by Michael Woods
A young man who works on a travelling fair talks about his sexual conquests and the fact that he has raped and murdered a girl, then dumped her in a canal. His recounting of this appalling crime is interspersed with 'flashbacks' from his childhood, and these may partially explain his subsequent obsession with sex and disintegrated personality.
The persona in this dramatic monologue is a self-obsessed and disturbed man whose attitude to women is limited to seeing them as sexual objects. He has the stereotypical male view that a woman who says 'no' actually means 'yes' and becomes violent if actually refused what he wants.
The opening of the poem presents the man as a narcissistic impersonator of Hollywood stars and Rock and Roll idols. The arresting lines: 'I run my metal comb through the D.A and pose / my reflection between dummies in the window of Burton's.' show him imitating Elvis Presley whose hairstyle was copied by young men. D.A, short for 'Duck's Arse', visually describes the style. Violence could also be implied as D.A. in American parlance means District Attorney. To 'run through' can mean to stab as well as to comb. In fact, metal combs were popular weapons for thugs. The first oblique mention of his crime is made in line 4 but it is not yet clear what he has done. The rest of this stanza, and the second, concentrate on conveying the man's attitude and his methods of seduction. The 'wooden horse' refers to the fairground ride but there could be an oblique reference here to the Trojan horse involved in the war that started after the abduction of Helen. In this respect, the girl presents an irresistible challenge. This reading is sustainable if we recall 'you feel like a king' in the previous line. The total control he believes himself to have is reflected in 'I turn the world faster'. He compares himself to Marlon Brando, a film star but there is a sense of bathos introduced as he says, 'You can woo / them with goldfish and coconuts.' He thinks that the girl he kills can be bought in this way. The romantic word 'woo' is out of place in his mention of cheap fairground prizes and indicates something learned from watching a film. It serves to accentuate the grotesque manner in which he thinks. His leather jacket, 'a new skin' represents an alter ego to his real, damaged self. He loves himself and, like Narcissus, is entranced by his own reflection. The misting over of his reflection when he breathes on his mirror could be a sinister prefiguration of him losing sight of himself in his psychotic rape and murder of the girl.
Stanza three continues to explore the man's obsession with sex and the pursuit of the girl. He is struck by her refinement, being unused to 'clean' women. This contrast to the flashback in stanza four when he remembers buying a prostitute for 'a quid': 'Dirty Alice flicked my dick out when I was twelve.' This background has helped to form the attitude that women are easily available for sex and that they all want 'a handrail to Venus'. This cockney rhyming slang for 'penis' is ironic in the voice of a man who has no comprehension of the tender implications of 'woo' or that Venus was the goddess of love and beauty, not simply sex. His disgusting and invasive act of forcing whisky down the girl's throat when he kisses her is another prefiguring of his crime of violation. The episode with the prostitute is relayed in some detail. She 'jeered' at his penis, which seems to have left him with a repressed and lasting sense of inferiority. This could have contributed to the formation of his later attitude. The relationship between the past and the present is made clear through the use of ellipsis and the account of the girl's last look at life. The sordid setting by the canal recalls a similar scene in T. S Eliot's The Waste Land. We are told the girl 'looked back, once', an ominous remark and one which also recalls mythological women being taken to the underworld against their will; past experience can have great bearing on the future.
Stanza five explores the anger of a man who believes he has more good looks and potential than Elvis. In this context being refused by a girl is something he cannot accept. The killing of the goldfish is used to highlight the low regard the psychopath has for life. The brutality of the rape and murder is shockingly admitted in stanza seven. He punches the girl so hard that she loses a tooth. She is dumped, unconscious, into the canal where she drowned. The man, bizarrely, is able to see she deserves to be engaged and have a bright future, 'A girl like that should have a paid-up solitaire and high hopes, / but she asked for it.' Perhaps here, a psychologist might say, lies the nature of this man's problem. Once confronted with what he actually desires in life but cannot have, he can only destroy it. This is, of course, no excuse for his unforgivable crime. The girls did not 'ask for it' at all.
The second flashback in stanza six occurs just before the murder of the girl. It appears that his psychopathic behaviour can be traced back, in part at least, to the trauma of seeing his mother having sex with the 'Rent Man'. To make matters worse his father seems to have acquiesced, 'The old man / sloped off, sharpish.' This terrible loss of dignity, coupled with his father's willingness to profit from such actions, set a very bad example to a child who would later become a sexual predator. Duffy makes the incident credible by relaying the experience through the child noticing small details that are later to take on enormous, emblematic significance. For example, his 'sandwiches were near her thigh'. The line, 'The sky slammed down on my school cap, chicken licken' is significant. Like the children's story it shows how reality can be a terrible shock for a young mind. As the Rent Man lit his mother's post-coital cigarette, he 'ran, ran'. The use of capital letters for his name indicates how large the Rent Man looms in the man's memory and magnifies the impact of the incident at the time it occurred.
The man has probably been metaphorically running away all his life. In fact, his occupation is a shiftless one, 'We move from place to place' (stanza 3). However, at least part of this splintered personality cannot run from the reality of his crime and what he has become. The repetition of 'She is in the canal' emphasises this.
The final stanza of this disturbing poem opens with another instance of the man looking at his own reflection, this time imagining he is Humphry Bogart. His famous line, 'Here's looking at you' was directed at a woman and not himself. Duffy is highlighting the split in the man's personality, one who can imagine that his reflection is the famous person he wants to be buying him a drink. There seems to be no remorse in his voice. Chillingly he notices a woman who is 'a dead ringer / for Ruth Ellis'. It seems that he is poised to strike again in noticing that the woman 'smears a farewell kiss on a gin-and-lime'. The barman calling 'Time' could also be viewed as announcing the end of another victim's life. The psychopath says 'in the centre of my skull, / there's a strange coolness. I could almost fly.' This is reputedly something schizophrenics feel and is consistent with the pattern of the man splitting himself off from his reflection and the other personalities manifested in him. The intention to kill again is bad enough but it seems he will be able to forget as he moves to another town, 'Tomorrow…with a loss of memory.' It is clear, though, that he cannot suppress all memory as his account of the murder shows. However, are we to ask ourselves if this claimed memory loss implies that he could have killed before that? His final statement, a meaningless word from a Little Richard song shows how he is capable of retreating completely into his role playing fantasy.
The way Duffy gives this man a voice is worthy of note. His use of slang, 'D.A', 'French it', 'quid' and 'crackling' (a low colloquial term for a woman) are just a few examples of his characteristic mode of speech. His references to popular culture tell us a great deal about the way his mind is saturated with images of people who are more successful than he is. The sociological and psychological elements of the poem are convincing. The gritty realism of the rape scene with the dog that 'craps by a lamp post' reminds us that this nether world is alien to the decent girl.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in England for murdering her lover outside a London pub. She had been brutalised by him and might have escaped the death penalty but for the fact that she had taken a taxi to the scene of the crime, resulting in the crime being adjudged premeditated. Today, mitigation might easily have been claimed. She became something of an icon for feminists who saw her as a victim of male violence.