Whether considering differences between abuser and victim in ‘Lizzie, six’, the woman posing ‘nude’ as opposed to the artist who is ‘possessing’ her in ‘Standing Female Nude’, or the distinction between the more experienced and less-experiences lesbians in ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’, Duffy delves into the power imbalances within relationships.
In ‘Lizzie, Six’ the most obvious power imbalance is the young girl’s lack of physical space to speak; for every three lines her abuser has, she is permitted only one. The distinction between these two voices is heightened by Duffy’s italicisation of Lizzie’s speech, which visually clarifies the polarisation of the two characters. Indeed, Lizzie is shown to be overpowered by the prominent speaker of her abuser, who simultaneously interrogates, instructs, and threatens. Parallelism of various ‘what...’ and ‘where...’ questions highlights the overwhelming question of the final stanza, which shows the abuser’s complete inability to empathise for what he is doing to the victim. Through a structural patterning of a question followed by a response, Duffy increases our awareness of the abuser and victim’s dialogue, going on to use the poem’s form against the unsettling subject matter.
References to fairytales arise with the image of the ‘moon’, ‘wood’, and the ‘fields’, an illusion to a sense of innocence encouraged by iambic lines that give a nursery-rhyme like feel. And yet the form simulatenously disturbs, for by presenting such even quatrains it is almost as if Duffy stresses the inevitability of abuse. The imbalance of power is obvious through the several threatening allusions to sexual abuse:‘when I get up there’, ‘when your bottom’s bare’, ‘I’ll give you the dark’, plus a reshaping of the connotations of ‘love’. Looking at the verbs we can see how passivity is enforced on ‘Lizzie’; the abuser seems to be chasing the girl, following her up ‘stairs’, and the continuous repetition of ‘I’ll give’ leaves no doubt about who holds the power to ‘give’. In fact, this idea of ‘giving’ is made all the more ironic as the abuser is actually deliberately confiscating any power ‘Lizzie’ might have been allowed.
In ‘Standing Female Nude’ Duffy shows us a greater fight for power between the two characters, the ‘nude’ woman and the male artist. Nevertheless, the woman is once again shown to be subordinated to the male’s wants (yawn yawn, I know – hold your horses for ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’!) Even though the female speaker remarks, ‘It does not look like me,’ the artist wants her to be ‘represented analytically’. Through the dramatic monologue, the woman’s self-awareness and direct tone provides liberty of power through language; she possesses the litanies of titillation, ‘Belly nipple arse’, the way they run without punctuation making it sound routine, a daily occurrence. Her body, perhaps, does not have as much value because she prostitutes it, whether to be ‘hung/ in great museums’, or to ‘sell’ the ‘arts’ of ‘a river-whore.’ She is not represented truthfully, but as the cubist ideal, which yields back to the adverb ‘analytically’, since cubism used to sometimes be called ‘analytic’. The ‘nude’, then, has been duly appropriated for the artist’s own purposes, ‘for a few francs’.
Whereas the artist and the gallery go-ers ‘gaze’ or speak indirectly, ‘You’re getting thin,/ Madame, this is not good’, the female speaker ridicules and holds the situation up to light (wahey!). She uses the diminutive ‘little’ to reduce the artist (Freudian thought, anyone?), sceptical about what they call ‘Art’; ‘Maybe’, she says. And yet despite being an object of exploitation, possessed ‘on canvas’, despite the imbalances of power, both male and female aligned: ‘Both poor, we make our living how we can’. As the artist remarks, ‘There’s no choice’. Still, the ‘female nude’ has words and language as a way to ‘possess’ and ‘concentrate’ on showing the artist. As much as the artist is attracted to her, ‘stiffen[ing] for [her] warmth’, or showing her the painting ‘proudly’, the woman holds triumphant power over the man. She is deliberately illusive, her ‘smile confuses him’. He ‘lights a cigarette’, reminiscent of post-coital moments, whereas she concentrates on her ‘few francs’, bringing the poem to its cyclical finality: ‘twelve francs’ and a ‘Standing Female Nude’ that does not look like her, but what the ‘bourgeoisie’ will pay to ‘call’ ‘Art’.
In ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’, Duffy revels in the eroticism of seduction which lies in power shifts and role play, extending these ideas as she recounts a lesbian encounter. Through naming the poem after the fur cup and saucer, there is an immediate subtext of expectation; connotations of hair, namely pubic hair, are raised, as Duffy arguably refers to what Freud called the ‘Fetish Object.’ This idea of dining blurs naturally into the concept of sexual appetite/ hunger, and the normality of human sexual desires. Sexual experience becomes encoded in the everyday, just as we drink or have lunch, suggesting the normality and necessity of such. By constructing the encounter through delicate couplets, Duffy slows down the action, increasing the tension and the idea of an inevitable climatic build-up: there is time for the reader to pause, to ‘remember’, to imagine. Moreover, the deixis of paralleled ‘this’ brings an immediacy to the situation.
From the first couplet, women hold the power: they choose to remove themselves from the unsubtly of ‘loud’ men, taking their sexual pleasures ‘Far from’ this. The idea of a ‘secret life’ sounds exciting and illicit (quite true, no?), a combination of meetings which brings a sense of being alive and awake to the mundane repetition of other daily events. The metaphor of a ‘slim rope of her spine’ (dun-dun-dun...), which is heightened by the seductive, suggestive sibilance, creates an image of potential bondage or restraint. No doubt, power exchanges and power negotiations already figure. Although both women are active, the ‘She’ of this poem is leading, suggesting more, asking and encouraging. She prompts with ‘fur’, ‘rope’, and a ‘cup’. In this poem Duffy revels (she revels twice?! Twice, thrice...) in appreciating that power exchanges are not necessarily demeaning, hurtful or abusive, but can be extremely pleasurable if negotiated: notably, ‘She asked’, and did not presume.
Although there is a power imbalance with regards to one of the women being in charge, using imperatives, ‘Place’, and directing, ‘that’s right. Yes’, physically the two women are balanced. They both have the ‘sweet hot liquid’ which seems to connote cunnilingus, ‘her breasts were a mirror’ of the speaker’s own physical self, extended by the idea of ‘mirrors in the bed.’ The eroticism and sexual response comes from the a realisation and appreciation of women’s own physical identity, which is rooted in the recognition of physical sameness, rather than that of ‘the other’, i.e. the men.* Whereas in ‘Standing Female Nude’ the woman does not enjoy being objectified by the male painter, here the two lovers eroticise the act by deliberately objectifying it (choice, what a delightful thing!) and having the power to watch what they are doing.
The resounding ‘Yes’ can be seen as a response to the initial question of an initiation into a lesbian encounter which ‘Stirred’, just beginning. Contrary to both ‘Lizzie, Six’ and ‘Standing Female Nude’, ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’ is the only poem (out of these lot, ye understand) which celebrates potential power imbalances, recognising the mutual agreement and underlying balance. Certainly, the leading woman has power and control: ‘she undressed me’, explains the speaker, yet this is sexy because it is agreed and allowed. Duffy shows us how power can, and is abused, by those who ‘do not care’ about consent or the other in the relationship, just as the ‘female nude’ loses eroticism through what is primarily only a power exchange for money: ‘for a few francs’, to then ‘wine and dance’ and forget about having prostituted one’s body. Crucially (dazzling lights and curtains open please!), in ‘Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer’ it is only ‘Far from’ men that power imbalances can be successful negotiated to create something ‘sweet hot’ and seductive, rather than something that reeks of abuse, be it a male painter telling a woman that her body is ‘not good’, or chasing a six year old child till her ‘bottom’s bare’ and she’s ‘crying’, rightly ‘afraid’ of her abuser’.
*Interesting point of contrast is almost all descriptions of hetero relationships. Check out attention to 'the other'. Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex' springs to mind as fantastic theory on this, and the delightful Desdemona's ruminations on her darling Othello would prove interesting too.
Pro or anti essay? I might make more of a thing of this. Show off some other stuff, not just Duffy essays.