Psalms of Pleasure

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The poems in Carol Ann Duffy’s 1999 collection The World’s Wife are written from the perspective of the female counterparts of well-known male figures. My favorites are the stories inspired by the Bible: “Pilate’s Wife,” “Salome,” “Mrs. Lazarus,” “Delilah”—women who would have otherwise been consigned to being side characters in scripture. They speak in lines fragmented by enjambment; their words are woven carefully with religious diction and imbued with the divine aura of Duffy’s source material. As in David’s Book of Psalms, the rhythm of sentences in The World’s Wife is deliberate.

But unlike the psalms, The World’s Wife contains neither praise nor worship. There is, however, sex, lust, and indulgence aplenty. Duffy’s Delilah is no simple temptress. She speaks in abrupt anachronisms: “He fucked me again / until he was sore.” Salome, King Herod’s daughter, talks of getting “hungover and wrecked… from a night on the batter.” The evening before Jesus is sentenced to crucifixion, Pontious Pilate’s wife dreams that “His brown hands touched me… I woke up, sweating, sexual, terrified.” Pain. Pleasure. (Un)holy. Hot. For Duffy, poetry is the medium in which biblical women exist in the world after the sexual revolution.

But for obvious reasons, tension arises when we depict biblical characters in such an unbiblical way. Each character’s words are laced with a hedonistic sensuality that would make the pope blush. As an avid church-going Catholic, this is my sin: reveling in Duffy’s fragmented, blasphemous verse.

When writing borrows from religious sources like the Bible, we often jump to shallow conclusions. For feminist readers, the tantalizing trap would be to mark these works as a subversive interpretation of Christian texts, unearthing voices silenced throughout ancient history. Religious readers, on the other hand, may find that Duffy’s work wholly misrepresents the Bible and the values of temperance and chastity we determine it promotes. 

Yet we should remember that Samson was no prude—Judges 16:1 says “Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and visited her.” Many characters in the Bible were similarly transgressive. Genesis 19 depicts two daughters willfully procreating with their intoxicated father. If the biblical Delilah were to exist today, why wouldn’t she speak in lewd expletives when recalling the nights she shared with Samson? Crude, indecent lines like “He fucked me again / until he was sore” are not simply a biblical obscenity. Rather, Duffy reveals the crass sexual aggression innate to hypermasculinity. Samson—powerful, macho hero of the Israelites—is bound by this, saying “but I cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender. / I have to be strong. / What is the cure?” 

Scripture is sacred. But the Bible’s sacredness is not achieved through ablution. It is at times vulgar, containing acts that both the Vatican and the most radical advocates of the sexual revolution would condemn. Duffy’s poetry—more vulgar than its source material—perhaps builds upon the lessons we draw from scripture. After all, only through the vile ways biblical writers depict sex can readers understand and contextualize the Catholic values of prudence and chastity. Likewise, only through Duffy’s own coarse depictions of sex can she teach lessons of her own. 

Where does this leave The World’s Wife? Clearly, the collection is neither a feminist subversion of scripture nor simply another attempt by a postmodern writer to insult Western tradition and faith. But “Pilate’s Wife,” “Salome,” “Mrs. Lazarus,” and “Delilah” are lessons from unheard characters in our holy books. The World’s Wife is nothing to the Bible. But the beauty of Duffy’s fragmented lines, drawn from the divine, stands as a doctrine of its own.

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