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Birthday Letters

May 7, 2012

Thanks to the creative writing course I recently started, I’ve been experiencing a tremendous surge of inspiration as well as a greater confidence with my own writing.  Thus, it seems only apropo to devote a post to the literary arts.  My current read is Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, which a friend gave me on my birthday a few years ago.  Hughes was both the poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998, and the former husband of iconic poet/author Sylvia Plath and Birthday Letters is a collection of poems devoted to Plath, mostly written in the twenty-five years following her death.  So much has been said about their tumultuous relationship, and some even hold Hughes (who left Plath for another woman) responsible for her death, but this collection proves that her place in his memory was unshakable.  Hughes describes their young wedding (“In that echo-gaunt, weekday chancel/ I see you/ Wrestling to contain your flames/ In your pink wool knitted dress/ And in your eye-pupils– great cut jewels/ Jostling their tear-flames, truly like big jewels/ Shaken in a dice cup and held up to me”), their first kiss (“You meant to knock me out/ With your vivacity.  I remember/ Little rest of that evening…/ Nothing/ Except…/ your blue headscarf from my pocket/ And the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks/ That was to brand my face for the next month./ The me beneath it for good.”), and details about her bouts with depression but uses the book more as a love letter than a discussion about her controversial death.  The author doesn’t try to depict her as idealized, but as he actually saw her to be: alternatingly headstrong, glamorous, whip-smart, fragile, and flawed.  I have to admit that I find Birthday Letters to be lovely and romantic as an ode to someone who served as such a muse and I admire Hughes’ ability to share such intimacies.  I can only aspire to do the same myself.  Below I transcribed one of my favorite poems from the book for your enjoyment.  I hope you find Hughes’ words and intent as inspiring as I do.

The Machine

The dark ate at you.  And the fear

Of being crushed. ‘A huge dark machine’,

‘The grinding indifferent

Millstone of circumstance’. After

Watching the orange sunset, these were the words

You put on a page.  They had come to you

When I did not.  When you tried

To will me up the stair, this terror

Arrived instead.  While I

Most likely was just sitting,

Maybe with Lucas, no more purpose in me

Than in my own dog

That I did not have.  A real dog

Might have stared at nothing

Hair on end

While the grotesque mask of your Mummy-Daddy

Half-quarry, half-hospital, whole

Juggernaut stuffed with your unwritten poems,

Ground invisibly without a ripple

Towards me with the unstirred willows,

Through the wall of The Anchor,

Drained my Guinness at a gulp

Blackly yawned me

Into its otherworld interior

Where I would find my home.  My children.  And my life

Forever trying to climb the steps now stone

Towards the door now red

Which you, in your own likeness, would open

with still time to talk.



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