a child,” began Ms. Duffy, “I was enthralled and enchanted by the story, but as an adult, I found myself queasy thinking about being the wife of Midas after the wish was granted.”

Here is “Mrs. Midas,” shortly after her husband had been granted his wish: “…I made him sit on the other side/Of the room and keep his hands to himself/ locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone./The toilet, I didn’t mind….At least,/I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.”

Ms. Duffy’s voice was deep, full, and sonorous, and became three-dimensional all around me. I was standing in a grove of Jean Dubuffet’s trees, but instead of polystyrene, they were of her voice. I have never felt so viscerally surrounded by language. Maybe it’s the sound system, I thought, and concentrated on that. I decided it was not.

She continued on to Mrs. Tiresias: “All I know is this/he went out for his walk a man/and came home female.”

Before she read Mrs. Tiresias, she kindly paraphrased the plot. Each ellipse here represents approximately two seconds: “He came across a pair of snakes… attempting to mate…I have no idea how snakes…might do this. He prevented it by beating the snakes with his walking stick…as you would.”

She had the crowd in fits. 

Maybe it was the delivery? But I think mostly it was the words. I imagined Ms. Duffy herself walking among her poems as if among Dubuffet’s colony of trees—the words as environment, as architecture, as pantheon, forest.

She moved on to poems from her new book, The Bees. She is concerned about the state and fate of nature, so terribly illustrated by the honey bees’ Colony Collapse Disorder. By this time, I was just listening. One phrase, though, from a piece called “Cold,” I couldn’t not copy down: “…the windows blind with ice/My breath undressing itself in the air.”

It is good to be reminded that there is beauty in vulnerability.

I thought of how I have heard so much about writers and community, about how I am working toward becoming involved in my communities, both online and in West Phoenix. And here is this poet laureate, connecting not only with the people around her, but with the ancient past. She has joined a community of the dead and allowed them to live, to resonate in this room with more certainty and presence than any of us seated. By not just parroting the past but by inserting into ancient stories a contemporary female narrator in a contemporary setting, with cars and blowdryers—and by using an age-old narrative in its original form, a narrative poem to be read aloud. I was reminded of how, before the advent of the printing press, priests read from the Bible to the illiterate masses, traveling jongleurs spun tales in village squares, and poets like Ovid recited the memories of collected consciousness. Words as a hive.

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