Commentary From Roderick Ford on ‘Giuseppe’

Image – Sicily © Radio Times

A follower of this blog, Anees Malik, has generously shared with us an email she received from Roderick Ford (the poet who wrote ‘Giuseppe’) detailing his own inspiration for and interpretation of the poem, which you can read below. However, it is important to remember, as the poet himself states, that any interpretation is valid, and you will still gain marks in an exam for a reading of a text which does not match its writer’s intention. It is also useful to keep in mind that AO3 is not assessed in the modern poetry unit, so referencing Ford’s views will not automatically gain you marks unless you link it to your argument (in the A2 exam, it should also ideally be linked to the unseen poem).

Hi Anees,

Here are the answers to your questions about the inspiration for Giuseppe and personal connections with me  I’ve also included some info about ways of reading the poem that may be useful to you when studying it.  I have given this to other students who have written to me, and thought it only fair that I share it with you too.

I was living in Paris when I wrote this poem, sitting in bed (always a good place for writing poetry) under a pile of blankets and clothes as it was the middle of winter.  I’d been reading, and had come across a flippant comment, a joke really, that the people of Sicily were so hungry during WW2 that they ate all the fish in the aquarium, including a mermaid.  I didn’t find the joke funny, and felt upset for the mermaid the more I thought about her, how alone she must have been, out of her element with no one to stand up for her.  So I wrote the poem out of anger, as much as anything else, at how monstrous people can be when they gang up on one person.  And there was an interesting moral choice here too: should the rights of the individual be sacrificed for the benefit of the collective, or should those rights be defended by the collective at all costs?    If you’re interested, you can read the joke where I found it, in the editor’s introduction to Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Professor and the Mermaid, in White Fire, the second of Alberto Manguel’s wonderful collections of fantastic stories, published by Picador, but now sadly out of print, I’m told.  I filched Lampedusa’s Christian name for the title of the poem too!

I think the mermaid especially called out to me because I have Aspergers syndrome, which as you may know is a level one autism spectrum disorder, and I identified with her situation.  Being in a tank separates you from the outside world, allows you to see it, but not to take part in it.  The mermaid is part normal human being but part something other, which is how people on the spectrum often feel.  I was also attracted to her because I write mainly in magic realist or fantastic modes, and so she fitted in well with my approach to poetry.

However it is important to note that I don’t privilege any particular interpretation of my poetry, tending to think that the most appropriate ones will always arise spontaneously within the reader, so your interpretation is as good as anyone else’s, including mine, and probably be the right one for you. 

For myself I tend to think of the mermaid as representing any marginalised figure or group sacrificed in the name of expediency.  For me she is a symbol of all victims.  People are starving, if we deny the humanity of the mermaid then we have an excuse to kill her and cut her up to feed the hungry.  When people want to hurt you they often try to portray you as some kind of other, something lesser, in her case as “only a fish”.  A feminist reading of this poem would certainly be appropriate, and due to the WW2 setting many people read her as representing holocaust victims, Jews, Roma, gays and so on, which is also fair enough.  The various people who kill the mermaid symbolise the various levels of society — the fishmonger, the doctor, the priest, all of whom are serving their own self-interest in the poem.

It is also possible to read this poem from a religious viewpoint.   In the Christian tradition, for instance, the sacrifice of the solitary mermaid for the benefit of a multitude of starving people could be construed as an allegory of Christ’s sacrifice for the benefit of all humanity.  Both Christ and the mermaid partake of two worlds, are ambassadors if you like, one is half human, half fish, and the other is half human, half divine.  Also, since the fish is a classical symbol of Christ, a woman who is half fish could also be seen iconographically as representative of the spirit.  Mermaids are also emissaries of the unconscious mind (often symbolised as a great ocean) which is the source of much of our creativity and mythology, so another reading of the poem would be that it is about the suppression of the unconscious and the irrational by the forces of rationality.   

I imagined that the mermaid’s killers might have worried, having insisted on her being a fish, that cooking and eating those intrinsically human attributes of head and hands might be considered as cannibalism, which is why they removed and buried them.  The remains, her torso and tail, which it might be easier to claim were “just a fish”, went into the stew to feed the troops, who I imagined were garrisoned there in Sicily to protect the people of the island.

The poem is also about the perspectives of two different generations — uncle Giuseppe represents the generation responsible for WW2, while the narrator, the niece or nephew, is of the immediate post-war generation and predisposed towards pacificism.  Thus the speaker is pleased when at the end of the poem Giuseppe is unable to look him or her in the eye, believing this to be an indication of his shame and regret at his part in the mermaid’s death.  The niece or nephew is passing judgement on Giuseppe, and on something that happened before he or she was born.  But it is easy to take the high moral ground when you are not starving.  

I hope this is a help to you Anees, and the best of luck in the exam!

All the best — Roderick


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