Today’s authors’ pick–and the final one in this series–has been chosen by Matthew Thompson.
A Ted Hughes Bestiary, poems selected by Alice Oswald.
The revelation of Ted Hughes and his exquisitely poised and powerful animal poetry was a long time coming. For decades a clear, open-hearted view appreciation of the crow poems and other work was not possible for me, due to the grip of Sylvia Plath’s fierce and tragic legend.
I did glance at Hughes’ poems now and then but my sight was displaced and distorted by the mythos of sadistic, maddening selfishness – even more so when I learned of how the woman that displaced Plath in Hughes’ affections, AssiaWevill, murdered their daughter and killed herself (and how quadruply weird to consider that Hughes and Plath’s son, Nicholas, eventually hanged himself in Alaska).
Age has taught me to let complexity be, even complexity of torment, instead of pruning it back to ready-understandability or by gripping isolated strands of it in order to haul oneself up to a fake height of mind.
So, a few months ago, decades after first reading Hughes, and while in Melbourne researching the life of a long-term recidivist prisoner for a book I’m writing, I slid from a bookstore shelf the slim hardback of A Ted Hughes Bestiary, Alice Oswald’s selection of Hughes’ animal poems.
Amidst the stark and ruthless crowscapes sat “The Jaguar”, a glimpse of a zoo-held beast seething with itself. I couldn’t help but think of my writing subject, a man who in his younger years could not be tamed, could not be contained, whose will was harder than the bars and walls around him.
…there’s no cage to him
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
But the prisoner’s jaguar days are gone.Sentenced again, this time to so long in isolation that even the judge said it would damage his mind, the man now sits spiritually detached from, but physically within spitting distance of, the predatory world of crime and jail. So attuned, he can sense when someone who, unlike battered old him, still hungers for prey: someone whosegrimacing face has not yet been smoothed. A blood-thirsty hunter in a moment that brings to mind the opening of Hughes’ “And Owl”:
Floats, a masked soul listening for death.
Death listening for a soul.
Yet it would be too limiting to keep relating these poems to men, to humans. Their centre is not anthropomorphic and in reading them, in handling them, DH Lawrence’s poem, “Fish”, comes to mind: specifically, its message that other beings inhabit their own universes, have not gods or not the same gods, are sometimes older and more purpose-made than we can comprehend. Lawrence’s narrator marvels at his witnessing of fish:
Loveless, and so lively!
Born before God was love,
Or life knew loving.
Beautifully beforehand with it all.
Joyce Carol Oates uses that line about a time “before God was love” to describe the severe and profound world of boxing, a world for its enthusiasts that remains beautifully before today’s widespread cringing avoidance of harm. The animals are not emotional about their pain or plight. They are clarity of instinct.
And over it all, unblinking in their exactitude, are not just Hughes’ famous crows but his hawk, who in “Hawk Roosting”, flies up to:
…revolve it all slowly –
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
Of course, there is so much more, including tales of animals lower on the food chain, but you’ll have to read them yourself. I have too much work to do.
Based in the small NSW town of Dungog, Matthew Thompson is the author of Running with the Blood God and My Colombian Death and a journalist whose recent work has focused on the violent intrigues of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. For more information, see www.matthewthompsonwriting.com