FORTY-FIVE by FRIEDA HUGHESEILEEN TABIOS Reviews
Forty-Five by Frieda Hughes
(Harper Collins, New York, 2006)
Frieda Hughes' Forty-Five short-circuits itself. These poems should have been presented with the forty-five paintings that Hughes, a poet-painter, created for a project of one poem and painting each for each year of her life (she was 45 years old when the project ended). I'm frankly surprised that the poems and paintings are not presented together when the publisher, Harper Collins, is presumably the kind of publisher who can afford to have done such. So my first criticism is directed at Harper Collins or whoever was responsible for the presentation’s lack of vision (unless, of course, there’s a good excuse that prevented both poems and paintings from being presented together).
Now, Forty-Five certainly can be argued to work on its own as a collection of poems. I guess the test is this: would this collection have been of interest were it not for reading them for another reason besides the "Entertainment Tonight" perspective of what revelations, if any, they might shed regarding her family? If you don't know yet, Frieda Hughes is the daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But despite containing relevant autobiographical references, the poems still have to be effective in such a way as to transcend biography (that’s why this is a poetry collection, not a biography). Well, some poems in Forty-Five get there and some don’t. What would have made this judgment of the poems not so important would have been if the poems and paintings were presented together.
Forty-Five’s constraint of a poem for each year in the poet’s life is an interesting and imaginative concept. But some poems fall flat, partly for not doing something exciting with the form to charge up the language. Consider the first two stanzas in “TWENTY-SIXTH YEAR”:
I was finishing an art foundation, drawing faces huge,
So they gazed from the wall on their two-foot tall
Terracottas and blacks, for my end-of-year.
And I pushed weights until
My shoulders could almost
Walk on their own. I swam
With air force friends from Chivenor,
My country life about to end,
Precarious for food and electricity,
Each shilling measured out
For petrol, or a single pair of shoes.
The husband who had once
Hounded me to misery
Introduced his new wife,
Took us for a drink
And became a friend again.
The con-man boyfriend
Who had dismembered all aspects of my life
Was jailed for fraud—though not of mine—
I couldn’t relive that in court
And go through it all
A second time.
And Central St Martin’s gave me a place
At the end of my art course in Devon.
Though London was the heaving mass
I’d wanted to avoid, the millions of people
Crawling over and around each other,
Refusing to admit they were too many.
And so on. The “TWENTY-SIXTH YEAR”, for me, is a tad of a yawn except insofar as one finds Hughes’ biography interesting. But there’s a constant sense of pain simmering within the collection, and perhaps the poet had to use language that had to be a bit dispassionate given the subject matter. It can be effective; when one juxtaposes the poem from the 3rd year with, say, that of the 34th year, one can see how the unadorned tone serves to shine in high relief both the highs and lows of a life. Here is the 3rd year’s poem in its entirety:
My thoughts were complicated,
Too hard to describe by the frustrated
Tongue in my mouth, too weak
And tangled in syllables 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 to go,
The home I’d grown to know.
And at the loss my memory
Crawled into a black hole for safety,
Where before each tiny thing I saw
Imprinted, I remembered nothing any more.
My mother, head in oven, died,
And me, already dead inside,
I was an empty tin
Where nothing rattled in.
Contrast the above with the clear jubilance—despite the same spare language—of the first stanza of “THIRTY-FOURTH YEAR”:
Painting, painting, a one-woman show the thing
I worked for. Fattening, head in the fridge
To avoid a smoke, I garnered the proportions
Of a well-fed porpoise, perched at the pool-edge
In between more paintings,
Until they were all done.
Back in England my September exhibition
Grew closer. My father typed
The name of every single friend he’d got,
And some he’d not, thinking
They should come.
I wrote each one and they
Turned up in droves, except for him.
He came before, quietly, to see
Everything, his face a lantern
In the light of all that colour, his grin
As good a thing to frame.
Contrast further the above first stanza with the second stanza in the same poem (I think the contrast between the two stanzas, one immediately following the other, is effective for its stark comparison of joy and pain):
In England, the four months pregnant cyst
That buckled me, was left inside
As medical economy.
In Australia they took it out
By laparoscopy, and found the English missed
The real cause of my years of monthly misery,
Now I became a testing ground
For different kinds of pill
To alleviate the symptoms
That made me ill.
“THIRTY-FOURTH YEAR” exemplifies how a poem need do nothing but to tell it like it is in order to be successful. But that the “THIRTY-FOURTH YEAR” is more effective than others implies how the same linguistic approach need not have been taken to all of the poems.
Of course, one can lapse to just noting that some poems work better than others—which is just how poetry collections work. But it needn’t have been this way. Forty-Five becomes an impressive project when looked at the way I feel the project should have been published: in conjunction with a set of paintings, 45 paintings—one for each year. Indeed, the book Forty-Five was released with an exhibition of the associated 45 paintings. Fortunately, viewers/readers can go to http://www.friedahughes.com/f_books.cfm?detail=3 to see the paintings.
These paintings are fabulous (at least per their reproductions on the web). They are not only vivid images that attest to Hughes' talents as a colorist, but they offer biomorphic forms that logically attest to body/humanity. Their evocation of the body harmoniously fits with the authorial intention and conceptual underpinning to the poems.
Moreover, that the paintings are more abstract than figurative mean that the pairings are not likely to interfere adversely with the readers’/viewers’ imaginations in responding to the works. Here, 1 + 1 is more likely to be greater than 2.
On one level, I consider the poems as captions for the paintings, and perhaps the notion of "captions" lowers them from a standard of being "poems." But they are above-average captions, at least. I don't mind saying that about the texts because I can say that Hughes is capable of writing more effective poems; several of Forty-Five’s poems falter besides her more impressive poems in her debut collection, Wooroloo (Harper Perennial, 1998). It is when the project is considered as text and images inseparable from each other that we have a poetic project which proves the necessity and urgency of its existence.
Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...