by Michael Woods
The wife of Sisyphus contemptuously recounts her husband's obsession with work and the effect this has on their relationship.
The scale of Sisyphus's task is emphasised early on in the hilarious image created by his wife when she says that the stone he is enjoined to push up the hill is 'nearer the size of a kirk'. (line 2) She seems justified in calling him a 'jerk' (line 1) and a 'dork' (line 10) as he asks her to 'Think of the perks' (line 6) associated with being enslaved to the task of pushing a church-size boulder up a hill.
Mrs Sisyphus resents the fact that her husband is a workaholic and cannot even spare the time to have drink with her, 'pop open a cork' (line 8) and the spectacle he makes of himself and, by association herself, 'Folk flock around just to gawk.' (line 11) He is unable to see the futility of what he is doing and, while neighbours might think he does what he does for 'a bit of a lark' (line 13), she is more pragmatic and dismissive, 'A load of old bollocks is nearer the mark.' (line 14) She has observed 'that feckin' stone' (line 17) rolling all the way down to bottom of the hill as soon as it has reached the top.
There is a huge discrepancy between her perspective and his, the central point of the poem. His reaction to the unremitting roll of the boulder to the bottom of the hill is 'Mustn't shirk' (line 21) while she muses on the consequences of his obsessive devotion to his work: 'But I lie alone in the dark' (line 25). She likens herself to Noah's wife as he 'hammered away at the Ark' (line 27) and 'Frau Johann Sebastian Bach' (line 28), women whose husbands are imprinted on the cultural memory of the world but whose wives suffered for their obsession with work.
Her predicament is tellingly articulated in the longest lines of the final stanza: 'up on the deepening murk of the hill, / he is giving one hundred per cent and more to his work.' The length of the lines emphasises the amount of time Sisyphus spends on his work while the detail of approaching night reminds us that he will not be spending it with his wife. Her emotional state is emphasised by the fact that her voice has been 'reduced to a squawk' (line 29) and her attitude to life by her 'twisted smirk' (line 30).
A striking feature of this poem is its employment of highly repetitive end rhyme. This is to emphasise the monomania of Sisyphus and the tedium of the task he performs and the boredom endured by his long-suffering wife. Here, Duffy explores another facet of self-absorbed male egocentricity and its ability to utterly ignore the needs of women.
Sisyphus: a character from Greek mythology who, on one version of the story, was sentenced by Zeus to push a rock up a hill for eternity in revenge for Sisyphus having revealed to Asopus that Zeus had abducted his daughter Aegina.
kirk: Scots dialect for church