Literary Wives: The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This month, we’re talking about Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a 1999 collection of poetry.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, October 6, when we’ll be discussing Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22.

photo (112)Dear Readers, it will come as no surprise to you that I love Carol Ann Duffy. I’ve talked about her poetry in a couple of different contexts (here and here), and she’s one of the few writers whose work I’ll buy without reading reviews or flipping through pages. Several of the poems in The World’s Wife are included in Ms. Duffy’s Selected Poems, which is how I first learned of the book.

In The World’s Wife, Ms. Duffy imagines the voices of the women close to famous historical or cultural male figures (“Mrs. Lazarus”, “Frau Freud”) or the voices of the people those male figures might have been had they been female (so, “The Kray Sisters” instead of the Kray Brothers, “Queen Kong” instead of King Kong), or the voices of women whose stories have been rendered in men’s voices (“Delilah,” “Little Red Cap”).

The poems range from a few lines to a few pages long, but all of them feature Ms. Duffy’s trademark sharp wit, incisive language, and zinging, unexpected rhymes. These poems are often funny and always thought provoking, a glorious medley of feminist social commentary in an entertaining package.

Usually, this is the part of the post in which I’d address our Literary Wives questions, but since this book presents so many women, it would be folly to write about them all. In general, though, Ms. Duffy presents a picture of wifehood that is at once one of frustration and one of power; the invisible wives of history are, in The World’s Wife, fully imbued with agency, requiring our attention. Ms. Duffy asks us to consider what it would be like to mourn and grieve for a dead partner, only to have him reappear (“Mrs. Lazarus”) or what it would be like to be terrified that your husband might accidentally turn you into gold (“Mrs. Midas”).

Sometimes Ms. Duffy’s characters supply an answer to a vexing historical quandary. In “Anne Hathaway,” Shakespeare’s wife tells us exactly why her husband in his will left her “my second best bed.” Sometimes her speakers are drawn forward into the modern era. We see wily “Mrs. Faust” making use of her husband’s bargain, and witness “Mrs. Tiresias”‘s  exasperation when her gender-changing husband experiences menstruation for the first time (hint: a strongly-worded letter to “the powers that be” demanding paid menstrual leave ensues”).  These are “Bad girls. Serious women.” They’re not always women you’d like to meet, but they’re fascinating creations.

Feminine GospelsIf you loved The World’s Wife and are wondering which book to read next, I’m happy to recommend Ms. Duffy’s collection Feminine Gospels (2002), which you might consider a kind of follow-up to The World’s Wife. I read it recently and it was fantastic. Like The World’s Wife, the characters in the poems allow us entry into the world from a female perspective, though one much more everyday, not necessarily associated with names everyone knows. Feminine Gospels includes a long poem, “The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High” which sparkles with wit and depth and character; I don’t usually go in for non-epic long poems, but this one is just fabulous.


Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Ariel at One Little Library will be posting sometime in the next couple weeks)

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

10 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

  1. I love this line from your review: “a glorious medley of feminist social commentary.” That’s exactly what this collection is, and I love that it does so from the voices of women. The female experience can only really be told and understood by those of us who experience it. I really want to read Feminine Gospels now. Thanks for the recommendation! I hope my library has it. I had to get The World’s Wife through inter-library loan.

  2. A thoughtful review, Carolyn! There were indeed so many different women and wives that it was hard to really define “wife” in the book (though I tried, and probably disregarded a number of characters in the process). I loved this collection, and it really fit what I have been looking for: passionate poetry that deals with identity and gender. Thanks so much for selecting this book for us (I think you did?) and for passing along another Carol Ann Duffy recommendation!

    • I am so glad most of us liked this book! After everyone hated Ahab’s Wife I was nervous about making another pick . . . And I loved the way you picked out characters to talk about!

  3. At least I did seem to catch the main themes. Quite unique feminist iterations! Thank you for recommending it, Carolyn! It was quite a departure from the norm! 😃

  4. Pingback: Literary Wives: The World’s Wife | One Little Library

  5. Pingback: Recommended Reading: Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

What's on your mind? Leave a comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s