Hughes, Frieda: Alternative Values.
Bloodaxe, 2015, pp112, 12 [pounds sterling]
978 1 7803 7266 2
In this extraordinary volume, Frieda Hughes writes about subjecting her 'own history and childhood to examination in respect of the way I see others, and myself'. Poems and paintings, she goes on to say, 'are the driving forces in my life.' Anyone reading this book will be in no doubt of that. Hughes' history includes living in Devon and Yorkshire, Wales and Australia. Her story also includes being the daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and inevitably many of the poems explore dark areas of her life. Reading this collection is a painful experience--'the ever-increasing sensation that I was in a cage,/Which got smaller as I grew bigger.' Death is never far away; grief, anger, disgust and loss haunt the poems. When her grandmother visits, 'Her words have pitted my mother's surface/Like shrapnel, the shards of which/Are burrowing like maggots/Towards her very marrow.'
The Alternative Values of the title always needs to be borne in mind, alternative including the word relative and 'Relatives know how to pull the root/That taps our most sensitive nerve.' However, as Maura Dooley and Jamie McKendrick write in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Hughes' poetry offers vivid descriptions of 'struggle and release, the cleansing properties of fire. She is a courageous poet with a rich palette.' This is so true and that bravery is evident in poem after poem, including After the Funeral, 'When, as one of four,/I carried your casket/Into the crowded church.' As she says in another poem, 'My father remains more solid in my head/Than any stone.' Hughes can be upbeat, too. The title poem and one of the few figurative paintings which accompanies it is about owls. Here Hughes talks about shifting attitudes and finishes the poem with words that could be the key to the collection: 'it is all a matter of perspective.' There is a happy memory of Hughes holding a squirming kitten beside her laughing, pregnant mother, as her father takes a family photograph. In About Loss, she concludes on a positive note--'So love, and let it end when it must; / Be glad that time was had at all.' Mostly abstract, 'based on the emotions that arose from the incidents or observations in those poems', the paintings are powerful and vibrant, demanding attention, sometimes disturbing, like her poetry.
One of Frieda Hughes' misfortunes is that she carries her parents' anguish with her and her own accomplishments are inevitably compared to their brilliant poetry and tragic lives. This book demonstrates that with her intense and original voice and arresting paintings, Frieda Hughes' work is worthy of notice and celebration in her own right.