by Frieda Hughes
(Harper Flamingo) $20
It was 1963 when Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven and gassed herself. She plugged the doors with towels to protect her sleeping children--Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, a year old. In the wake of her suicide, Plath also left the rubble of her dissolving marriage with British poet Ted Hughes (he was seeing another woman) and a stack of poems, published and unpublished.
The literary industry, already smitten with Plath's first books, The Colossus (poetry) and The Bell Jar (a popular novel), started to chug. Driven by the glamour of the young poet and the mystery of the suicide, critics gyrated and Ted Hughes found another career as Plath's literary curator. For the next 10 years he published posthumous volumes of Plath's work, including short fiction and poetry collections, culminating in the Collected Poems.
The Plath-Hughes saga grew more intricate and volatile when Hughes' next lover killed herself and her child. Some feminist critics imprinted the second suicide onto their readings of Plath, seeing her confessional persona as a real-life victim of domestic trappings, locked in by an unfaithful husband, a villain who destroyed her and moved on to his next lover. Other biographers saw Plath as a prodigy whose talents far surpassed her maturity and deflected blame from Hughes, instead viewing Plath as a mentally ill, spoiled young American girl who was in over her head.
As the years passed, Hughes grew to fame in England, publishing poetry collections and children's books. He became Poet Laureate in 1984 and passed the management of Plath's literary estate to his sister, Olwyn Hughes. Biographies and critical studies of Plath continued to roll off the presses. Seamus Heaney, Harold Bloom, Joyce Carol Oates, Jacqueline Rose, Anne Stevenson, and Janet Malcolm have all written about Plath, and their work ranges from the gossipy (Stevenson, Malcolm) to the text-driven (Oates, Bloom).
After a bout with cancer, Ted Hughes died late last year, but not before breaking his long silence about Sylvia Plath. He submitted his own contribution to the Plath canon with The Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about their relationship, written over a 25-year span. The collection was an echo of Sylvia's own "A Birthday Present," in which she writes: "I know why you will not give it to me,/You are terrified/The world will go up in a shriek and your head with it,/Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,/A marvel to your great-grandchildren."
To add to all of this, Plath was oddly prophetic about how "gifts" might pass through the Hughes family, and how the publishing world would continue to "go up in a shriek." Frieda Hughes, Sylvia and Ted's daughter, has begun publishing her own poems. Her work appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and now in a book titled Wooroloo, from HarperCollins.
Leave it to HarperCollins, the press that shagged 100 literary novels in favor of more profitable celebrity books, to publish the new "celebrity" in the Hughes-Plath saga. The book jacket calls Frieda Hughes "a writer of unusual literary pedigree." The pedigree hasn't boosted Frieda Hughes' talent. It's given her some exciting subject matter, but left her without either the linguistic pyrotechnics of her mother or the atavistic, totemic figures of her father's work. Wooroloo is an attempt to reconcile her parents, remarry them in verse, but the poems aren't imaginatively up to the task.
The first bell-ringer about Frieda Hughes is the apparently straightforward dedication: "For Daddy with Love." Plath's own version of "Daddy" (her most famous poem) packed as much anger at domestic life as literature had seen to date. Plath blasted her father, ranting, "You do not do, you do not do/I have had to kill you." She tosses her husband into the fray with "I've killed one man, I've killed two." Frieda Hughes tries to smooth over issues her mother couldn't--or wouldn't--using Wooroloo as a device (even with its long ooo sounds) "to get back back back to you," to pull Plath "out of the sack" and "stick (her) together with glue."
In this way--in a sort of literary treasure hunt--the book repairs Plath back to her obsessions. Frieda Hughes is the undertaker, piecing her mother together through semantic taxidermy. She takes literal scenes and language from Plath, and tries to rewrite them. One can almost match half of the poems in the book with Plath's own. Plath's poem "Tulips," written about a hospital stay following an operation, reads, "They have propped my head between the pillow and sheetcuff." In Frieda's poem "Operation," she says, "My head is lead, neck all bent/when I try to lift this melon." Hughes focuses on the same hospital scene, the same body part, without the poetic texture or complex psychology of her mother's work.
In other places, Frieda Hughes lashes out directly at Plath: "Mother felt her job was done./Had used her womb like a weapon. Now her words/beat him down." She seems to be using her poems to defend her father's honor, trashing her mother's in the meantime. In "Granny," Hughes writes: "Mirror, mirror on the wall/who is the least dead/of us all?/You loved me not, just sent/a copy of the face/you gave birth to." The haunting image of the face as a transposed, blank image is straight from Sylvia Plath. In "You're," Plath wrote about a child still in the womb, "a clean slate with your own face on." In "The Face," Frieda Hughes writes, "Born blank, it was made up by children. It was scribbled on at home, his mother's notepad." This sounds like a weak sequel to Plath's, and the blankness comes back in Hughes' "Thief," in which a child finds a carcass of her mother and "became black, wiped clean like a pale sea stone." How awful that Hughes lifts the same imagery to get "back back back to" her mother.
Frieda Hughes, obviously, is a reader of Plath, though in an October Time article, she "denies being consciously influenced by the work of her mother and father." Of her mother's suicide, she says, "I can't ever know the truth. Why would I wish to dwell on it, when there is so much else in life?" Yet here it is, redone. And, as readers, we are rebuked for reading Plath's life and work together. To "Readers," Frieda Hughes writes: "When she came out of the oven,/They had gutted, peeled/And garnished her. They called her theirs."
Since Hughes was only three when her mother died, it's unlikely that these memories of her ("Tulip-red you took yourself to bed/And slept without me") grant us a clear lens to Plath. Frieda Hughes has had to rely on her father to find memories of her mother, and on her mother's literary legacy. It is even possible that, since Hughes was so young when Plath died, her memories of the suicide of a mother figure reflect her father's second lover. It may be through this woman that Frieda Hughes magnifies her memories. She transposes Plath onto the overarching icon of suicide, while the real memories become foregrounded in other details. So much for literary pedigree. There's a tone of setting-the-record-straight without any significant insights or additions. Like an improviser, Hughes extends the metaphor of her mother's material, granting "a last breath as her flesh/offers up its children."
When Hughes averts the theatrical in her Plathian poems, she's got a good sense of humor. She's more colloquial, and her own voice finds shape in a child's perspective: "that's the trouble with these babies now;/They take one look at that hot, wet hole/and hear the traffic and the screaming beyond and they try/To climb right back up again." Frieda Hughes also writes children's books, and this may be where her talents are most at home.
The influence of her father softens things a bit, though the overt appropriation of his imagery feels awkward. Even Hughes' fox reappears. Ted Hughes' iconic images of animals (especially foxes) and character sketches scaffold the second half of his daughter's book while the poetic voice urges its way back to the atavistic.
Read these poems for the residue of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, the echoes, the shards that catch and create domestic life, and they'll unravel. Plath made icons out of the everyday, the "little smiling hooks" of family photographs, even the bathtub, that "familiar tub bred an ample batch of omens." In the end, Frieda Hughes says "I am unhooked and escaping." But she isn't releasing herself from these myths.
Why rewrite your parents' poems, especially when they are literary feats of originality and brilliance? Is it to add your own voice to the industry? Listen to the overblown rhetorical sweeps here: "Did you die for me?/Was the voice in your head, that uglied you,/so loud it would drown me out?" How will critics read this? If Frieda Hughes is as confessional a poet as her mother, are we to assume she thinks her mother was generous for killing herself? That it would make more room for Frieda in the world?
Wooroloo adds more fuel to the fiery speculation about Plath and Hughes, and brings even more attention to their work. As for the Hughes children, I'm anxious to hear from Nicholas Hughes. If you're out there, Nicholas, why don't you wave or something?