Frieda Hughes, The Book of Mirrors

To my mind, the most successful poems in The Book of Mirrors were a number of observations of animals towards the end, particularly a group on pheasants. These are on the whole evocative and sharply observed, showing real feeling for the creatures they describe. Another later poem, “February”, expresses the writer’s sense of exhaustion and her yearning for renewal in a way that transcends the merely personal by setting her emotional state in wider contexts of human suffering and seasonal process. There are several dignified and poignant elegies. “Verbal Warning” sends up the absurdity of having so many things that Hughes can’t write about without being accused of plagiarising her parents (Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath). In it, she offers her own humorously and vividly oblique ways of describing things like the bird that was black but not a blackbird, whose “feathers ate light like a collapsing star”.

However, many poems struck me as much less achieved. Although the feelings and attitudes behind them were often sympathetic, I didn’t feel that they came fully alive as poetry. Hughes has some brilliant flashes of metaphor, as when she describes how a scorpion’s tail arcs “To dangle the lamp of its poison”. However, in many poems, like those about Stonepicker, the female personification of grievance, and her unpleasant uncle Stunkle, metaphor becomes laboured allegory. Hughes can be most successful by eschewing figures and writing simply from the heart, as in the poignant and tender “Sixty Day Crow” (“So he was only a crow”). I often found the movement from line to line too inert. And finally I found many pieces too rawly personal. Truly to engage the reader (at least this one) personal feelings and experience need to open out on the world beyond the self. I felt that many of these poems were too caught up in Hughes’ own immediate feelings to do that, or to achieve the precision of expression that might have been encouraged by a more detached attitude to what she was expressing. Admittedly some of the poems that didn’t work for me on the page might work well in performance, because of stand-out lines that achieve a kind of speech-making eloquence and suggestiveness. Many others have a great deal of not fully realised potential. However, fundamentally, I felt that this long collection would have benefited by further pruning, revision and selection.

(This and today’s other two posts are taken from a review I wrote for Acumen 66. I am grateful for the opportunity to repost them here.)

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