Small Female Skull
by Michael Woods
A severe hangover results in the sensation that the head can be lifted from the body and interrogated, addressed and explored independently of the person to whom it is normally attached.
This poem is a rather surreal. Its circumstance of composition was to do with an extremely unpleasant hangover. It deals with the awful experience of feeling that one might almost lift one's head form one's shoulders and look at it. The fact that 'skull' rather than head is concentrated upon is sufficient to alert us to the fact that we are being presented with a memento mori, a reminder of mortality or death. Such a motif is common in Renaissance paintings.
The poet gropes for a simile to articulate what the skull is like. She lights upon 'ocarina', a musical instrument made from terracotta with holes for stops, one of which is described as 'an eye'. The visual similarity between this and a skull is striking. Duffy clearly intends the reader to make a connection between the fragility of the instrument and that of a skull so as to draw attention to the ephemeral nature of life. The breath breathed into 'the hole where the nose was' becomes a 'vanishing sigh' again suggesting the temporary nature of life and a wistfulness concerning it. The experience is sustained and the skull's vulnerability is emphasised through the comparisons of 'the weight of a pack of cards, a slim volume of verse'. There is a moment of recognition mingled with mystification in 'So why do I kiss it on the brow, my warm lips to its papery / bone'. The relationship between the living human and the acknowledged premonition of what she will become is more consolatory than frightening. The poet experiments with the skull as a ventriloquist's dummy. This reminds us of the relationship between the subject of the poem and the object of its effects, the persona.
The kiss (stanza 2) appears to be almost an act of communion between the living and dead states of the same person. In this way the present and a hallucinatory future are fused. The skull is treated very tenderly and the way it is explored is reminiscent of the manner in which Hamlet muses over the skull of Yorick, the court jester. He remembers moments from Yorick's life just as Duffy is able to detect in the bone 'the scar where I fell for sheer love'. The tactile quality of bone and the story the skull tells is developed in, 'and read that shattering day like braille' draws attention to the process of decoding that characterises the entire poem. The woman has been touching the skull throughout so the braille image is entirely appropriate. This especially effective since it concentrates upon a means of communication which is independent of the usual representation of words. In the same way the experience recounted in the poem is unconventional. The gap between skull and poet is closed like the fontanelles of the 'firstborn' mentioned in stanza three and the poem's concluding lines: 'I only / weep / into these holes here, or I'm grinning back at the joke, / this is / a friend of mine. See, I hold her face in trembling, passionate hands.' appear to be almost a consummation. The friend and the poet are one and the same. The stark reminder of death is a spur to celebrating life. In another sense, then, the experience of handling the 'small female skull' results in a rediscovery of the self and a gratified, wholesome love of self. It is an observation often stated but worth recalling here that it is impossible to love other truly until we learn to love ourselves. The bizarre experience recounted in this poem would, it seems, point towards this truism.