‘The Map-Woman’ is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy which deals with ideas of personal growth and transition, using ideas of maps and travelling to represent these ideas metaphorically. Duffy is the UK’s first female poet laureate, an individual who is appointed symbolically by the Monarch on advice of the Prime Minister to help represent poetry and literature. While there is no specific requirement, they are generally expected to write poetry regarding national events, such as Prince William’s wedding in ‘Rings’ and the 2010 Volcanic Ash Cloud in ‘Silver Lining’.
This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem. Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.
Interpreture gives ‘The Map-Woman’ a difficulty rating of 2, meaning that it is deemed to be relatively straightforward. Despite being a relatively long poem compared to others that students may have come across in the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection, the themes and structure are approachable to most. Some elements of the language are a bit more difficult, but this also provides a wide variety of options for analysis.
This poem can be seen to give a range of information to a reader, allowing them to think of various associations and connotations before beginning the poem. The main focus of this would be the blending of an object and a person, questioning how this could be possible, likely understanding that the poem will be metaphorical in its subject matter. It would also cause a reader to have multiple questions, most notable of which would relate to what the map is of, and how this is connected to the woman or poem itself.
Even without reading ‘The Map-Woman’ it would be clear that it is a very structured and quite regimented poem, as all thirteen stanzas each have ten lines. This could be linked to the idea of a the structure of a map, which is presented in a clear and methodical way, very similar to that of this poem. However, it is also quite a long poem when compared to the other poems being studied as part of this anthology, which could be seen as representation of the extensive information provided by maps, and the seeming ‘never ending’ nature of them in all the details that they can show.
The consistent line length as part of this consistent structure would encourage a reader to read from punctuation to punctuation, with this demonstrating that Duffy wants to deliberately control the flow of the poem in order to impact the rhythm. It is therefore also important to consider the use of punctuation, with many semi-colons and hyphens used. While it could be anticipated that there may be more punctuation in a longer poem, these specific choices also help to control the rhythm of the poem and ensure that the intended emphasis is placed on specific words.
There are however a range of unusual breaks in the overall structure of ‘The Map-Woman’, for example enjambment across stanzas as shown between the eleventh and twelfth stanzas. The break between “what was familiar” and “was only a facade” places additional emphasis on the second half of the sentence, making a reader consider the ideas of “facades” and how things can be hidden depending on how a person decides to present themselves. There is also an example of consonance with the letter ‘f’ which further encourages a reader to remember this line.
The range of connections that the woman has to the town are explored through listing, with many sections of the poem taken up by giving a detailed insight into the physical description, or even the items being worn. For example the first stanza is predominantly a list of clothing used by the woman to hide her “map of the town” which begins to sound lyrical, aided by the use of punctuation. As such a reader may have the impression of it sounding like an old story or tale, giving the poem a mythical and imaginative tone and feel.
Similes are also frequently used in ‘The Map-Woman’ such as “like a fly” in the third stanza. In this specific example, it provides an amusing image but could also be seen as commenting on the way in which individuals make up only a fraction of society, with one person very small in the context of an entire town or country. Another use of a simile is “clear as an operation scar” in the fifth stanza, with additional emphasis placed on “operation” due to the four syllables of the word dominating in the context of one syllable words. The connotations are largely negative because they allude to suffering and illness, showing that a whole range of emotions and situations are shown as being part of this map and therefore a part of the woman.
The personal connections in the poem are further emphasised by the repetition of “her” and other personal pronouns. This encourages a reader to feel like they actually know the character, rather than just observing her from a distance, which in turn would help them to develop a personal connection. However, the use of “she” also returns some sense of distance with no use of a name, with this aspect of anonymity perhaps encouraging a reader to consider how these ideas could apply to people throughout society.
“Over her breast was the heart of the town”
The imagery this provides reinforces the idea of the “heart” and the way that the town is vital to the woman, and arguably the woman is vital to the town. The idea use of “breast” could also be interpreted as the woman contributing to the sustaining and nurturing of the environment, with the two being interdependent. The use of the past tense for “was” adds an extra layer of meaning to this description, with some readers questioning a potential transition as the woman has changed.
“Her new skin showed barely a mark.”
The use of “barely” is notable because it shows that the map has now almost entirely disappeared, with new, modern and clean connotations evoking ideas that the old map ‘tarnished’ the woman. However it is not definite or complete, alluding to some remaining impacts from her past. The idea of a “mark” could help to encourage a reader to look past physical changes a person may experience, and instead on the mental impacts and emotions connected to what they have gone through.
“old streets tunnelled and burrowed”
The description of the streets as a living entity is an interesting description which would capture the attention of a reader. Describing them as “old” and linking to the underground gives the impression of history and archaeology, with hidden secrets and information, showing that all these memories and impressions may no longer be visible but still have an impact on the woman today. In addition, the part rhyme between “tunnelled” and “burrowed” gives a more playful tone to the poem.
‘The Map-Woman’ Key Themes
- Past and Present: Unlike other poems in the collection, ‘The Map-Woman’ focusses more on past and present in terms of personal changes and transitions rather than broader changes in society, allowing for an in depth look at the things and people that have shaped this one person.
- Identity: The poem is built around the idea of personal identity within society, and the way that different things can impact an individual both visibly and mentally.
- Society and Culture: There are several references to key moments in society and culture such as movies or well known figures, along with broader ideas that appeal across demographics to connect people through shared experiences and memories.
Quick Focus Questions
- How does the use of past tense impact an interpretation of the poem?
- What is the effect of the shift in tone in the eighth stanza?
- How could a reader’s response to the poem change depending on their own experiences in their life?
‘The Map-Woman’ is likely to be an enjoyable read due to the way it evokes such a range of imagery, and explores a range of ‘big ideas’. The transition between visible and hidden markings of the woman’s experiences in particular is likely to be memorable for a reader. The range of techniques used in the poem are typically easy to identify, meaning that this poem is a good option as part of a comparison. For example, ideas of identity could be compared in ‘Inheritance’, ‘Effects’ or ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright’, while the structure could enable comparisons with ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’.
In relation to gender I think the poem emphasizes how difficult it is for a woman to escape from her origins, from “her father’s house”, and to perhaps reinvent herself. It is a powerful poem on the connection of place and identity.