The sunday poem; 6. Jo Shapcott

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work
The only poet to win the National Poetry Competition twice, Shapcott trained in America as well as Britain. Powerfully original and imaginative, with a playful, feminist-surrealist wit, Shapcott writes about bodies, smells, sexual politics, identity, language and myth. One of her poetic alter egos is a "mad cow" who denies she's mad. This poem is from her third collection, shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize - the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood

I can't sit still these days. The ocean is only memory, and my memory is fluttery as a lost dove. Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. I'm middle-aged and plump. Back on dry land I shouldn't think these things: big paws which idly turn to bat the air, my face by his ribs and the purr which ripples through the boards of the afterdeck, the roar - even at a distance - ringing in my bones, the rough tongue, the claws, the little bites, the crude taste of his mane. If you touched my lips with salt water I would tell you such words, words to crack the sky and launch the ark again. The block form says everything belongs together. "No separateness" is the formal message, for a poem which mourns separation. The title changes the Shakespearian echo ("tide in the affairs of men, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune") into the "after " of aftermath ("afterdeck" suggesting "aft" and "afterglow"), wittily comparing men's "affairs" with women's conventional passivity ("taken"), and their "flood" of sexuality which ends up dry, though "real sea" still rages in plump bodies. Half-rhymes ( "beats" with "bites", "ribs", "ripples" and "lips") forge relationships between aggressively sensual words in a syncopated pattern, like jazz, taking the poem forward in a sea-choppy movement, underscored by each line's changing rhythm. Vowel-harmonies are in threes ("here", "fur"; "roar", "boards"; "turn", "purr"; "rough", "tongue", "touch"; "claws", "salt", "launch") but all related to the "roar" of the sea - or a lion. This is about a man's lionlike impact on a woman; about female sensuality so strong it could launch its own ark, but which still needs contact from outside ("if you touched"). This is female sexuality as voyage; the ark is sexual pairing; animal adventure; sex itself.

c Ruth Padel, 1999 'Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood' appears in My Life Asleep, OUP

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