By Carol Ann Duffy
Girls, I was dead and down
in the Underworld, a shade,
a shadow of my former self, nowhen.
It was a place where language stopped,
a black full stop, a black hole
Where the words had to come to an end.
And end they did there,
famous or not.
It suited me down to the ground.
So imagine me there,
out of this world,
then picture my face in that place
of Eternal Repose,
in the one place you’d think a girl would be safe
from the kind of a man
who follows her round
while she reads them,
calls her His Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
Just picture my face
when I heard -
Ye Gods -
a familiar knock-knock at Death’s door.
Larger than life.
With his lyre
and a poem to pitch, with me as the prize.
Things were different back then.
For the men, verse-wise,
Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
aardvark to zebra,
flocked to his side when he sang,
fish leapt in their shoals
at the sound of his voice,
even the mute, sullen stones at his feet
wept wee, silver tears.
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again,
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess etc., etc.
In fact girls, I’d rather be dead.
But the Gods are like publishers,
and what you doubtless know of my tale
is the deal.
Orpheus strutted his stuff.
The bloodless ghosts were in tears.
Sisyphus sat on his rock for the first time in years.
Tantalus was permitted a couple of beers.
The woman in question could scarcely believe her ears.
Like it or not,
I must follow him back to our life -
Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife -
to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,
octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
elegies, limericks, villanelles,
He’d been told that he mustn’t look back
or turn round,
but walk steadily upwards,
myself right behind him,
out of the Underworld
into the upper air that for me was the past.
He’d been warned
that one look would lose me
for ever and ever.
So we walked, we walked.
Girls, forget what you’ve read.
It happened like this -
I did everything in my power
to make him look back.
What did I have to do, I said,
to make him see we were through?
I was dead. Deceased.
I was Resting in Peace. Passé. Late.
Past my sell-by date…
I stretched out my hand
to touch him once
on the back of the neck.
Please let me stay.
But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.
It was an uphill schlep
from death to life
and with every step
I willed him to turn.
I was thinking of filching the poem
out of his cloak,
when inspiration finally struck.
I stopped, thrilled.
He was a yard in front.
My voice shook when I spoke -
Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece.
I’d love to hear it again…
He was smiling modestly,
when he turned,
when he turned and he looked at me.
I noticed he hadn’t shaved.
I waved once and was gone.
The dead are so talented.
The living walk by the edge of a vast lake
near, the wise, drowned silence of the dead.
Image: Lingua Maternalis, The Moleskine Diaries by Evi Tsaknia. Copyright Evi Tsaknia.