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Dead Poet's Society

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Birthday Letters
By Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 198 pp.; $20

Poet recalls a strange love with Sylvia Plath

By Traci Hukill

TED HUGHES WAS EASY to demonize. Just months before the poet Sylvia Plath turned on her oven and breathed death the way most people inhale fresh air, Hughes had left her for a woman the couple met while living in England. As if affirming his complicity in her suicide, Hughes hung back in silence while his dead wife attained enormous posthumous success with Ariel and The Bell Jar.

Plath fans leveled hostile criticism at Hughes for his presumed role in her demise, even--or especially--when he edited Plath's The Collected Poems, winning a Pulitzer for the job. About her work he was dutiful, but on the subject of Sylvia he was silent. Critics assumed guilt or a hard heart kept him that way.

Now it seems deep trauma did. Birthday Letters shatters the devastating quiet around their stormy marriage, and it does so beautifully. Written with the elastic precision that earned Hughes the title of Poet Laureate to Queen Elizabeth II, the poems, most of them addressed to Plath, chronicle the couple's relationship from first meeting--he offered beery back-room kisses at a party, she bit his face, bruising him for a month--to hellish end, when Plath's horrific depression and obsession with death wrung him dry. It's hard to finish Birthday Letters and hold anything against the man.

First was the incomparable sweetness of new love. Of their wedding day Hughes writes, "You were transfigured,/So slender and new and naked,/A nodding spray of wet lilac./You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth/Brimming with God." Through three-quarters of the book Hughes radiates admiration and adulation of Plath, even in her tempests. The tenderness of nostalgia floods the poems.

But almost every one of them harbors a fearful shadow, a question for Plath, whose dark depths Hughes never quite illuminated. Sometimes he shades in a bleak foreshadowing. In "The Shot" he reflects, "In my position, the right witchdoctor/Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,/Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,/Godless, happy, quieted./I managed/A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown."

By the time their second child is born, Hughes' admiration has given way to puzzled, grieving compassion. He remains loyal, but his strength fades as Plath grows more obsessed with her dead father: "The forty-ninth chamber convulsed/With the Ogre's roar/As he burst through the wall and plunged/Into his abyss. I glimpsed him/As I tripped/Over your corpse and fell with him/Into his abyss."

The last dozen or so poems practically suffocate in macabre death-dance scenes, tormented and Byzantine metaphors and references to Plath's "Daddy." Out of kindness to his reader, Hughes ends on a quieted, contemplative note in "Red"--a graceful Chopin nocturne after a wild Wagnerian climax.

The worst thing that could happen to Birthday Letters would be for it to turn into a history book. It's true that Plathophiles will find a treasure trove of details about the erratic poet between its covers, and that makes it delightful. But it's a mistake to mine Hughes for Plath at the expense of hearing his song, because it's one rarely sung by men and almost never sung so well: a song of pure, deep sorrow.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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