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Let It Bleed

BIRTHDAY LETTERS. By Ted Hughes . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 198 pp., $20

March 15, 1998|CAROL MUSKE | Carol Muske is the author of "An Octave Above Thunder: New and Selected Poems," a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize

The Happy Couple is back. In the spirit of "Lady Lazarus" (Sylvia Plath's poem about a woman who thrives on death and returns from the grave at 10-year intervals), we have this decade's version of a world-class marital mismatch in "Birthday Letters," a collection of poems by Ted Hughes. The poems appear to have been written in eloquent exasperation, a literary last straw meant to put an end, once and for all, to the debate about who was responsible for the demise of Sylvia Plath. In these poems, Plath is reanimated but in service of an argument. She dies and re-dies in these pages, as Hughes provides commentary, like someone rerunning assassination footage to prove a point: There's the smoking gun! Plath herself appears three-dimensional, a speaking, shifting hologram, but is in fact a caught reflection in Hughes' crystal ball.

In these 88 poems, Hughes presents himself as a medium, a medium with a message; he repossesses some of Plath's titles, her topoi; he even tries on her famous tone. The role of medium is passive yet active; he is, on one hand, directly arguing that the doomed marriage of two talented poets was a cruel inevitability of fate (as was Plath's suicide), but on the other, he must, of necessity, cast himself as a hapless player in this predetermined drama. In "Birthday Letters," the familiar saga (American poet at Cambridge meets brooding dark English poet, love and marriage and children follow, then breakup, then suicide and tormented, transcendent poems), as told by one of the two protagonists, is riveting and appeals with depressing inevitability to our culture's impassioned voyeurism.

Elbowing in to comment (jeering or cheering) is Plath's familiar "peanut-crunching crowd," outspoken critics on both sides of the Atlantic who, almost without exception, have insisted on reading these poems (since their publication), as life transcripts, to support their political or psychoanalytical interpretations of the lives of two people whose life together went very wrong.

Not since Dante Gabriel Rossetti pried open his wife's coffin to disinter the only extant copy of poems he'd written in grief and buried with her, only to change his mind about who was most deserving of them, has a book given off such an air of confrontation with the grave. Critics, prowling, sniffing, have raised a lantern, suspicious, to spotlight Hughes' re-digging. Yet if these poems are read purely as obsessed testimony, it is impossible not to see Hughes, in some of the poems, as sympathetic as well as a resourceful witness for his own defense. To those who accused him of abandoning Plath and their two small children, in effect abetting her suicide (as well as the suicide of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he left Plath), these meditative, sometimes moving letters to his lost wife allow us to see Hughes as he sees himself--grieving, tortured, victimized--a bewildered baby-tender and helpmate, whose partner was doomed by the "fixed stars" that governed her fate as well as a morbid desire to hop back into the grave with her father, dead since her eighth year.

And woke upside-down in your spirit-house

Moving limbs that were not my limbs,

And telling, in a voice not my voice,

A story of which I knew nothing.

[ FROM "THE GOD" ]

Whatever one makes of this revisionist life-testimony, whether one believes he is lying or half-mad or utterly convincing: These opinions are finally irrelevant. Thanks to the People magazine aura surrounding the appearance of "Birthday Letters," it seems that routine literary appraisal of this work is impossible. There has been almost nothing written about the poems themselves as poems. Apart from some half-hearted comparisons to Hardy's "Poems of 1912-1913" or the famous Barrett Browning billet-doux, no one seems especially interested in talking about whether this book, picked up by a reader (if such being should exist a century from now), will stand on its own as artistic achievement apart from its lurid biographical marginalia.

This is especially ironic, since rarely in recent memory has a book of poems represented such a dramatic stylistic change in a contemporary poetic voice. Hughes is, on one hand, a very public and prolific writer. He is poet laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, and he has published 40-odd books of poetry, fiction, children's stories, translations (most recently a much acclaimed Ovid and, forthcoming, Aeschylus), plays and critical essays (some on Plath). Despite this high visibility, he has remained a mysterious and reclusive figure. He is especially remote and unapproachable in his poems.

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