by Carol Ann Duffy
SALOME is one of three poems taken from my collection THE WORLD’S WIFE in which I try, writing in different women’s voices, to give a fresh or subsersive perspective on familiar stories or characters. The original Salome was a New Testament character. Her story is told in the Gospels of Mark (6:14-29) and Matthew (14:1-12). Herod, the King of Galilee, promised to give Salome any reward she wanted if she would dance for him at his banquet. She danced for him and then demanded the head of John the Baptist, whom Herod had imprisoned for preaching the arrival of a new king. Salome did this because her mother was angry with John for condemning her marriage to Herod because she was divorced from his half-brother. John the Baptist was beheaded on Herod’s orders and Salome gave the head to her mother on a platter. I first encountered this story at my Catholic junior school and I was horrified by it! It has always stayed with me.
Lots of writers and painters have been fascinated with this cruel event- notably Oscar Wilde who wrote a one-act play called Salome (1893). Hedwig Lachmann translated a libretto from it for Richard Strauss’s opera, Salome (1905). Wilde and Lachmann depicted Salome as being in love with John, who had rejected her. After he is beheaded, she kisses his lips- an image that is an icon of erotic decadence in Western Art. Wilde’s Salome is a big influence on my poem.
In my poem, Salome is a spoiled, rich young woman who lives in considerable style with a lady’s maid. As the poem begins, she is waking up with a hangover and can’t remember the events of the night before. She is wondering who she brought home with her as there is “a head on the pillow” beside her. In the poem, I am trying to echo the casual, decadent cruelty of the New Testament story, preserve some of Wilde’s erotic slant on it, but also be humourous- in a dark way.The reference to the “sticky red sheets” at the end of the poem was inspired by a scene from Coppola’s film, THE GODFATHER, ONE OF MY FAVOURITE MOVIES.
The rhythm of SALOME is dictated by the conversational, confiding tone of the female speaker- almost a sleepy, drawly rhythm to begin with. (‘I’d done it before/ and doubtless I’ll do it again/ sooner or later...). The poem is ordered into 4 loose verses, of differing line length, each verse focussing on one particular picture- the head on the pillow, the maid, the boozy lifestyle, the mirror- rather like a film camera cutting from one image to another. SALOME uses its own particular rhyme scheme- many of the words at the end of the lines rhyme or half-rhyme with last word of the poem- platter. (‘Later/ matter/ matted/ lighter/ laughter/ flatter/ pewter/ Peter/ better/ butter/ clatter/ clutter/ platter/ batter/ fitter/ latter/ blighter/ beater/ biter/ slaughter/ glitter/ platter). I think of theses rhymes and assonances as drops of blood which drip down the edge of the poem to pool with final word of the original horrible image- the head on the platter. The rhyme highlights the inevitability of the ending.
The language spoken by my Salome is modern, at times slangy. I wanted to make the character new and vivid again, to have a contemporary decadence as well as a biblical one. So Salome speaks of being “hungover” and “wrecked” after “a night on the batter”. Going “on the batter” means going out to drink heavily. I first heard the expression in Glasgow where I was born! Salome tells us of her maid’s “regional patter”, so perhaps she picked up the expression from her maid. Maybe the maid is Scottish? (“Patter” is another Glaswegian term for talking.) Salome is a tough character- she mentions “booze” and “fags” and that she needs to “clean up my act”. But when she says “ain’t life a bitch” there is a hint that she herself might have been badly hurt and damaged at some earlier stage.