by Michael Woods
In Saint Mark’s Gospel in the Bible, Salome (The historian Josephus tells us her name) was the woman who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. John the Baptist was the man who baptised Christ in the River Jordan having prophesied the arrival of a Saviour. He also spent a long period of self denial in the desert, eating only locusts and honey. This paralleled Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert.
The poem imagines Salome as a woman who has had more than one man’s head severed on a whim: “I’d done it before” (line 1) It seems that she is a drinker and drug taker who was so immersed in her ways that she couldn’t even remember the name of the man she had asked to be beheaded: “What was his name? Peter? / Simon? Andrew? John?” (lines 14-15). All these names are, of course, those of some of Jesus’s disciples.
Duffy imagines Salome as being the equivalent in our modern terms as a self-obsessed person who lives a life of excess and who later decides to reform. As Salome says “I needed to clean up my act” (line 25). The predatory nature of Salome is encapsulated in the idea that she thinks that John the Baptist had come “like a lamb to the slaughter / to Salome’s bed.” This is the language of sexual conquest but it is actually referring to the fact that John was indeed slaughtered. The Bible account tells us that Salome was given John the Baptist’s head on a platter. This is horrific and is rendered into a modern context by Duffy who clearly has in mind the kind of tribally brutal killings of the Mafia and, most forcibly, the famous scene if the film, The Godfather in which a Mafioso is a sent a warning by a mobster in the form of the severed head of his racehorse in his bed.
Duffy builds up to the description of the well known platter image through words that rhyme or half rhyme with “platter”. For example, “flatter”, “pewter”, “better”, “butter”, “clatter”, “clutter”, “patter”, “latter” and “slaughter”. Salome’s utter callousness is made clear in her appalling “and ain’t life a bitch”. She is so corrupt that she cannot feel anything but indifference to what she has done. The focus of her attention is not the series of murders for which she has been responsible but her own situation, her need to eat more wisely and “get fitter”. Salome is a repugnant person who is clearly ignorant about, or indifferent to, the magnitude of what she has done.
In a general sense this poem is a study of a personality who is utterly amoral with nothing but herself as a focus in life.
The following is the relevant section from St Mark’s Gospel (Chapter VI verses 17-29)
17. For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married.
18. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
19. So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to,
20. because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.
22. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you."
23. And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom."
24. She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered.
25. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
26. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.
27. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison,
28. and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.
29. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.