When a young writer's mother or father is a literary celebrity, it's hard to suppress the miserly suspicion that the younger is riding piggyback on the elder's shoulders. Often, the cynicism bears out. Susan Cheever is no John Cheever. Julian Hawthorne is a footnote.
Poet Frieda Hughes is the daughter of not one, but two famous writers: Ted Hughes, the British poet laureate, who died Oct. 28, and the late Sylvia Plath, who, after her 1963 suicide, became a popular symbol of the brilliant, tortured poet.
As if that weren't enough for Frieda Hughes to overcome, a debate has raged lately in literary circles. Did a cold, patronizing Ted Hughes push Plath to suicide, or was it just that Plath was a desperately needy, emotionally unstable woman prone to self-torture, especially considering her harsh childhood under a dictatorial father?
Considering Frieda Hughes' new book of poems, "Wooroloo," apart from all of this tangled context and conflict proves next to impossible. Hughes has dedicated the book, pointedly, to "Daddy with love," and the collection includes several poems that feature her mother, depicting her as pitiably, if not pathologically, needy.
Frieda Hughes was 2 years old when her mother died. She has admitted that any knowledge of her mother comes either from her own literary research or from her father's unabashed praise for Plath. To complicate matters more, Ted Hughes, just this year, violently belied his own rosy spin on Plath in a book of bitter poems about their life together.
So much for the unsavory context. Frieda Hughes rides on no one's shoulders. She is her own poet. Her work, at its best, is sharp, vigorous and cunning. Her vision is strange and imaginative, at times possessing the odd, lilting rhythms and surreal imagery of a dark and menacing nursery rhyme. A poem about a woman's infertility begins: "Hollow pot, that one child/Is all you've got ..."
Hughes has made a coherent world out of her poems. Usually, it's a world in which feeble humans, inseparable from nature, remain always subject to her cruel metamorphoses. Old women sprout feathers and beaks. A street beggar has chrysanthemums for hands and a root for a throat. In the book's title poem, the narrator's mouth opens and out comes "this dumb kookaburra laugh." In another, a farmer's wife has trapped him into marriage, using "her womb as a weapon."
We are nature, we are ruled by it. And nature is a dark, cruel place, abundant with predators, with voracious wildfires and strange signals, like foxtails stapled to trees. Near her home a dead kookaburra lies "where its eyes were lost in another mouth" and its "ribs open like rafters/to welcome flies." In Hughes' nature, humans and animals must struggle - alone - to survive.
Loneliness pervades the poems. The word "hollow" appears in many forms and contexts. The poems are filled with wombs, buckets, bottles, gaping mouths, graves, trap doors, manholes, empty bellies, hollow drums and nostrils spread wide. But more than just symbols of lonely emptiness, these orifices serve as doors to something secret and deep, as entrances to a vast nothingness underlying all things. It is not only a hard meaninglessness, but also at times a marvelous emptiness.
When we stop trying to read meaning into the world, the world rises up abundantly. "Nothing is enough," Hughes writes in her poem "Nothing." "Nothing rocks in its cradle/Being born again." To find sustenance in nothing requires a deeply honest and uncompromising vision. Hughes peers bravely into the dark hollows.
To see, however, is not necessarily to feel. Hughes watches hopeless people in their pain note the symbols of suffering - the eyes like sunken heads, the old woman's "hands twisted up like paper." There is nothing generous in these images. And yet we leave the poems feeling powerfully for these people, these three old women dying in the hospital, and the beggar, and the old custodian, "his face snapped shut."
We join them in their hollow plights. All of us must face nature, aging, sickness and death. These are not unfeeling poems, but detached poems in which the observer, a sort of dual awareness, can feel the other person suffering and yet can also observe it clearly. This "poetic detachment" is hard-earned. It comes from pursuing one's own vision, not imitating that of others.
"Wooroloo" is not a perfect book. On occasion the poems are less clearly envisioned and resort to cliches. In "The Favour," for example, death is "The man with the sickle ... searching for something." In "Spider," a spider kills its web-trapped fly "With a goodnight kiss." But such flat, uninspired moments show up rarely.
Perhaps to the literary genealogists, Frieda Hughes has gotten her acute eye for nature from her father and her sense of perennial, all-too-human suffering from her mother. More likely, such guesses about nature and nurture turn out glib and finally meaningless.
Frieda Hughes makes flinty, glinting poems about a life just as hard and just as brilliant. I look forward to her next book, when the poems, and not their steamy circumstances, can speak for themselves.
James Lough has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Denver and has taught college-level writing for six years.
Caption:PHOTOS: Wooroloo Frieda Hughes, 38, has also written six books for children. Ted Hughes in a 1984 photograph:Sylvia Plath in 1962.
Copyright (c) 1998 The Denver Post Corp.
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