Just received the new book of poetry by Frieda Hughes, 'Forty-five.' It's one poem for each year of her life. They are accompanied by paintings which aren't in the book but can be seen on her website (I didn't know she had a website!) Frieda Hughes.
I haven't read it all yet, I can't take it in quickly enough. When I 'discovered' Sylvia Plath 20 years ago, there was absolutely no information about her children whatsoever, you couldn't even buy her abridged journals here. I found them one day at the bookshop at my university where they'd ordered a few from America and probably screeched loud enough for the whole campus to hear. I used to want to know desperately what happened to her children afterwards but I assumed I would never know. Being able to listen to online interview with Frieda Hughes and read her poetry and hear her talk about what happened and now write about what happened is incredible to me.
I want to type the whole thing out because I'm so ecstatic to have it and I want everyone else (who's interested) to be able to read it right now too. But I can't type that much! I've tried to pick a few that stand out so far for different reasons. Will no doubt post more eventually.
On my fortieth birthday, April 1, 2000, I wanted to celebrate what was a significant date for me. Being a poet and a painter, I though of writing a poem and painting a picture for each year of my life, from birthday to birthday - the paintings to express the emotions that coloured each year and the poems to provide the actual subject matter which provoked those emotions.
I had been trying to break free from the constraints of figurative painting in order to better express my emotional reaction to my subjects,and these painting, being emotionally based, could only be abstract.
The outcome was the poem sequence in this volume and an abstract landscape of my life, four feet high and two hundred and twenty-five feet long on forty-five canvases.
In writing the poems, I concentrated on the events and incidents - however big or small - that affected me the most. What developed were snapshots of the difficult times in my life, because they had the most profound effect on me, requiring my effort, my energy, and my full attention, while dragging my emotions through the mental equivalent of a gorse bush.
There were happy times, but happiness was not what chiselled a shape out of me, and often it flowered in a garden of broken glass from more painful experiences. There was also peace, but it was generally stolen from other more taxing situations. Nor did humour shape me, although I adopted it as a coping mechanism.
So these poems by no means form an autobiography, but are concerned with the more challenging moments in my life, and my resolution to do the best I could in meeting those challenges.
The incidents I have described are in the moment; they do not define my whole existence and should be taken in the larger context of my life, which is perpetually evolving and in which I feel to have been very lucky in so many ways.
Relationships mentioned here are also not set in stone, except in their historical sense, and from only my point of view and my feelings at the time. Outside that, they too are constantly changing.
Each person's experience of a life widely differs; this is my experience of my own life.
While the paintings do not accompany this text, they may be viewed on:
I picked this one for obvious reasons.
THIRD YEAR 1962
My thoughts were complicated,
Too hard to describe by the frustrated
Tongue in my mouth, too weak
And tangled in syllable to allow me to speak.
I wanted to grow faster still,
Improve upon my verbal skill
And ask the questions plaguing me
To define clear boundaries of safety.
Some things were given - company,
A brother who would play with me.
Some things were taken - a father told me to go.
And at the loss my memory
Crawled into a black hole for safety.
Where before each tiny thing I saw
Imprinted, I remembered nothing anymore.
My mother, head in oven, died,
And me, already dead inside,
I was an empty tin
Where nothing rattled in.
- Frieda Hughes
I chose these because I've always been interested in Frieda Hughes' massive falling out with her stepmother, Carol Hughes - up until now I only knew it was related to Ted Hughes' death but I'm interested to know more about what kind of relationship they had when Frieda was growing up.
FOURTEENTH YEAR 1973
Four willows rose from the dirt, tall
And squared, trailing green
By the churchyard wall.
There I built a treehouse
The year I was thirteen. Torn down in minutes
In a boy's laugh for a woman's line of vision.
Badger Bess scrabbled tunnels in the cob of her stable
To gouge bulbs from the flowerbeds. I'd cut up
Raw liver and lungs for her, but most
She wanted marzipan. At school
I tied up loose ends
With bullies and friends
Before leaving at last,
When early bed as the holidays began
Made nights long as a noose.
On the day of my first necessary bra
Bought with the woman wearing the mother-suit
I carried in my head, my joy
Was to be with her alone,
Companions for the purchase.
Incautiously, I loved her
Right down to the mother-need
That was the hole in my heel
Where the poison would enter.
I believed I'd chosen right
And that she cared for me,
But she severed me from her side that night
With words like blades of steel,
Spoken to separate. She thought me too familiar
She said, smiling over spaghetti sauce
In the frying pan.
She asked that I keep my distance,
Adult and wise as she was
To the child I was then, since one day
I'd probably turn to her and say
"You're not my mother," in a moment when
She was exercising her unquestionable
The firm ground in which I'd dared
To grow roots, was turned over and bared
To the elements.
My new school had no weekends off,
Friends at home grew bored and strayed
Or simply moved away.
Determined to excel I settled in,
But would I ever thicken
This too-thin skin
So not to feel the spike
In every verbal slight?
Self-consciousness was quickening.
In the holidays I'd try to write, always interrupted
By heaps of washing up, even my diary says
"There were humungous piles of it."
It became the pivot
Of everything I did,
Filling my head with scouring pads,
Cups, plates, saucepans, cutlery,
Casserole dishes and washing-up liquid.
And every morning I'd be woken
To make that first cup of tea
While my brother slept on.
My name a chain
That would not release me.
- Frieda Hughes
FIFTEENTH YEAR 1974
I was bursting at my seams,
No matter how I stood,
Folded or unfolded, I could not
Lessen the impression
Of my overstuffed skin.
I was exhausted
At the daily weight of wearing it,
I wanted to climb right up out of myself
And fly off like the dandelion fluff.
An item in the news
Released my mother's story,
Her suicide a secret
Kept from me 'til now,
My stepmother explained
Before the revelation caught me.
I was silent at the sudden loss again
When a friend had kept the article for me,
In it I could clearly see
That there I was, born my mother's daughter,
It put an end to my belief
I was adopted. I'd kept my secret.
Now I hid relief.
I dragged my large and fleshy shell
Through Cape Cod and Wellesley
On a visit to my U.S. family,
Hoping it would wear off
Like some bad smell,
But my curvy rounds clung on to me
Like stubborn lovers.
I dangled awkwardly between
A child, in bed at night in broad daylight,
And a teen, almost old enough
To marry, vote and drive.
I felt to be waiting,
Biding my time in my chrysalis
As the days passed by and I became
Something else ....
Meantime, I knew my size was sin
And thought I'd be much prettier if thin,
So dieted to slim, my fat removal
A vain attempt to gain approval
From the mother I boasted of
To all my friends. I sang her praises daily
Our relationship, I said,
Was close and loving, as troublesome to her
As my brother and I must have been.
Half grown as we were
And not her own. I believed
That if only I could find a way
Not to anger or repel her,
She'd love me in real life
As she loved me in my head.
But I couldn't find the language
That would undo our distance
Or cut through the seeming animosity
That grew towards me. The more
I laboured to be loved
The bigger the divide.
I'd harboured the illusion
That a mother loved so strongly
Would love me like a mother
So I'd be open and confide,
Wrongly, wrongly, wrongly.
- Frieda Hughes
FORTIETH YEAR 1999
As if to practise me for public scrutiny
In the sharp, clear light of misery
My dead father won awards.
T. S. Eliot, South Bank and Whitbread,
Each paid homage and I
Each time would rise to take
The things I wished he'd had alive.
His last book had set him free,
And he'd entrusted me
To the woman
Who meted out those parts
Of his legacy to me, as he
So carefully described
In his self-titled will,
As if it were the way
It was always going to be.
I'd got a mother now; the man was dead
And she'd buried jealousy,
Or had it burned off in the furnace
That took my father's flesh
And made him bone?
When the memorial was over
And the photographers had gone,
My father's legacy was ended,
My phone calls unreturned,
I found myself orphaned from
The woman in whose promises
My father's wishes shone.
Dead now, he couldn't see
The skill and brilliance
With which she severed me
From what he'd wanted done.
Two days before my birthday
I received two envelopes. In one,
Her lawyer's message unstrung me
From all her letters promising
To honour my father's written words
In which he divided copyright,
And remembered family.
In the foul and broken sixteen months
Since my father died
She'd led me to believe
Otherwise, and I'd clung on this as truth,
Her assurances my evidence
That deep down inside her mother-core
She'd loved me more
Than I'd once thought.
But now it dawned on me
It was a game she played, and me
A trusting little pawn, betrayed.
In the other envelope she'd sent
A card for my fortieth birthday,
With love, both letters to arrive
She did not call me to explain
Or speak to me again,
Her telephone number changed.
I flailed, rootless, my husband
The one that caught me as I was abandoned
By the woman I'd wanted as mother,
Since I met her at the age of eight
And loved her.
And if I could see in her the pain
Of her father's loss so long ago,
Then how could she not see
The devastation left to me
By the loss of mine,
Made more crippling by my loss of her
A second time?
- Frieda Hughes