GA Book Club #5: ‘Feminine Gospels’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Welcome back to the Girls Against book club! It’s the first Sunday of December which means it’s time to discuss the book we’ve been reading
during November, Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy. This is the first time the book club has read a poetry collection and I’m hoping those of you who joined in this month enjoyed reading it. I have to admit that I struggled to get
through the collection a little because, as an English Literature student,
poetry is something I generally read in an academic sense. This meant that not
only did I need to be in a quiet environment when reading the poetry, which is
difficult when you do most of your recreational reading on public transport, but it was also difficult for me not to over-analyse every single word in each of
the poems. However I’ve wanted to read some of Duffy’s poetry for a while and so I’m glad I finally have and it was a nice change to read something other
than a novel recreationally. Anyhow, let’s get on with discussing some of the
poems that I liked!

‘Beautiful’ ,one of the first poems in the collection, references the lives of notable historical female figures, depicting how they are defined by their appearance to men. Duffy describes Helen of Troy as ‘the girl next door’, Cleopatra as ‘wrapped in satins, like a gift’, Marilyn Monroe as a ‘dumb beauty’ and Princess Diana being told to ‘act like a fucking princess’. This portrayal of the women as defined by their looks is undermined by the tone of anger created throughout the poem, which feels like a fight against the objectification these women and many other women all around the world face. This is epitomized by the last line of the poem, ‘History’s stinking breath in her face’ which depicts the terrible effects of creating a persona of a woman and forcing her to live by it, such as in Princess Diana’s case.

Another poem in the collection, ‘The Woman Who Shopped’, is an interesting criticism of capitalism and the commodification of women and their bodies. The first section of the poem is a seemingly never-ending list of someone’s wants, ‘wanted a wedding, a wedding dress, groom, married him, wanted
a honeymoon, went on one’. The second part of the poem sees the women in
question transformed into some sort of department store, portraying how excess can affect the self but also perhaps depicting the damaging effects of
objectifying and commoditizing women’s bodies, as Duffy states that ‘crowds
would queue overnight at her cunt, desperate for bargains’. The use of metaphor throughout the entire collection was a clever way to force the reader to reconsider aspects of our society and particularly the role of women as often impossibly hyperbolic situations were given a real meaning which made me think differently about the topics in discussion.

Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection is ‘Loud’ as Duffy uses it to deal with real-life issues head on, preceding the poem with the statement that ‘Parents with mutilated children have been turned away from the empty hospital and told to hire smugglers to take them across the border to
Quetta, a Pakistani frontier city at least six hours away by car.’ It’s so
important that creators of art use their voices to help tackle issues going on
in the world and Duffy’s decision to include this statement in the collection
is brilliant as it forces the reader to acknowledge that the things in this
poem, and in all of the other poems, are truly happening, providing no escape from this fact. The poem itself is also great as it
portrays a woman who finds her voice as a result of the issues Duffy makes the reader aware of. Finding your voice is something I feel a lot of women remember experiencing whether that’s through reading a book, talking to a teacher or parent, social media or, as it so happens in this poem, through something that makes you so angry that you are determined to find your voice in order to change it. I remember the moment I found my voice and this poem reminded me of that. ‘Now she was loud’ Duffy writes, epitomizing the change that takes place in a woman when they realize what they should be fighting for.

Feminine Gospels as a collection is empowering and inspiring and I am so glad that this text and many of Duffy’s others are studied at schools as this is the type of text that could really enable a young person to find their voice and motivate a generation to try and change the world. In terms of poetry it’s pretty easy to read so I would definitely give it a go if you haven’t already and are looking to widen the types of texts you read like me!

One of our lovely new reps Megan Ryder-Maki (@ixxmcmxl on Twitter) told me about her views of the poetry collection:

‘Carol Ann Duffy’s collection is a powerful depiction of the inequalities and injustices women have faced throughout history to present day. Duffy challenges The Gospel Truth in her title alone, an account created and
historically taught by men. However, she does not exclude men from her poetry collection. Instead, she focuses on the female form and transcends reality entirely in poems such as ‘The Woman Who Shopped’ and ‘Map Woman’. This gives us an example of the perception and sexualisation of women in a metaphorical and symbolic way rather than simply isolating and blaming men. The shocking but powerful collection is one of my favourites from Duffy and for those who read it, you will never forget it!’

For the month of December we will be reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up as a lesbian within a religious family and community. I’ve chosen this book, with the help of some of the other GA reps, because Winterson is a truly inspiring woman within the literary community and generally as she
uses her literature to explore topics within and surrounding intersectional
feminism and this is a book that I’ve wanted to read for a while about important real-life experiences.

I’d love it if you want to get involved in reading this novel over the next month! One of the reasons I’ve decided to read it now is because it’s fairly short at under 200 pages and I know December is a busy month for everyone, including me, so I hope this encourages you to join in. Plus, the first Sunday of January falls on the 7th, which gives you even more time to read the book! Remember if you do decide to read this month’s book you can contribute your thoughts to the discussion section of our GoodReads page (–oranges-are-not-the-only-fruit) or email us at
with your thoughts to be featured in next months post!

Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).