Carol Ann Duffy conveys the abject stoniness of grief in her poem, Mrs Lazarus. The widow of the most famous ‘miracle’ in the Christian Bible narrates her own ‘death’ after the loss of her husband, Lazarus. In Duffy’s poems, Mrs Lazarus and Demeter both share , through the deployment of the first person narrator, a violently realised sense of horror at being left behind, to live. They are literally alive, but emotionally dead.
Death kills more than the merely dead, as Duffy’s superb Medusa poem also reveals.
Duffy’s poetic details in Mrs Lazarus, focus on ‘stones’ in particular as a means of making physically apparent Mrs Lazarus’ own coldness and isolation, as well as the bleak indifference of the world to death’s monumental occurrence. Causing pain to herslef is a desperate and poignant reminder is that she is still alive and feels pain. She causes herself intense physical pain as an outlet for severe mental anguish. Control has gone. How can we pretend to control our livrs when everyone we care about can be wiped out with a blink of an eye?
Stones give powerful representation to literal and metaphorical, even psychical entombment. Think also about Duffy’s sympathetic portrayal of Medusa, surrrounded by those stony testaments to her own social , romantic suicide, and of course, King Lear’s famous declaration when Cordelia his daughter is maliciously murdered , that those left are but ‘men of stones.’ Stones do not move. They are numb to feeling, cold to the touch, yet ageless and remain when all else have perished through time. Can they ever be utterly destroyed or do they become dust and in this way, ultimately resemble us as much as we resist?
In Mrs Lazarus, therefore, widow hood is grittily imagined; the ‘d’ sounds emphasise finality, lastness palpably imagined. They are spat out, just like life itself, after someone so dear has gone forever. The repeated use of the past tense, underlines the finality and finishedness of the ‘end’ of Lazarus and by implication, Mrs Lazarus too. Indeed it could be said, that where Medusa and indeed Miss Havisham in Havisham, turns all about her to stone as she cannot bear rejection any more, Mrs Lazarus turns to the past tense to entomb herself, her way., as she cannot bear the weight and the pathos of the present tense , when the man she loved has gone. Think about the emotional poigmnancy of the tenses-both past and present. When she uses the pasttense it could be argued she is attempting to join her dead husband as she cannot bear the present without him?
But and yet, she does not die. She arranges suicide, a noose, but this escapes her and so the poem delicately charts her rebirth, her re-entry into life. Look how the poem’s breath reawakens, and perection embraces delicate details of life.
The tentative bravery of Mrs Lazarus seals our sympathy. She is a strong, brave, loyal soul. She models survival, after modelling the devastation of grief and is just beginning to thrive when horror of horrors, the famous miracle takes place! Not so much a miracle in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, but a horrible surprise; a sort of macabre, gothic joke accompanied by voyeuristic neighbours bent on prurient pleasure. Even the resurrected Lazarus himself, finds his return terrifying and is repulsed by his abject condition. For like the famous Monkey’s Paw story, this return is truly a return of the rotting, decaying dead!
Once we have moved on from death says the poem, how can we move back? That is of course where Duffy and Christianity part company. The former seems to suggest that tampering with the cycle of life produces considerable problems for all. The latter regards such a transgression of mortality as essential to our faith in a transcendent God. We need a resurrected Lazarus for Christ’s power and forgiveness to be apparent.
With faith as Winterson says in The Passion, ‘All things are possible’. Duffy seems to be offering something slightly less faithful, yet not faithless surely? And truly provocative! AND Lazaus is resurrected but not without being physcially in a state of disrepair and profoundly bemused if not apologetic for his violation of mortal laws.
The Woman in Black
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