“Water is the driving force in nature.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
Take a moment to think about water. It is an essential element of life and no one can live without it. Water can serve as a way to escape or discover new lands and, most often, it is a source from which civilizations are build.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poems in the Feminine Gospels are all tales of women surviving, living, struggling, protesting, overcoming, and sometimes succumbing to society and nature. In The Long Queen, “She sent her explorers away / in their creaking ships and was queen of more, of all the dead / when they lived if they did so female. All hail to the Queen.” The power of a woman is exude throughout these poems. Queen Elizabeth has the power and strength to send massive fleets of ships across oceans to conquer land in her name! But, even a queen, in all her glory, has to be a conquerer from the confines of her room.
For the Queen, water was both a boundary and a possibility. Water made it possible for her subjects to travel and bring back treasures but even a woman in rule had no power to step beyond her door.
In the poem, Beautiful, Duffy writes, “A thousand ships – on every on a thousand men, each heaving at an oar, each with her face before his stinging eyes, her name tattooed upon the muscle of his arm…” This paints a whole new picture of women and water. Men, thousands of men, bring there women in their minds, on there arms, in their hearts, across the sea. But where are the women really? Far from the sea, at home, safe. Duffy gives us something to think about here, why are women so prevalent in mens thoughts and yet thought of as inferior?
Now, how do women themselves, use water to escape? Duffy writes a very interesting poem in the final pages of her collection; The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, gives us insight into how women escape and what that means for their livelihoods. Mrs. Mackay is a head teacher at an all girls school. This school is meant to educate proper young ladies and teach them etiquette for their futures. The girls are fed up with the way that society confines them so they laugh! They laugh and just keep laughing. This, as you can imagine, disrupts everything within the school. The teachers can’t teach and thus their meaning and purpose in life is put into question. Mrs. Mackay has taught at Stafford for years, she is a wife who gets no satisfaction from her marriage and the only thing she has control over is her teaching. When this is taken from her in the form of laughter she is forced to come up with a solution to her life crisis. How does she find meaning in life? How does she find her purpose or a passion for living? Mrs. Mackay finds walking to be her pleasure. She might be walking to find something, a destination, a purpose. Or, she may be walking to get away. To get away from a life that doesn’t provide her with anything worth hanging onto. In the end, she just keeps walking into the sea. Picture walking into the sea, not swimming, but letting your legs wade in till you can’t touch the bottom. Letting yourself be pulled in and taken away to a new world, a new start, a new existence. Mrs. Mackay uses water as her gateway into the unknown. But, maybe the unknown is more exciting than what she has known.