Frieda Hughes’s new book of poems, Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors, feels eerily sad and poignant at times, especially since her brother, Nicholas, committed suicide a few weeks ago. His death, 46 years after their famous mother, Sylvia Plath, took her own life, may reopen some of the wounds Hughes tries to heal in the book.
Yet the poems also suggest answers to the questions many readers have asked privately: How has Hughes dealt with yet another tragedy? Will she be OK?
The book, divided into two distinct sections, makes it clear that both Hughes and readers have a choice about how to view life, their personal histories, and other people. We – and she – can cling to the past, recounting and magnifying every loss until we become like the Stonepicker in the opening poem:
... scooped out and bow-like,
As if her string
Has been drawn too tight.
But really, she is
Plucking stones from the dirt
For her shoulder bag.
It is her dead albatross,
Her cross, her choice,
In it lie her weapons.
This Stonepicker, as Hughes explains in her notes, “believes she can do no wrong, only that wrong is done to her.” That attitude contributes to the cruelty and hardships described throughout the section. In the second poem, “Playground,” Hughes recounts a childhood experience where a “small girl” and a group of boys taunted and teased “a big girl,”
Filling up the big girl’s head
With memories of ridicule
That would repeat again, again,
For years inside her brain. She knew
One thing must stop it now
Or face it every day at school.
Dark narratives and taut writing run throughout “Stonepicker,” as do hints of an edginess much like Plath’s. The result is a sense of weight, which neither the reader nor Hughes can lift or escape.
Hughes’s late father, Ted, the British poet laureate, couldn’t escape that burden, either. Many Plath’s fans and feminists blamed her death on his infidelity, even decades after her passing. Hughes makes this clear in “Sisyphus,” where she writes of her father “carrying his wife’s carcass.” Yet when he reaches the riverbank:
Her body stinks from
The buckle of his shoulders,
But the gathered crowd
Will not land him. They stand,
Bank-bound, their words
Sharp like swords, and hold him off.
The tone and direction of the book shift markedly in “The Book of Mirrors,” the second section. This item, Hughes says, strips people of their artifice, showing them as they really are:
The book of mirrors does not hold prisoners,
Although it may expose the cage
Of our own constructions.
If we are ready
It may illuminate the door over our left shoulder
Through which we can escape,
Leaving our old skins behind
For others to trip over.
Some of those “skins” began as callouses, developed to protect Hughes from experiences too painful for a child to understand or process. Hughes writes with heartbreaking honesty about her maternal grandmother’s machinations and the antidepressants that were supposed to help her mother but instead made things worse. Hughes didn’t speak for more than a year following her mother’s death, and she was in her teens before she learned that suicide, not pneumonia, was to blame.
Those admissions help make the second section compelling, as do the strength and wisdom Hughes has developed over the years. She consistently chooses her own path, refusing to be defined by her parents’ choices, or even their use of certain subjects or words. They had their crows and sheep, for example, and she has hers, despite what critics or fans may say.
“The Book of Mirrors” goes on too long, and some of the recurring themes and characters are overused. Yet even when the writing falls a bit flat, Hughes maintains a unique lens, as in “For Nicolas Heiney,” about a talented man in his 20s who took his own life. “We remembered you today,” Hughes begins. A few lines later, she writes with warmth and compassion:
You were not blamed
For sharpening the tool
You hid from view,
That took you only when
You wanted it to,
But were loved and understood.
The loss of her brother, Nicholas, must have been devastating. But as “Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors” suggests, Hughes is strong and independent, a survivor who demands – and deserves – to be viewed as a distinctive person and artist, not just the product of a brilliant, damaged family.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.