By Carol Ann Duffy
She was born from an egg,
a daughter of the gods,
divinely fair, a pearl, drop dead
gorgeous, beautiful, a peach,
a child of grace, a stunner, in her face
the starlike sorrows of immortal eyes.
Who looked there, loved.
She won the heart
of every man she saw.
They stood in line, sighed,
knelt, beseeched Be Mine.
She married one,
but every other mother’s son
swore to be true to her
till death, enchanted
by the perfume of her breath,
her skin’s celebrity.
So when she took a lover, fled,
was nowhere to be seen,
her side of the bed unslept in, cold,
the small coin of her wedding ring
left on the bedside table like a tip,
the wardrobe empty
of the drama of her clothes,
it was War.
A thousand ships
on every one a thousand men,
each heaving at an oar,
each with her face
before his stinging eyes,
her name tattooed
upon the muscle of his arm,
a handkerchief she’d dropped once
for his lucky charm,
each seeing her as a local girl
made good, the girl next door,
a princess with the common touch,
queen of his heart, pin-up, superstar,
the heads of every coin he’d tossed,
the smile on every note he’s bet at cards
bragged and shoved across a thousand miles of sea.
Meanwhile, lovely she lay high up
in a foreign castle’s walls, clasped
in a hero’s brawn, loved and loved
and loved again, her cries
like the bird of calamity’s,
drifting down to the boys at the gates
who marched now to the syllables of her name.
Beauty is fake. Some said
she turned into a cloud
and floated home,
falling there like rain, or tears,
upon her husband’s face.
Some said her lover woke
to find her gone,
his sword and clothes gone too,
before they sliced a last grin in his throat.
Some swore they saw her smuggled
on a boat dressed as a boy,
rowed to a ship which slid away at dusk,
beckoned by the finger of the moon.
Some vowed that they were in the crowd
that saw her hung, stared up at her body
as it swung there on the creaking rope,
and noticed how the black silk of her dress
clung to her form, a stylish shroud.
Her maid, who loved her most,
refused to say one word
to anyone at any time or do pace,
would not describe
one aspect of her face
or tell one anecdote about her life and loves.
But lived alone
and kept a little bird inside a cage.
She never aged.
She sashayed up the river
in a golden barge,
her fit girls giggling at her jokes.
She’d tumbled from a rug at Caesar’s feet,
seen him kneel to pick her up
and felt him want her as he did.
She had him gibbering in bed by twelve.
But now, she rolled her carpet on the sand,
put up her crimson tent, laid out
silver plate with grapes and honey, yoghurt,
roasted songbirds, gleaming figs, soft wines,
and soaked herself in jasmine-scented milk.
She knew her man. She knew that when
he stood that night, ten times her strength,
inside the fragrant boudoir of her tent,
and saw her wrapped in satins like a gift,
his time would slow to nothing, zilch,
until his tongue could utter in her mouth.
She reached and pulled him down
to Alexandria, the warm muddy Nile.
Tough beauty. She played with him
at dice, rolled sixes in the dust,
cleaned up, slipped her gambling hand
into his pouch and took his gold, bit it,
Caesar’s head between her teeth.
He crouched with lust. On her couch,
she lay above him, painted him,
her lipstick smeared on his mouth,
her powder blushing on his stubble,
the turquoise of her eyes over his lids.
She matched him glass for glass
in drinking games: sucked lemons, licked
at salt, swallowed something from a bottle
where a dead rat floated, gargled doubles
over trebles, downed a liquid fire in one,
lit a coffee bean in something else, blew it,
gulped, tipped chasers down her throat,
pints down her neck, and held her drink
until the big man slid beneath the table, wrecked.
She watched him hunt. He killed a stag.
She hacked the heart out, held it,
dripping, in the apron of her dress.
She watched him exercise in arms.
His soldiers marched, eyes right, her way.
She let her shawl slip down to show
her shoulders, breasts, and every man
that night saw them again and prayed
her name. She waved him off to war,
then pulled on boy’s clothes, crept
at dusk into his camp, his shadowed tent,
touched him, made him fuck her as a lad.
He had no choice, upped sticks,
downed tools, went back with her,
swooned on her flesh for months,
her fingers in his ears, her kiss
closing his eyes, her stories blethering
on his lips: of armies changing sides,
of cities lost forever in the sea, of snakes.
The camera loved her, close-up, back-lit,
adored the waxy pouting of her mouth,
her sleepy, startled gaze. She breathed
the script out in her little voice. They filmed her
famous, filmed her beautiful. Guys fell
in love, dames copied her. An athlete
licked the raindrops from her fingertips
to quench his thirst. She married him.
The US whooped.
They filmed her harder, harder, till her hair was platinum, her teeth gems, her wyes
sapphires pressed by a banker’s thumb.
She sang to camera one, gushed
at the greased-up lens, her skin investors’ gold,
her fingernails mother-of-pearl, her voice
champagne to sip from her lips. A poet came,
found her wondrous to behold. She married him.
The whole world swooned.
Dumb beauty. She slept in an eye-mask, naked,
drugged, till the maid came, sponged
at her puffy face, painted the beauty on in beige,
pinks, blues. Then it was coffee, pills, booze,
Frank on the record-player, it was put on the mink,
get in the studio car. Somebody big was watching her
white fur, mouth at the mike, under the lights. Happy
Birthday to you. Happy Birthday, Mr President.
The audience drooled.
They filmed on, deep, dumped what they couldn’t use
on the cutting-room floor, filmed more, quiet please,
action, cut, quiet please, action, cut, quiet please,
action, cut, till she couldn’t stop saying the lines
or singing the tunes. The smoking cop who watched
as they zipped her into the body-bag noticed
her strong resemblance to herself, the dark roots
of her pubic hair.
Dead, she’s elegant bone
in mud, ankles crossed,
knees clamped, hands clasped,
empty head. You know her name.
Plain women turned in the streets
where her shadow fell, under
her spell, swore that what she wore
they’d wear, coloured their hair.
The whole town came
to wave at her on her balcony,
to stare and stare and stare.
Her face was surely a star.
Beauty is fate. They gaped
as her bones danced
in a golden dress in the arms
of her wooden prince, gawped
as she posed alone
in front of the Taj Mahal,
betrayed, beautifully pale.
The cameras gibbered away.
Act like a fucking princess
how they loved her,
the men from the press
Give us a smile, c*nt.
And her blue eyes widened
to take it all in: the flashbulbs,
the half-mast flags, the acres of flowers,
History’s stinking breath in her face.