Carol Ann Duffy is just such a badass in my opinion. She is the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly LGBT person to hold the position of Britain’s poet laureate, appointed to her in May 2009. Her collection of poems in Feminine Gospels are, unsurprisingly, all about the experiences of women- ranging from the historical to the imagined. This entire book of poetry is inspiring and beautiful.
The poem that intrigued me most was the one entitled “The Map-Woman” because it drew upon the skin of a woman being the map of her town. And what attracted me most about this, besides the amazing imagery, your past is always a part of you. What is interesting in this case is that the fact that a person always carries their past with them is both good and bad. I loved the positive idea that your past and hometown is always with you wherever you go and so I was conflicted because I also enjoyed the haunting imagery that you can never fully escape the places you leave.
The second stanza of the poem is where the beginning of the imagery is:
Over her breast was the heart of the town,
from the Market Square to the Picture House
by way of St Mary’s Church, a triangle
of alleys and streets and walks, her veins
like shadows below the lines of the map, the river
an artery snaking north to her neck. She knew
if you crossed the bridge at her nipple, took a left
and a right, you would come to graves,
the grey-haired teachers of English and History,
the soldier boys, the Mayors and Councillors.
Duffy makes it really easy to imagine the criss-crossing lines of roads across this woman’s body and begin putting into perspective the past that haunts this map woman everyday. Even as she moves away from that town and into a new one, the map of her hometown does not fade:
She didn’t live there now. She lived down south,
abroad, en route, up north, on a plane or train
or boat, on the road, in hotels, in the back of cabs,
on the phone; but the map was under her stockings,
under her gloves, under the soft silk scarf at her throat,
under her chiffon veil, a delicate braille…
I, personally, love the idea of being rooted and attached to where you’re from, but in this poem, it sounds more like a burden than a benefit. This woman can’t erase her past and, specifically, can’t erase the map lines of the place she’s from. This relates to our overall theme of Englishness in connection with the poem “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke in his lines: If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England… With these two poems in mind, this idea of Englishness and your nation being a part of your identity is clearly defined. But this poem is about more than feeling a sense of national identity in your skin, it’s about finding your own skin that you’re comfortable with.
At the end of the poem, the map woman has shed her map skin and lays it out on the floor and leaves it behind. This is an example of your past haunting you and clinging to your skin in the form of a tattoo. Even though where a person is from is an identifier of them, it doesn’t have to be your entire life. Where you go, the journey you take, and the people you meet are better identifiers than where you’re from. The last couple lines in the last stanza are a perfect wrap up of the poem and really explain exactly what Duffy is trying to say:
She she drove, the town in the morning sun glittered
behind her. She ate up the miles Her skin itched,
like a rash, like a slow burn, felt stretched, as though
it belonged to somebody else. Deep in the bone
old streets tunnelled and burrowed, hunting for home.
So while she has shed her old skin and is moving forward in her life, her past will continue to be a part of by burrowing deep in her bones. But she can search for her own home and a new skin. It’s a poem full of beautiful imagery and powerful words. It’s a poem about the importance of keeping your roots and yet expanding into something more individualized.
[I couldn’t find anything in relation to this poem, but I found a video of Carol Ann Duffy reading another one of her poems and I thought it was powerful to see her reading something she wrote.]