Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Adultery’ and ‘Small Female Skull’

My cousin Alice recently asked for my opinion on a couple of Carol Ann Duffy poems she’s studying for her AS English literature. I had a quiet thirty minutes and was feeling creative, so I replied to her with the following little commentaries.

It’s a claustrophobic, intense and controlled poem. It has short stanzas and sentences, with not a word wasted. Words and objects keep twisting meaning: polo mints, faces, ‘darling’ all take on a darker meaning (it’s as if the whole poem is written with ‘dark glasses’). ‘Commuting’ seems a telling choice of word: exchanging things but ending up worse off (‘words’ into ‘bile’), while also trying to reduce guilt (‘commute a sentence’). The speaker’s point of view isn’t necessarily simple: how do we know (do we know?) that the speaker is female? Is she recollecting clues that she missed, or creating an imagined situation (is there any difference for us as readers)? Is she being assertive or defensive? ‘The same thing twice’ twice is uncomfortable and damning, but can be heard as mournful or angry, as can most of the poem. Talk of ‘abstract nouns’ indicates the tension between rationalising the situation (i.e. using a term like ‘abstract noun’), but having deep feelings invested it (i.e., using this particular abstract noun). Same with ‘commuting’. Even as the objects and well-chosen words shift meaning in the poem, ‘you’re a bastard’ has only one meaning though….

Small Female Skull
The poem felt like a comic memento mori (memory of death) poem. The skull certainly seems like a memento of some sort. Why is it being playfully ‘balanced’ –is it the speaker’s head, or something not noticed before (both of which are surprising)? And why does the scene take place in a toilet? It may make the reader take the poem less seriously, but the toilet is also a place where people think about the human body and its needs. Skulls don’t have scars, so the speaker must be making an association with something else painful in the third stanza– ‘shattering’ could apply to skulls again, and ‘braille’ is one of several eye-images in the poem. So the poem isn’t just a warning to the reader, a memento: it provokes memories in the speaker as well as containing them. The poem doesn’t just describe an object, but describes a particular situation in which that object exists, as seen through a pair of eyes. As in ‘Adultery’ the poem is a space where objects change meaning as the speaker writes about it.

So both poems, as I saw it, show how language doesn’t just describe objects, but contains the feelings and thoughts of the person using it. My closing tip was that if she had to chose one to write about, then I’d recommend going for the one she finds more difficult, because it could give her more to write about.

These little pieces do several things, such as asking lots of questions that pick at some of the poems’ complexities, explaining and trying to understand my reaction to reading the poems, writing about how the language and the speaker’s viewpoint shape meaning, and trying to unravel difficult points in both poems. The final task was to write about this clearly and concisely. In short, I tried to think critically about the poems and my reaction to them. The poems are like objects that I inspect and play with in my hands, all the time looking to sharpen my judgement and sensitivity.


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