Frieda Hughes, Out of the Ashes – review

Out of the Ashes, by Frieda Hughes. Bloodaxe Books. 240 pp. £12

Handsomely produced, like all Bloodaxe books, Out of the Ashes is a generous selection from four of Hughes’ previous collections, not including the US-published Forty-five or the illustrated Alternative Values. Hughes’ introduction sets the poetry in the context of her life, explaining some of her purposes and procedures, and at the end there’s a section of notes to particular poems.

My own response is mixed. As I read poetry, syntax and metre are the bones and muscles that give a poem living shape and make it move. Perhaps it’s Hughes’ relative weakness in this regard that makes me feel that in many of her poems the whole somehow adds up to less than the sum of its powerful parts. Or perhaps it’s her tendency to over-explain, as I would see it, nailing ideas down and flattening them by analysis rather than leaving them to resonate and expand in the reader’s imagination. I’m temperamentally less at home with her tendency to present things in strong colours and absolute terms than with the play of ambiguities, counter-suggestions and conflicting emotions that we find in Derek Mahon.

That said, she’s a writer of considerable emotional perceptiveness and power. Many of the poems are directly and explicitly related to aspects of her life history, including moving pieces on her parents, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and her brother Nick. Other poems present emotional drives in a more generalizing way, particularly the poems from Waxworks, where figures of myth and history become the incarnations of different tendencies in human nature – often violent and destructive ones. I admire her ability to present extreme emotions in such unhesitating terms. Befitting an author who is also a noted painter, she has a gift for arresting visual images, sometimes direct and literal, sometimes twisted into emblems so bizarre as to feel almost surreal though they’re controlled by metaphorical purpose rather than spontaneously welling out of the unconscious mind in accordance with Surrealist theory. Strikingly phrased, such images give rise to any number of brilliant isolated lines and sentences, as when she says “The idea of a Rottweiler grew legs / And walked” or writes of a young pet crow “He tilts his head forward / And sharpens the weapon of his face.” Occasionally there are longer passages in which ideas are allowed to unfold relatively freely in the imagination, like this from “The Fourth Horseman”, where it follows a series of graphic images of livestock incinerated in the BSE epidemic:

And the farmer faces silence
From the furnace of his fields.
It hangs with the smoke
In the branches of his trees,
It hangs in each room of his house,
It hangs in his barn where the owls
Are speechless with horror, their voices
Gone out like candles.

There’s a great deal of violence and anger in the book but it closes with a poem for her brother, “Eulogy for Nick”, which wrestles in a poignantly open-ended and ambivalent way with the pain of love and loss, gaining richness and depth from the sense it gives of intense, conflicting, unresolvable feelings not being simplified into a strongly coloured attitude or series of attitudes but being brought into a kind of inexpressible focus by the words of the poem.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post this review, which originally appeared in Acumen 93, together with my review of Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock.


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