Carol Ann Duffy’s After Mrs Tiresias is a very popular poem at live readings. Females in the audience enjoy the spirited irony of the joke about a man who becomes a woman, finding the monthly period a painful trial worthy of a week’s bed rest and two gp’s call out. It also charms its readers because it moves between ironic comedy, pathos and heated eroticism with a natural ease. It is a poem happy with its own body and readers know it!
The transformation of husband to female companion carries with it the same conventional constraints as his dress suggests whilst still a male. Duffy, like Dickens is an expert on repulsion. We can smell his complacency and hear his tedious, self congratulatory conversation, his artificality with those elbow pads for academic ‘authenticity’ no doubt!
She captures the quiet resignation of the spirited and resourceful wife, who is prepared to greet her husband’s dramatic life change with optimism and compassion. She loves him as male or female. But he starts to sneer at her acceptanceand her romantic needs. His rigidity goes on.
The insincerity and egotism continue to reign, epitomised by his ‘flirt’s smile’. He is entirely concerned with appearances, externally referenced to the point of theatricality. Hopeless in bed, a betrayer of his former wife’s loyalty, he pursues fame whilst she finds sexual release with another woman, a ‘real’ woman who gives the wife what she has never had: ‘ My red wet cry in the night.’ Orgasm is deliciously expressed by Duffy’s wife here , through a sensory mosaic of vivid vitality- sights, sounds, touch and scents- ironically the ex -husband knows enough of the wife’s character to recognise her physically satisfied demeanour. He can never be the sultry sexy female lover. He is far too self absorbed and conventionally minded. He is just a collector of the external details of feminine behaviour , and a constructor of the shape of female identity rather than the luscious essence found by Duffy’s wife. and enjoyed with her attentive lover.
And this is my lover, I said,
the one time we met
at a glittering ball
under the lights,
among tinkling glass,
and watched the way he stared
at her violet eyes,
at the blaze of her skin,
at the slow caress of her hand on the back of my neck;
and saw him picture
her bite at the fruit of my lips,
my red wet cry in the night
as she shook his hand
saying How do you do;
and I noticed then his hands, her hands,
the clash of their sparkling rings and their painted nails.
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