Sunday, 29 March 2009

Not All a Load of 'Hard Stag Testicles'

David Huerta: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, Selected Poems, translated by Mark Schafer, published by Copper Canyon Press.

Whilst Mexican poetry is unfamiliar to most UK poetry audiences, David Huerta's poetry will not seem strange to those of us who read Lorca and Neruda in translation. It is rich in sensuous imagery, surreal, focuses on the self and the body, and suggests radical political engagement. However, it is also of our time in that it has an overt interest in French post structuralist language theory, which forms much of the subject matter of the verse. There are references in his work to Saussure, Baudrillard and Wittgenstein. The volume just published in parallel translation by Copper Canyon Press provides a generous, though not overwhelming selection, of the brilliant, entertaining and highly imaginative work of a poet whose main concerns are ontological.

This may sound abstruse (indeed, some of the verse is difficult to fully comprehend). However, the poetry's energy and engagement with the physical world makes the verse attractive and exciting to read.

The book is divided into 3 sections: early poems, extracts from Huerta's masterpiece, a long poem called Incurable and a number of the short poems he has published over the following 20 or so years.

His early work is rich and dense and there is strong sense of exploration of the body's elaborations and its exclamatory fruits. Abstruse some of the poems may be but they are evocative reflections on writing and language, which also touch on hidden narratives/ objects/ subjects (e.g. Index is also a poem about summer, which includes the unforgettable line:

summer expelled with its clammy sweat of time

Is this the end of Summer in Autumnal rain? If so, the poet is not just describing summer, but also the concept of summer in which physical manifestations reinforce the abstract implications of the concept.

Incurable is a romantic poem covering moments in the growth of the poet's consciousness of language.

what I believed was Reality was nothing but Lines

There's a distant parallel with Wordsworth's Prelude

As with Wordsworth, it is tempting to find the hyper self-consciousness of the poetry (and the poet) somewhat risible. For instance, in Chapter III, Glass Door, the poet appears to experience an intense revelation in an otherwise mundane moment: he sees hos own reflection in a glass door. If it were not for what followed, this could be read as a piece of narcissistic hyperbole. Subsequently, the poem concerns a 'you' who was beaten up by police on a demonstration but escaped through a glass door.

This returns the reader to a musical theme which reoccurs in Incurable: the image of the mirror.

Incurable begins: The world is a stain on the mirror.

This seems to refer, amongst other things, to the idea that language and reality are conventionally supposed to be mirror images (although the poet reverses - or perhaps mirrors - the convention by seeing reality as a mirror of language rather than vice versa).

In Glass Door, the section seems to culminate in the line:

The door was writing a long and misty sentence on the man.

In a sense, this is simply an imaginative way of describing a reflection, but it is striking, partly because the door (and not the man) has agency but mainly because human beings are seen as blank pages where abstract systems of language create experience. The poem is about perception and knowing - the egotistical sublime.

After Incurable, Huerta's poetry matures. The earlier stuff is full of machismo, Thirteen Propositions against Trivial Love, which should be retitled '2 or 3 really crass sexist concepts'. I suppose it's appropriate that the poem also seems to be about masturbation. Anyway, here's an example of crap sexist tripe:

frayed fertile liquid
of the woman I am not


my hard stag testicles

Huerta confuses sex with gender and seems only to write about relationships as occasions for personal physical fulfillment. Beyond that, the verse often becomes adolescent e.g.

He was unaware of the art of dreams
and she smeared his face with nightmares.

(Pathological Beings)

Yet, Machinery contains a beautiful abstract section about Love, achievable perhaps because he is thinking of someone other than himself: We will be equals even in pain, he declares.

As he gets older, he seems to turn to familiar subjects which involve disappointment and irony, such as our attraction to money or making mistakes. The title poem, Before Saying Any of the Great Words, is about language and summarises his views in a way which I find touchingly humble:

that body or fabric from which
are also made the great words, time, so many things.

(Is time a great word or another item on the list? There's always more to get from these poems, and not just autobiographical or situational detail, but philosophical ideas which are important to everyone who is interested in the question, 'what is life?')

Increasingly, there is an overt Catholicism in his work, which should come as no surprise given the focus on the body and the search for the abstract in sensuous detail.

The main reason for reading this book is not the poet's philosophy but his imaginative and highly creative rendering of those things into vivid verse. The book is full of really striking images. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

And the trench of curiosity
full of bric a brac

The storehouse of words is
a strange, damp place, a discrete gallery, a hospital asleep.

(There's something about those lines which reminds me of a quite different poem: Derek Mahon's wonderful contemporary classic, 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford')

Those things happened to me, except that words came tumbling down
from the high sky of impalpable birds to my impossible depth
like knowledge or love

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Revenge of 'the Other Woman': Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia and Shura Wevill

Review of A Lover of Unreason: the Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Assia Wevill (rhymes, we are told, with devil) was the thrice married ‘other woman’ whom Ted Hughes ‘cheated’ with whilst he was still married to Sylvia Plath. Six years after Plath’s suicide, Assia took both her own life and the life of her daughter, Shura, who was the offspring of her extended relationship with the future poet laureate. This meticulously researched and well-written biography of that life is suffused with moral purpose: its avowed intention is to put Assia and Shura back where they belong, ‘beside him [Hughes].

The pre Hughes story tells the story of a bright but ‘selfish’ woman, who fled from Hitler’s Germany with her mother and father and ended up in Israel, flirting with English servicemen (including the man who would become her unfortunate first husband). Some of the most evocative passages in the book describe life in Tel Aviv during the war, before ascendant Zionism made it a puritanical hell for social (and sexual) butterflies, like Assia. Her father, a somewhat feckless doctor who specialised in physiotherapy, passed on a passion for the arts and the desire to be part of a European literary salon. Three marriages later and the beautiful Assia eventually found the man who would provide the context she had always desired in the rugged manly form of Ted Hughes. She shuttled between him and her ‘inert’ third husband, the poet David Wevill (whose own ‘feminine’ style is contrasted to that of Hughes) before finally leaving him.

Then the dumped Sylvia Plath committed suicide and by this act performed the same trick that Obi Wan Knobi did in Star Wars: she became bigger and more powerful than before. She haunted the pair of them until Assia was driven to her own death in 1969 The fact that they both lived in Plath’s flat after her suicide couldn’t have helped nor would the subsequent move to Court Green, the family home that Hughes had shared with his dead wife.

Up to this point, Assia is not presented sympathetically, although the authors always note how beautifully she looked and how tastefully she dressed. However, after Assia appeared beside Ted in the International Festival of the Spoken Word, which she helped him to organise (thus achieving her lifetime ambition to host a great literary salon), the treatment of her changes. In the last third of the biography, Assia becomes a much more sympathetic character. The authors quote extensively from her journals as they tell the story of a wronged woman, increasingly isolated by Hughes, who compulsively pursued a number of other women at the same time. Imbuing her tale with pathos, they chart her tragic fall from the heights of International Festival at the side of Ted Hughes to the time, when feeling abandoned by him, she turned on the gas taps in her London flat, placing her sleeping daughter next to her.

Meticulous and thorough, the authors provide a well-argued rationale for an act of child murder which seems incomprehensible today. Explaining the socio-psychological context by reference to academic authorities, they say that in the year of her death, there were 2000 female suicides. A significant number of those women also killed their children. The most common motive was ‘altruistic’. They wanted to protect their children from the brutal world which had driven them to despair.

The portrait of Ted Hughes presented in this biography is also striking. He appears to be some sort of philandering monster. Perhaps the ‘message’ of the biography is this: driving the suicide prone Plath beyond the brink was one thing (we all make a mess of relationships at some point after all), but to do the same thing with this bright and life-affirming woman was another completely. Hughes’s behaviour towards her was abusive. As soon as she became emotionally dependent upon him, he became more distant and mercurial, and more difficult to pin down.

Perhaps the starkest example of this self-centred disregard for women occurred to Brenda Hedden, one of the 2 other people Hughes was carrying on with whilst he was supposedly ‘with’ Assia. Whilst living with Ms Hedden after Assia’s suicide, Hughes mysteriously disappeared for a few days and returned to announce (after having vigorous sex with her) that he had married Carol Orchard, a woman half his age (and the other ‘other woman‘).

Was it really like that though? Hughes - although irresponsible, self-centred and moody - may not have been entirely to blame. The biography occasionally gives glimpses of another Assia with a possessive and violent temper. At one point, we are told that she harassed a young woman who was in a relationship with David Wevill sometime after she abandoned him for Hughes. Hughes’s own correspondence quoted in the book refers to her temper.

On balance, however, the author’s critical view of Hughes seems to be the most likely. Brenda Hedden speaks with authority when she is quoted as saying that Hughes:

was a real hunter ... when she [Assia] tried to break away ... he became motivated. But when they were together, he did terrible things ... her terrible suicide saved my life

Who cares though whether poets are moral beings or not? Hughes is dead after all and only his poetry lives on. Well, I think the authors pin this question down when they interrogate the series of poems which Hughes wrote about Assia later in his life (paralleling the poems he wrote about Plath in Birthday Letters). They put it like this:

In 1990 he published the twenty Capriccio poems, revolving around Assia. There is no mention of his own destructive forces and Assia is blamed for consciously burning herself on Sylvia’s funeral pyre ...[He goes on the suggest] she was doomed already when they met. He argued that although Assia fled Nazi Germany, she could not escape the fate of her fellow Jews

So it was her fault, or it was Hitler’s fault, but not his! The poem is revealed as a piece of his moral cowardice and his monstrous inability to accept responsibility.This is a really powerful biography whose authors have a strong sense of moral narrative (to add to this, Hughes’s mother, to whom he was devoted, is shown to have died most probably of the shock of hearing the news of Assia’s suicide and the death of Mrs Hughes’s granddaughter). The authors reconstruct the emotional lives of their subjects through combing every imaginable record, including shopping lists and calendars. In a sense, they are archaeologists bringing a long dead woman back to life, and they present a credible portrait which lingers in the mind.

One ‘ Cor! Fancy that!’ fact which the book supplies is that Assia was part of the advertising team which came up with the slogan, Mr Kipling makes exceeding good cakes. Ironically, this line is still better known than anything Ted Hughes ever wrote. Assia was a very talented creative advertiser and she was also a highly skilled translator of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (a role, incidentally, that Ted Hughes created for her). She should not be forgotten and this biography is more than good enough to resurrect her memory.