Medusa has been explored several times on this blog and I will be writing a full length, Tusi Note on the poem in the next few days. However Carol Ann Duffy’s poem was on my mind as I awoke today, so thought I would ‘jot’ a few ideas about the poem again, this time beneath each stanza. It is always interesting to compare your reactions to any text over a period of time, as the reactions often reveal what you may have concealed even from yourself and others. They are a form of autobiography, like a diary or set of photographs. ideas also evolve over time or decompose, perhaps because they have less resonance or conviction.
I find the poem fascinating because Carol Ann Duffy has re-imagined monstrosity as pathos. The malign solitude of Medusa, excluded from connection and intimacy through her ‘look’, becomes near enough to our own vulnerable experiencing of love and being lovable, to terrify! We are all Medusa-like at times! Duffy makes us all look in a mirror in this poem. Are we Medusa or Perseus or are we implicated in both? How uncomfortably proximate the poem seems!
So this is my February 20/2/2012 reaction to Medusa!
For another Tusi Note see Carol Ann Duffy’s Before You were Mine.
A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.
Rejection turns to rage as the emotional juggernaut of the presumed ‘events’ of Medusa’s intimate relationship take their toll on her equilibrium. Beautiful, intelligent and evidently passionate as Medusa was, the absent beloved’s perceived ‘neglect’ or ‘betrayal’ , transform her mentally and physically into a profoundly grotesque figure. Her feelings of rage are literally animated upon her scalp. She will literally petrify all who come to gaze upon her or even to greet her in any way at all. The curse of Athena excludes Medusa permanently from love and her only release is death. In this revsion, it is Medusa’s terrifying jealousy that makes her repulsive to others. She is the externalised embodiment of our own otherness. Of course Freud saw Medusa as the castrating mother figure too. Her writhing serpent laden head, an externalisation of castration fears.
Carol Ann Duffy carefully gives careful expression to the escalation of Medusa’s feelings of disquiet, an escalation perfectly captured through the simple use of the list. Each word is a sign of a different emotional state and temporal location. Each word/sign relates to another disappointment in Medusa’s relationship, a relationship corroded by distrust and cruelty, culminating in the hideous manifestation of her feelings becoming like poisonous snakes upon her head. This significant revision of the original myth, creates a new dialogue with the original tale. We have to reconsider Medusa as a figure more sinned against perhaps than sinning? And the writhing snakes upon her head are now as dangerous to Medusa herself perhaps as to others, though not in the same way. For Medusa’s suffering is the suffering of tormented, repetitive thoughts. The terrible revisitations of the night that hold our peace of mind to ransom.
For when we become fixated upon another’s movements and behaviours, the energies directed take over our mental space and feed unhealthy thoughts and attitudes. Here Duffy deliberately draws attention to the figurative aspect of Medusa’s imaginings: ‘as though my thoughts/hisssed and spat upon my scalp.’
Emotional discomfort is experienced as serpentine venom: a brilliant representation of the Janus faced union between hurt and hatred. The head is the source of self awareness here: a heated place of acute anxiety and ‘dis-ease’ . You can hear the hatred in this poem as well as the despairing loneliness of the abject figure of Medusa. Sounds do create feelings and the sounds of this poem escalate into self destruction.
As Pascal once said. ‘Man’s greatness resides in his knowing himself to be wretched.’ Medusa certainly has the self awareness to acknowledge her own wretchedness. It is as if this poem represents some terrible suicide note; arch, self loathing and dangerously ironic.
The second Stanza
My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?
Idealisation gives way to the reality of deception. The very ‘breath’ of Medusa becomes tainted by the poison of the beloved’ s deceit, so that the most elemental apparatus of life, the lungs, become cumbersome ‘bags’ corrupted by the air once shared, now infiltrated by bitter truth, where the breath is more spite than respite! Medusa’s beauty has become transmutated into the Gorgon version of the ‘femme fatale’. She is fatal to others, specifically men, her hair a writhing testimony to the abjection caused by rejection.
This is alienates her from her own kind and remember women do not suffer the fate of men with the glare of Medusa. They are not implicated in the hatred of the betrayal, even in Duffy’s reworking, though women are far from idealised in some of Duffy’s work, particularly when she is involved with them. Who we wonder is being specifically addressed by the use of the second person? Is is Perseus, the perfect God, come to slay her and reclaim male authority, reducing an angry woman to headlessness? Freud’s essay on Medusa talks of castration. Decapitation being a trope for castration and a warning to men about the dangers of female sexuality. In Duffy, we feel the pathos surrounding medusa’s death, as we have entered her consciousness and found a profoundly hurt human being, whose monstruousness is a convenient label attached to her by those double talking beings, who have betrayed her trust and love. Little wonder Medusa converts so whole heartedly to savagery, snakes and bullets!
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
So better by for me if you were stone.
Medusa’s hurt is pathologised, and the snakes writhing on her head, serve to represent the emotional wreckage of her mind. So the beginning of stanza three opens with a command: ‘Be terrified.’ It is immediately endstopped giving forbidding weight to the imperative. And we do ‘wait’ for the next declaration, this time only paused by a comma, adding pathos to the uneasy juxtaposition of terror and love. Love as terror; a volcanic release of venom!
We are in dangerous emotional territory indeed. Glenn Close’s infamous portrayal as the deranged ex-lover in the film Fatal Attraction has certain correspondences here. For rejection unsettles the lover in that film and she is condemned as the ‘bunny boiler’, the lunatic female, without even a hint of blame attached to the Michael Douglas,male lover figure, suffering violent repercussions, from the sanctity of his marital home.
However in Duffy’s poem, the poet is moving the reader always towards sympathy. We feel the process of Medusa’s thinking. Reason is emotion and vice versa. Her intelligence takes her to all tenses of possibility. She explores the ‘perfect man’ in past, present and future tenses. All tenses lead to hurt and therefore no healing escape is offered, no trust foreseen and she is left with only the cold isolation of stone. Listen to the near rhymes of ‘stone’ home’ and ‘own’. A terrible trinity of romantic despair, where intimacy and sexual ownership are supplanted by the secure comfort of the tomb-’stone’. Better to be a pariah, than a victim?
The terrible irony is of course that the ‘perfect man’ is Perseus, the ‘Greek God’ come to destroy Medusa and return the world to ‘stability’. Of course this stability is purchased through the murder of Medusa herself, so that the ‘female gone wrong’ can be punished for her stridency and unfeminine power and sexuality. By this point of the poem however we are not on the side of history.If history is made up of as ’his-story’ , we may feel that Medusa’s tale has been revised by Carol Ann Duffy as an appeal against misogynist history, as Medusa’s villification is dramatically questioned.
I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebbly fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
a handful of dusty gravel
I looked at a ginger cat,
shattered a bowl of milk.
I looked at a snuffling pig,
a boulder rolled
in a heap of shit.
I stared in the mirror.
Love gone bad
showed me a Gorgon.
I stared at a dragon.
from the mouth of a mountain.
And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
Look at me now.
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