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The Wife of Bafa - Analysis

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The Wife of Bafa is a dramatic monologue. True to its genre, it reveals character through first person narrative and presents a dramatic situation, an implied audience within the poem. It is one of several monologues in Transformatrix influenced by My Last Duchess by Robert Browning (the most famous dramatic monologue) and those of Carol Ann Duffy.

 

The idea took years to mature. From encountering the portrait of the Wife of Bath in The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales where she takes longer to introduce her tale than to tell the tale itself. Years later I took Chaucer as a special option in my English Language and Literature degree and enjoyed reading in detail the lively first person account of The Wife of Bath's five marriages. In literary circles she is often considered the most three-dimensional of the pilgrims. She is larger than literature.

 

Since then I had a lifelong ambition to reinterpret the character. The entire set up of Chaucer's tales is dramatic: each storyteller has to entertain the other pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and back, and the prologues and epilogues to the tales often include interjections from other pilgrims. When I came to write my poem I wanted to pay homage to Chaucer on all levels so changed the title from The Wife of Banjoko (the working title) to The Wife of Bafa in later drafts. This also enables the reader to experience the poem on more than one level, to enjoy the surface meaning and the textual intervention.

 

Much of my work is influenced by a passion for performance poetry (poetry that is written to be orally transmitted although it may also stand up on the page) and The Wife of Bafa is no exception. Dramatic monologues are made for performance and I decided my character would be delivering her tale to a London audience. But the intended audience is clearly much wider than that. I have performed the poem in a wide range of countries from The Czech Republic to Namibia and individual readers I've never met have also read it. The truth of it is, I wrote the poem (as I write all poems) initially for myself. The character had already existed for 600 years: I was simply transposing her into the late 20th century.

 

I wrote the poem far more quickly than my formal pieces. I rarely write in free verse — most of my poems rhyme and/or use a strong rhythm — and initially was tempted to replicate Chaucer's rhyming couplets in iambic pentametre. However, that would have been too close to my earlier project. Also, I wanted to replicate Nigerian English as much as possible and the short, end-stopped lines often omitting the definite or indefinite articles go some way towards achieving this. Although I have often heard and heard said that Nigerians naturally speak English in iambic pentametre —  see my opening line that is spot on except for an added stress at the end — my character is too down-to-earth to sustain it.

 

By 'translating' Middle English into Nigerian English, I hoped to retain an earthiness and an otherness, that standard English would tame. I also wanted to maintain the humour. At one point I use a more direct translation. My line:

Three were good and two were bad.
     The first three were old and rich..

echoes the lines in The Wife of Bath's Prologue:

  'As thre of hem were goode, an two were badde.
   The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde;'

 

Although The Wife of Bafa is very Nigerian, she shares many characteristics of Chaucer's original. She's a lascivious woman with a gap-toothed smile and big hips who has had five husbands. She is an independent woman who travels. The red stockings were easily transformed to red nails (with the suggestion of foul play for outliving four husbands). The book of Wicked Wives became Playboy.

 

When I perform The Wife of Bafa I adopt a generic Nigerian accent. Although I'm not a trained actress and realise this is an imperfect anglicized version, it is essential the piece is in character. I always perform from memory which immediately gives authenticity to the character enabling the audience to suspend their disbelief. (I in no way physically resemble the character, I'm merely the vessel for the idea).

 

Although I deliberately avoided rhyming couplets with pure rhymes, the original style has a subtle influence. The poem contains a lot of assonance to punctuate the delivery that often occurs in couplets e.g.:

Italian shoe and handbag to match,
lace, linen and Dutch wax.

           The first three were old and rich
and I was young and fit.

 

There were also sections of the poem where end-words naturally half-rhymed with each other e.g. husband, London, love, Ibadon, twenty-one, handsome. And there were unintentional echoes in the poem that in retrospect aid its cohesion (and may well have been influenced by my love of the sestina where the same end words are repeated throughout a 39-line poem) e.g.

I cast a spell with my gap-toothed smile…

I give you discount 'cause I like your smile.

 

The structure of the poem follows Chaucer's original very closely, discussing each husband in turn and concentrating on the fifth one who is still alive. When I was studying the original text there was much debate about the author's stance i.e. was he celebrating or ridiculing his character: was he pro- or anti-women? Under its original working title my poem was interpreted as a caricature on West African women. and I really wanted to avoid that reading. As a British-born Nigerian writer it was a risky business presenting a Nigerian character that was not the perfect female role model. I was also aware of the prevalence of Nigerian stereotypes in Britain and didn't want to reinforce them. My aim was to celebrate a timeless, complex character and to present her not only to our modern age but also show how she exists in all cultures. I am proud that my character is Nigerian and also that in every country I perform I meet someone who knows The Wife of Bafa. As for the women issue, the stance is feminist but always open to interpretation.

 

One of the reasons I love writing is that it enables me to reach a point where I'm no longer in control, when the subconscious takes over. That's when the writing really flows. It has recently been pointed out to me that the end of The Pardoner's Tale also heavily influences the Wife of Bafa. Having told his moral tale, the pardoner then tries to sell fake pardons to his fellow pilgrims. Although I intended my character to be selling the genuine article, I was not conscious of the influence of the other text. Yet I studied The Pardoner's Tale for A' level. As a writer, it's impossible to remember or even be conscious of every inspiration.

 

In many ways, a performance poem is only complete once it's been performed a few times. Performance has been part of the final editing process. On retyping the poem I became aware of subtle changes that had taken place by subjecting the poem to a live audience. Inevitably, there is slight improvisation that often accentuates a point using a linguistic device. Two of these are important. Early in the monologue, the speaker claims:

My next birthday I'll be… twenty-nine.

 

The ellipses are new and help emphasize the fact that she's lying, that she has to think before she speaks. This pause became more and more prominent live and thus the version on this website is closer to the spirit of the piece. Chaucer's original character was 39 and so is mine. Later on, the line,

'I beat him till he begged for his ancestors.'

alliterates 'beat' and 'begged', adding force to the punchline (and provides an echo with the common Nigerian phrase, 'Please, I beg you', in the last line). The original was 'screamed'.

 

This is the first time I've changed a poem from one published version to the next. I generally believe that a writer must let go of the work once it's in print but the reality is, I perform about a third of my work so I never really let go of it. This version is most faithful to the performed version but in reality, it's impossible to pin down the punctuation of a poem that changes subtly each time it's delivered. Thankfully, in spite of publication, visual reading also varies. The Wife of Bath continues to be translated in the mind of the reader.

 

© Patience Agbabi

 

Read more: Writers who influenced me

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