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

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.

He could be called a poet of the rough pastoral folk tradition of the English countryside, a tradition that can be traced through John Clare to D.H. Lawrence, with its motifs of ecstasy, pessimism and natural power. Hughes has been dramatically influenced by Lawrence's "blood knowledge" and his dark gods; his own poems wield the ax of Teutonic myth, nature's cruelty and violence, astrology, animal life and death. He often appears a Trickster-narrator, protean, a lone wolf or a sexual predator, piratical marauder. A typical Hughes poem scatters a furious gritty lift of syllables, a hard Anglo-Saxon spill of consonants unraveling beneath a cold traveling eye. People rarely appear in his poems; badgers and crows and owls and dead pigs do.

The grim badger with armorial mask

Biting spade-steel, teeth and jaw-strake shattered,

Draws that final shuddering, battle cry

Out of its backbone.

[ FROM "THE GRASS BLADE IS NOT WITHOUT . . . " IN "GAUDETE" ]

However, with "Birthday Letters," we have an utterly reconstituted poetic manner. Hughes has become a spinner of domestic narratives. These narratives have long prose-like lines, with occasional slant-rhyme or refrain lines and a direct conversational tone. Their tone and point of view are quite unvarying (making it unlikely that 25 years of reflection and silence on the subject of Plath, as claimed by publicity, were required for such single-minded, nearly uniform composition). They are epistolary, addressing a "you," and they seek (it appears) an emotional knowledge unusual in a typical Hughes poem. A glance at the contrast in styles between his oeuvre to date and this re-embodiment is startling.

There you are in all your innocence,

Sitting among your daffodils, as in a picture

Posed for the title: 'Innocence.'

[ FROM "PERFECT LIGHT" ]

This relaxed narrative diction is clearly not Hughes' natural idiom--it actually seems to tire him, at times he grows long-winded, prolix, angry and sentimental. Yet, like someone learning to sing in a different key, his voice is often hoarsely passionate, moving. (In the poem "The Rag Rug," Hughes braids myth and anecdote, then sheds them like a snake skin, slithering into transformation.) He borrows Plath's titles at will; he steals her imagery like a crow coveting brilliance, but his efforts to stir up her whirlwind, that zero-at-the-bone, high-speed wind of genius fall short.

Thor's voice its very self

Doing a hammer-dance on Daddy's body,

Avenging the twenty-year forsaken

Sobs of Germania--

[ FROM "BLOOD AND INNOCENCE" ]

The most casual reader of Plath's "Daddy" will hear the difference in lyric energy and diction at once. But Hughes' purpose is to win an argument in verse. Though he has written poems to or about Plath dating from nearly the time of her death ("You Hated Spain" is included here, while "Cadenza" and the poems of "Gaudete" are not), this is the first time he has been willing to sacrifice his natural bent as a poet to make his point.

A dramatic example of this (and an example of how Hughes' mind works on material) is a revision he did of an already published poem, changing it to fit the "plot" of this new book. Much has been made of the poem, "Daffodils" as published in "Birthday Letters": It seems one of the most effective (and affecting) poems in the book. What is interesting is that Hughes published the original version of this poem in 1986 in a Faber special edition (and elsewhere) in very different form.

In the first version, Hughes' narrator is a single "I," sole owner of land on which daffodils suddenly bloom.

I was still a nomad.

My life was still a raid. The earth was booty.

I knew I'd live forever. I had not learned

What a fleeting glance of the everlasting

Daffodils are. Did not recognise

The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera--

My own days!

[ FROM "DAFFODILS" IN "FLOWERS AND INSECTS" ]

Later in the poem, he details how he "kills" the daffodils ("To each scared, bright glance / I brought a defter cruelty") and how the "souls" of the murdered daffodils, had "gone to ground inside me." The narrator's tone is perfectly heartless and unyielding; to the end he remains an erotic marauder, a classic Hughes "wolf."

In "Birthday Letters," a decade later, "Daffodils" becomes a very different poem:

Remember how we picked the daffodils?

Nobody else remembers, but I remember.

The strong "I" lines are carefully altered to reflect togetherness:

Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.

We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned

What a fleeting glance of the everlasting

Daffodils are. Never identified

The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera--

Our own days!

Solemn domestic gravity and grief for its loss replace the "deft cruelty" of the earlier poem. Plath now appears in the poem, cutting the daffodils ("you bent at it / in the rain of April--our last April.") then somehow loses "our wedding scissors." Whereas the earlier version ended with the narrator's "Resurrection" into "my world, my garden," possessive and whole, the new version ends with death, and the scissors "sinking deeper" through the sod, "an anchor, a cross of rust."

It is death that the domestic themes argue for in every poem in "Birthday Letters," and if the poems, taken as a whole, were stronger, the argument might have been won. As it stands, the poems suffer, as poems always do, from a too-steady imposition of the poet's will. That the poems are fearless is a given, that they are obstacles to their own realization is another. As he describes Plath, staring into the crystal ball in which he has written her future, Hughes also captures his own wrenched aesthetic in these poems:

The Lawrentian globe

Lit the crystal globe you stared into

For your future--while a silent

Wing of your grave went over you. Up that valley

A future home waited for both of us--

Two different homes. Where I saw so clearly

My vision house, you saw only blackness,

Solid blackness, the face of nothingness.

[ FROM "STUBBING WHARFE" ]

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