The Map-Woman by Carol Ann Duffy explores the inescapability of identity through the metaphorical depiction of the female body. The poet uses the fictional tale of a woman with a map etched on her skin to represent how someone’s past experiences shape who they are. No matter where the Map-Woman runs to, or how much money she spends on covering her appearance, she can never really get rid of her past. The relationship between identity and the female body is complex, Duffy exploring these ideas through The Map Woman. Duffy explores how memories make someone into who they are.
Explore The Map-Woman
The poem progresses, describing how the map spans across the woman’s whole body. The woman begins to try and escape the map, traveling around the world, and experiencing new cultures. Yet, she cannot really every escape her past. The identity she formed as a child has followed her forever, represented by the constant presence of the map. Although there are moments of positivity within the poem, the overall tone is gloomy and depressing. Eventually, the woman manages to shed her skin. Yet, even then, deep in her bones the ‘old streets’ remain. The conclusion of the poem is depressing, Duffy discusses how identity cannot ever really be changed. The inescapability of the past is tragic to the Map-Woman, yearning for a change that never comes.
You can read the full poem here.
Carol Ann Duffy splits The Map-Woman into thirteen stanzas. Each of these measures a regular 10 lines. The incredibly stable form of the poem could reflect the content of a map, both relying on structure and logic. Although there is not a continuous rhyme scheme, there are moments of rhyme. Some of these are internal, which propel the meter of the poem onward, leading to moments of climax within the narrative. Rhyme is also used to connect key ideas, the final two lines relying on a couplet of ‘bone’ and ‘home’ to display the inescapable nature of identity.
Although the punctuation within the stands varies, one thing to note is simply the length of this poem. In the anthology, only Beautiful and Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High reach similar lengths. This could be to reflect the expanse of information contained in a map. Duffy uses the symbol of a map to represent someone’s whole identity. Therefore, the extensive amount of information given can reflect the intricacy of an individual life. Duffy focusing on those small moments which end up having such dramatic influence in one’s life.
The central theme explored within The Map-Woman is identity. Duffy presents a woman who contains her identity within her skin. This acting as a metaphor for how events can shape who someone is. The fact that the map on her skin is permanent suggests the inescapability of identity. Duffy suggests where we grow up and childhood events are incredibly important, those moments etched on our skin forever.
Another theme that Duffy explores within The Map-Woman is the female body. The map, present on the woman’s skin, is the central idea. Yet, the canvas for this metaphor is the female body. The lack of specificity in regards to the character within the opening line could suggest that this is an ‘every-woman’, representing all of women. Duffy explores how place and time can impact women, connecting to who they are and what they become.
Duffy employs many techniques within this expansive poem. Yet, one that appears consistently throughout is caesura. Indeed, Duffy uses caesura within Map-Woman to control the speed of reading, some parts slowed by the employed of caesura. These slight metrical pauses allow Duffy to emphasize certain moments. Indeed, ‘waiting to start’, is encased in caesura, grammatically isolated. The two pauses around this phrase, caused by caesura, lead to a slower reading, reflecting the character waiting through her youth until she is old enough to leave. Duffy controls the rhythm, using caesura to place emphasis on many key moments within The Map Woman.
Another technique that Duffy frequently employs within the poem is asyndeton. By linking together a stream of nouns with adjectives, such as ‘stockings, under her gloves, under the soft silk scarf’, Duffy creates a seemingly never-ending list. In this case, asyndeton is used to display the lengths to which the Map-Woman goes to hide her body. Asyndeton makes these three objects ‘stockings’, ‘gloves’, and ‘scarf’ seem more impactful, equally-weighted across the sentence. Duffy uses this in several cases within the poem. Indeed, it is a technique that reoccurs throughout ‘Feminine Gospels’, Duffy constantly returning to the asyndetic listing.
The Map-Woman Analysis
Alongside displaying the content of the poem, Duffy also cleverly suggests the connection of place and identity by the title. Indeed, ‘Map’ and ‘Woman’ are connected by a hyphen. In doing this, Duffy symbolizes the innate connection of place and identity. The woman can never escape her ‘map’ because it is a part of her. It is not ‘Map’ ‘Woman’, but ‘Map-Woman’, the two things fused into one. The fact that each word is capitalized could also suggest that both are equally important to the story. While indeed touching on identity, Duffy suggests this is just as importantly a poem that focuses on the female experience. This is a woman’s body, her story told by Duffy.
A woman’s skin was a map of the town
a precis of where to end or go back or begin.
The poem begins with ‘A woman’s’, lacking specificity. This could allow for Duffy to represent ‘All Women’ within the poem, this being a metaphor to represent the female experience. Both ’skin’ and ‘map’ are given the same metrical weight within the line. Duffy connects these two ideas, allowing the woman to represent both of these ideas simultaneously.
The use of asyndeton within the first stanza demonstrates the woman’s desire to hide her map. The map represents her identity, with ‘dress, with a shawl, with a hat’ all ineffectively covering her skin. Asyndeton allows Duffy to place item over item on her skin, hiding her identity under clothes and other superficial items.
The internal rhyme between ‘tattoo’ and ‘map grew’ displays the permanence of her ‘map’ identity. Practically impossible to remove, the ‘tattoo’ ‘map’ is inescapable for the Map-Woman. She cannot escape her identity, it is permanently etched onto her skin. The internal rhyme is emblematic of this connection, reflecting a sense of togetherness.
The end of the first stanza seems uncertain, ‘to end or go back or begin’ displaying a mind vacillating. Duffy’s protagonist cannot decide on which direction to take. This can be understood as a representation for life, the infinite possibilities stretching out before her. The equal syntax, each preceded by ‘or’ furthers the emphasis on the possibility. The character’s whole life stretches before her in this phrase – ominously beginning the rest of the poem.
Over her breast was the heart of the town,
the soldier boys, the Mayors and Councillors,
One of the most important lines in the poem, ‘Over her breast was the heart of the town’, stems in this second stanza. Duffy connects ‘town’ and ‘breast’, linking place and body. This is emblematic of the content of the poem as a whole, place etched on the woman’s skin. Yet, this also suggests how important a home town is to someone. No matter if you hate or love where you were born, you can never change the fact that you were born there. The ‘heart’, representing the center of this ‘town’ is above the woman’s ‘breast’, being held close to her own heart. This represents how she keeps her hometown deep inside her, the memories of that place-shaping her into the person she is. Using ‘breast’ also centers the poem on a uniquely female perspective, Duffy further connecting with other poems in ‘Feminine Gospels’.
The Map-Woman is comfortable in her own body. She ‘knew’ it off by heart, recognizing the layout of the female body. Duffy presents an intimate view of femininity, tracing the ‘shadow below the lines of the map’, the core of who this woman is. Duffy constantly uses a blend of map and body semantics, ‘north to her neck’ fusing these ideas into one.
the beloved mothers and wives, the nuns and priests,
trapped in the windo’ws bottle thick glass like a fly.
Duffy uses asyndeton across the second and third stanzas, detailing those who lived in her town before her. People who occupy a town are perhaps just as important as the town itself. Duffy explores ‘grey-haired teachers of English and History’, those which had an impact on her life. Yet, even those that did not directly touch her life, ‘mothers and wives’, they still had an impact on the town. Everyone from that area grew up with something in common, Duffy using asyndeton to connect those that lived there. They are like an ‘old print/on a page’, fading but still present. Duffy’s use of ‘print’ contains a sense of permanence, furthering the repeated idea in the poem.
Duffy uses polysyndeton across ‘marry and how and where and when’ to show the sequential nature of life. One thing leads to the next, time marching on to an unstoppable beat. Duffy explores this idea, looking from ‘marry’ to ‘die’ in the space of a line – someone’s adult life summarised in this small amount of poetry.
The use of caesura, ‘nearby, waiting for time to start,’ creates slight metrical pauses. This pauses can be understood as a representation of ‘waiting’, Duffy’s character wishing to be able to leave this town. Her life still hasn’t ‘start[ed]’, ‘waiting’ to be able to leave. Duffy uses an image of being trapped to illustrate this childhood waiting, ‘tiny face trapped in the window’s bottle-thick glass’. The insignificance of ‘tiny’ and ‘fly’ could display a moment of self-conscious doubt. Yet, this could also be understood as demonstrating the vast nature of the world – one person a tiny measure in respect to the whole world.
And who might you see, short-cutting through
sat in the musty dark watching the Beatles
Duffy explores a failed relationship in this stanza. The fact that her partner is only ‘a fingernail pressed on her flesh’ demonstrates how she is only temporary. Compared to the permanence of the map on her skin, a ‘fingernail’ mark will be healed quickly. Duffy could be commenting on relationships and how they can seem far more important in the moment than they actually are. The use of ‘empty cup’ could be a symbol for unhappiness, Duffy making use of the phrase ‘cup half-empty’ and changing it to reflect the sadness of this breakup scene. Duffy also employs pathetic fallacy at this moment, ‘in the rain’ setting a gloomy scene for the end of her relationship.
Duffy uses images of places she has lived in ‘Greengate Street’ and others in the stanza belonging to Stafford. Stafford is a city in which Duffy has lived for many years, perhaps suggesting that the Map-Woman is Duffy herself. The reference to ‘Beatles’ also alludes to Duffy’s childhood, growing up in Liverpool.
run for a train or Dustin Hoffman screaming
for Glasgow, London, Liverpool. She knew
The sibilance across ’sponged, soaped, scrubbed’ demonstrates the effort in which the woman tries to get rid of her map. The repeated sound is unnerving, subverted from normally soft ’s’ by the inclusion of the plosive ‘p’ and ‘b’. The blend of soft and hard sounds is perhaps emblematic of the fusion of map and body, natural and unnatural.
The rest of this stanza focuses on the monotony of her game city, Duffy using images of industry. Indeed, ‘railway station’, ’trains’ ‘operation’ all contain ideas of bleak scenery. Even the trains themselves are personified as ‘sigh[ing] on the platforms’. Duffy presents a grey scene of her home town, the only thing exciting her is ‘pining’ for escape. Be it ‘Glasgow, London, Liverpool’, anything that will allow her to escape from the city she has grown up in.
you could stand on the railway bridge, waving
and Kipling and Milton Way until you were home.
The use of ‘vanished’ bears connotations of disappearing. Considering Duffy has made identity into a visual thing on her skin, the act of disappearing would fit in with changing identity. This gives Duffy a moment of positive warmth, ‘tasting future time’ as she moves towards a new phase in her life. Yet, underneath these promising images, the train is ‘bleaching steam’. The unpleasant image revealing the hollowness of her excitement. The Map-Woman can never really escape her identity, stuck with where she was born forever.
The use of caesura following ‘home-‘ places emphasis on the location. Following this ‘there its as on her thigh-‘ is also followed by caesura. The map on ‘her thigh’ is structurally encased in punctuation, emblematic of the map within Duffy’s body. Home is inescapable, it will always be inside ‘on her thigh’, calling her back.
She didn’t live there now. She lived down south,
a tennis ball repeatedly thumping a wall,
It is within this stanza that there is a slight tonal shift. Duffy writes that ‘She didn’t live there now. She lived’, implementing a caesura. The stilted sentence breaks the flow of the line, bolding being emphasized. The abrupt image of the moment now revealing that she has left is shocking. This moment of pause represents the change of location, Duffy moving from distant past to a closer present.
There is a frenetic listing of the semantics of traveling, constructed with an asyndetic list. Indeed, ‘abroad, en route, up north, on a plane or train’ all compound the sense that she has finally escaped. Taking whatever transport she can, the Map-Woman has fled from her past. Although gone, the map remains. She intends to cover this up, hiding her true identity ‘under her stockings’. The triple repetition of ‘under’, linked with an item of clothing, shows the length she goes to hide her true identity. Duffy’s Map-Woman does not want to be connected with her past. Yet, her past is ‘pressing into the bone’, the depth of memory cutting right to her core.
Duffy suggests that no matter how far she runs, the memories will always be there. The use of cyclic language, ‘looped’ and ‘repeatedly’ demonstrate this. Although she may leave, her life is ‘repeatedly’ coming back to rest on memory. She cannot change who she is, or escape the past she has lived.
an ice-cream van crying and hurrying on, a snarl
and light, cheerio, au revoir, auf wiedersehn, ciao.
The past is depicted as tragic and oppressive. The lexis Duffy employs, ‘crying’, ‘snarl’, and ‘shrieks’ create a nightmarish scene of memory. She cannot escape these memories, the sound based verbs calling out after her. Even the ‘motorway’ she uses to escape ‘groaned’, everything reminding her of her hometown.
The reference to ‘roaring river of metal’ which was ‘flowing away’ demonstrates the unstoppable progression of time. The motorway, here a metaphor for life itself, continues on forever. She is left behind as the cars and buses race past, ‘roaring’ in her ear. The multilingual finish to this stanza demonstrates how this is a global issue. There is nowhere she could run to which would change who she is, the monosyllabic ‘ciao’ finishing the stanza in bitter disappointment.
She stared in the mirror as she got dressed,
one way street of her past. There it all was, back
The self-scrutiny Duffy presents, ‘stared in the mirror’ connects with the theme of the female body. Hyper aware of how she comes across, the Map-Woman scrutinizes her own body. The image of ‘both arms raised over her head’ seems almost like surrender. It seems that she is beginning to give up on her dreams of change, giving in to her inescapable identity.
The ‘fuzz of woodland… under each arm’ represents armpit hair. This image could be interpreted polysemously within the text. Although some argue that it means she has stopped caring about her body, I would argue that this is an overly British analysis. Considering she has traveled all over the world trying to escape her identity, she would be familiar with the customs of many countries. Indeed, in other parts of the world, it is not traditional for women to shave, Duffy’s Map-Woman embracing this custom. Moreover, the rejection of shaving ties in with the 21st Century feminist movement, many women not following the stereotypes built on patriarchal assumptions.
She is familiar with her body, it ‘was certain’. The use of end stop following this phrase further compounds the assurance of these words, ‘certain’ having metrical emphasis. Her body, represented through the semantics of the map, ‘cul-de-sac, stile, back road, high road’ is familiar to her – she knows it well. Here, Duffy strays from elusive language, directly naming her body as a ‘one-way street of her past’. Identity, memory, and the body all culminating in this phrase.
to front in the glass. She piled on linen, satin, silk,
and thumbs, as their map flapped in the breeze.
The Map-Woman tries again to escape her identity. She indulges in lavish practices, covering herself with ‘perfume and mousse’. She rides in ‘a limousine’, as if money would change who she is. Despite this, ‘The map perspired under her clothes’. The violence of ’seethed’ demonstrates the harsh reality of identity – one cannot change simply by having more money.
Even trying to speak in other languages, ‘foreign tongue’, she is unable to change who she is at the core. The blunt end stop following ‘The map translated everything back to herself’ demonstrates this reality. She tries everything, but to no avail. The Map-Woman will always be the same person, right to her core.
Stanza Eleven and Twelve
So one day, wondering where to go next,
grinned at the dark. Her new skin showed barely a mark.
In response to this, she decides to face her past head-on. The Map-Woman ‘went back’, drinking for ‘a night and a day’ until she reached ‘the town’. The scenery is presented as ‘stale’ and ‘crumbled’, showing the large amount of time that has passed since her visit. When entering her city, she ‘got lost’, suddenly not knowing her own mapped town. The city, with age, has changed into something she doesn’t even recognize. Now, the place she feared returning to for so long no longer exists. Indeed, ‘what was familiar/was only a facade’, the woman unable to understand this change. The enjambement across these stanzas can be understood as emblematic of change, one flowing unstopping into the next.
There is the erotic and sexual language throughout the twelfth stanza. Duffy uses ‘stripped’, ‘stockings’, and ‘lifted a honeymoon thong from her groin’ to present the shedding of the map. This moment of change is climactic, Duffy using sexual language to reveal how happy this change makes the woman.
Yet, although it seems gone, ‘new skin’, there are still hints that remain. The use of ‘barely’ suggests that there is something still visible, not quite getting rid of what she once had. The ‘small cross where her parents’ skulls’ is deeply unsettling. Perhaps Duffy is suggesting a part of the reason the Map-Woman was so unhappy with being known by her city was due to abusive parents, or a depressing childhood. The ‘skulls’ seem malevolent, both ‘grinned’ and ‘dark’ being unsettling images.
She woke and spread out the map on the floor. What
old streets tunnelled and burrowed, hunting for home.
After her transformation, finally coming to terms with where she was born, nothing really changes. Duffy uses a rhetorical question to signal how the woman is still unsure of her own identity, ‘was she looking for?’. The semantics of death ‘ghost’, ‘dead in’, and ‘suicided letter’ could represent how her identity has been partly destroyed by this change. Yet, not to the extent she thought it would. She longed for a new start, a completely fresh approach to life. Indeed, there is a moment of false hope. Duffy writes, ‘sun glitter’. While ‘glittered’ may be understood as a moment of happiness and hope, it could also be a reference to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “All that glisters is not gold”. Duffy states that this happiness is only a false promise.
Indeed, ‘Deep in the bone/old streets’ are still present. Although the upper layer of identity has been removed, the Map-Woman will change her own history. She can come to terms with things, such as her parents’ deaths, but will never be able to change having lived in this location. The ‘old streets’ will be a part of her ‘bone’ forever, deep inside her body. The imagery of ‘tunnelled and burrowed’ furthers the seething nature of the city, the memories still locked inside her. She will never truly be able to forget the past and reform herself.
The final rhyme across ‘bone’ and ‘home’ solidifies the inescapable identity. The neatness of the final rhyme chimes back to the beginning of the poem, ‘tattoo’, ‘map grew’ representing the internal identity. The Map-Woman is never able to be free of her past, it living deep within her psyche.
Some of Duffy’s references discuss Liverpool, the city in which she was born. Similarly, some road names are taken from Stafford, the city in which Duffy lived for many years.
Another point of context is the use of ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This is making reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, in which the female identity is similarly explored. This novel is concerned with identity and place, making a good match for Duffy’s The Map Woman.
Other poems within Duffy’s ‘Feminine Gospels’ that explore the female body are The Diet and The Woman Who Shopped. Both use addiction to display the inescapably of a problem, with this poem similarly presenting the inability to change your identity.