Friday, 20 May 2011

Salome, by Carol Ann Duffy

Two references in the New Testament of the Bible, in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, give us the background to the character of Salome. Briefly, she danced for King Herod who was so delighted that he said he would give Salome whatever she asked for. Salome, prompted by her mother Herodias, asked for the head of John the Baptist, who had said that Herodias' marriage to Herod was unlawful. Herod had no choice but to send an executioner to John the Baptist, who was in prison. His head was brought to Salome 'in a dish', and she presented it to her mother.

In her poem “Salome”, Carol Ann Duffy adopts the persona of the dancer, but she doesn't sound like a biblical character at all. The impression is of a contemporary girl or young woman. The narrator tells us at the start of the poem 'I'd done it before' and says she will probably do it again: do what again? Salome has woken up with a head on the pillow next to her, and she doesn't even know whose it is. She doesn't seem to think that's important, either. It may not sound too out of the ordinary; people might have too much to drink and not remember what happened when they wake up the next morning. Salome tells us that the man is 'Good-looking' with 'dark hair'; so far, so good. Then, however, she says that the hair is 'rather matted' and that the beard is a lighter shade of red than it had been. It begins to sound as though the head is blood stained. Salome goes on to say that the 'deep lines around the eyes' could be caused by laughter, but she thinks more likely by pain. His mouth is 'crimson', another sign of blood. When she kisses his lips, they are 'Colder than pewter', a simile that tells us that he is dead. She tries to remember his name: 'Peter?' ends the first stanza.

Duffy links the second stanza with the first by opening it with more possible names: “Simon? Andrew? John?” They are all names of Jesus' disciples, and this is the first direct biblical reference. Salome then turns to her need to treat her hangover, wanting tea with 'dry toast'. The fact that she 'rang for a maid' makes it clear that she is from a high-class family. (Salome was the step-daughter of King Herod.) When the maid comes up with breakfast, Salome appreciates the 'innocent clatter' of the crockery, the tidying up, and the maid's conversation, described as her 'regional' patter. The second stanza closes with Salome's admission that she has a hangover and is in a dreadful state after a night on the tiles: 'wrecked as I was from a night on the batter.'

The third stanza opens with the brief but clear announcement 'Never again!' The focus now switches to Salome's determination to 'clean up' her act. She is determined to get fit, as well as to give up alcohol ('booze'), cigarettes ('fags') and sex – a cluster of three. As her thoughts turn to sex, she realises that she has to 'turf out' the man she slept with the previous night. She refers to him initially as the 'blighter', giving the impression of a nuisance, then the 'beater or biter', alluding to either physical violence or sexual perversion, perhaps. The stanza ends with the description that he had come to bed 'like a lamb to the slaughter', a simile that has biblical connotations and is ironic as he has in fact been killed.

The fourth and final stanza, which is also the shortest, begins with Salome looking at her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes 'glitter' – is it from a thought in her mind, or could it even be tears? She makes a sudden action, flinging back the sheets that are 'sticky red' with blood. Her comment on what she sees is 'ain't life a bitch', but actually it seems that Salome herself is the bitch. In the poem's closing line, she reveals that under the sheets is the man's head 'on a platter', just the way that John the Baptist's head had been brought to Salome.

One of the most striking elements of the poem “Salome” is Duffy's skilful use of language. There are alliterative phrases, such as 'clatter / of cups', 'clearing of clutter' and 'the blighter / the beater or biter', the last of which are also half rhymes. Running throughout the poem is a series of words ending in '-er': 'lighter', 'laughter' and 'pewter', for example, in the first stanza; these are also half rhymes. Others are complete rhymes but are dotted around in the poem: 'matter', 'flatter', 'clatter', 'batter', 'latter', and the final word 'platter'. Duffy avoids a restricting, traditional rhyming pattern, but the use of rhyme here and there throughout creates a unity, like a thread running through. Some of these words, such as 'clutter' and 'clatter' are also onomatopoeic. They add to the poem's fast rhythm which is in keeping with Salome's coldness or lack of emotion. The four stanzas are all of different lengths, and the lines vary between short, medium and long quite randomly. It is as though thoughts are popping in and out of Salome's mind as she deals with her hangover and flits from one pattern of thought to another. Duffy uses ellipsis twice in the first stanza, 'how to flatter …' to create a pause; she also uses enjambment here and there to extend an idea or a description.

Salome” is a poem that shocks by the narrator's flippant attitude, and Duffy achieves this effect perfectly. The language itself is informal, contemporary and includes a few slang phrases such as 'a night on the batter' or 'ain't life a bitch'. Above all, the combination of the poem's rhythm and Duffy's skilful use of rhyme and half rhyme throughout the poem give an almost humorous tone to the dark theme. “Salome” paints a picture of decadence, of a dancer who has revelled in nights filled with alcohol, smoking and sex. Just when she realises the error of her ways and decides things will have to change, she discovers the severed head under the sheets. Duffy brings the poem to a dramatic conclusion, saving this image for the final line. 

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