Mrs. Sisyphus!

The position of Poet Laureate in the United Kingdom in recent decades became a 10 year appointment, and is an honorary position of the royal household and the gift of the Monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister.   There is a small honorary stipend along with a “butt” (barrel) of sherry – which is turned into some 660 bottles. The latter was the gift of the Monarch when in 1616 James I honored Ben Jonson. Some though mark John Dryden as the first official poet laureate appointed in 1668 by Charles II. It is quite ironic that the first woman poet laureate did not happen until close to 400 years later in 2009 when the poet Carol Ann Duffy was honoured. Some think of her as a strident feminist. Her 1999 collection – The World’s Wife are poems written in the voice of women who for too long were silenced or ignored because of their husbands’ success. Duffy tackles gender suppression, the suppression of women, and is a strong voice for the rights of women. Today is the first of two posts from her collection of poetry.

In the poem Mrs. Sisyphus she addresses the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the trickster who succumbs to the trick of others. Being given a choice after his death by the gods of the underworld, Sisyphus chooses to return to life and live for eternity. However, in granting this choice he is assigned to roll a large rock up a hill. An easy task he believes yet for eternity he is frustrated by this endless, useless and pointless task of trying to get the rock to the top! Listen carefully to the poet’s words and take time to hear all that she is naming. Enjoy the rhyming sounds throughout the poem. By way of explanation I offer only two words “kirk” – small Scottish church, and dirk, a knife worn in the sock of a highlander, ready for battle. Duffy was born in Glasgow though as a child moved to Manchester, England, and has for many years taught at Manchester Metropolitan University, were she is Professor of Contemporary Poetry.

Mrs. Sisyphus
That’s him pushing the stone up the hill, the jerk.
I call it a stone – it’s nearer the size of a kirk.
When he first started out, it just used to irk,
but now it incenses me, and him, the absolute berk.
I could do something vicious to him with a dirk.

Think of the perks, he says.
What use is a perk, I shriek,
when you haven’t time to pop open a cork
or go for so much as a walk in the park?
He’s a dork.
Folk flock from miles around just to gawk.
They think it’s a quirk,
a bit of a lark.
A load of old bollocks is nearer the mark.
He might as well bark
at the moon –
that feckin’ stone’s no sooner up
than it’s rolling back
all the way down.
And what does he say?
Mustn’t shirk –
keen as a hawk,
lean as a shark
Mustn’t shirk!

But I lie alone in the dark,
feeling like Noah’s wife did
when he hammered away at the Ark;
like Frau Johann Sebastian Bach.
My voice reduced to a squawk,
my smile to a twisted smirk;
while, up on the deepening murk of the hill,
he is giving one hundred per cent and more to his work.

Lord God,
remind us that
each of us is made in your image.
Remind us that we are called
to honor and care for each other.
Remove from us
all the stereotypes we have inherited
from past generations and give us
both the freedom and the courage
to color outside the lines.
Free us from gender bias and prejudice.
May we dismantle stereotypes
and build healthy, wholesome,
relationships and partnerships
with one another.
Remind us that we each bear
the image of our Creator. Amen.

One thought on “Mrs. Sisyphus!

  1. What a clever poem! I like how the words of the first stanza seem themselves to be pushed uphill towards her frustration, and how in the second they seem muttered under her breath. And finally she gives in to her reality, but I find her use of Noah and Bach as further examples interesting. At the very least, they produced amazing results from their efforts, unlike Mr. S.

    It is unfortunate that bias and prejudice develops so early in life. This was proven to me by our own young daughter years ago when she jumped up from the dinner table, waving her outstretched arms and shouting “Zoom, zoom, zoom, I’m a boy!” Though amusing it gave us pause.


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