Friday, July 30, 2010

Ted Hughes, We Hardly Knew Ye...

"Ambition, like talent, is a gift," according to Joyce Carol Oates, in an essay about Sylvia Plath. Anyone who has read Plath's journals knows just how ambitious she was, a quality that rates high with me. I don't pretend to have any particular insight into who she was, or why she did what she did; I only know that she was one of the very best poets I've read, and I wish things had turned out differently. Besides, what she represents to me may have nothing at all to do with her. Just as the words of the dead are modified by the living (as Auden said about Yeats), their substance is given over to the "foreign codes of conscience" they affect. Like so many others, I am moved by her seeming contradictions, by her talent and her drive, and what I perceive to be her vulnerability. There was a hardness about her sensibility, though, and a stern, almost cruel quality to her intelligence which belied any ideas of softness at her core. In the end, what mattered most was her poetry, which was startling—no, fuck, that's not enough—it was lacerating. It was tough, and dagger-sharp, and brilliantly crafted. As much as any I have read, it took my breath away. I don't know how much of her is revealed in her work, but what I imagine is enough for me to love her.

And because I love her, I hated Ted Hughes for a very long time.

I was wrong. It happens.

I'm not attempting to justify Hughes' behavior in their marriage, or after, with Assia Wevill. There's no defense to be made, beyond the certain fact that people are complicated animals, who often do stupid, destructive, totally fucked-up things, for reasons they don't even remember once the dust settles. Hughes behaved abominably. Plath was difficult, I have no doubt, and formidable. She was also the mother of his children, and his greatest champion. And the love of his life. He should have done things differently—less piggishly, and with greater understanding of the implications. Anyone who's read Birthday Letters knows that Hughes loved her, enormously. And in spite of some of the rather easy self-justification in those letters—the surmises regarding her relationship to her father's death, etc.—I believe that he shouldered much of the blame for her death (read The Offers, a poem published a few days before he died, if you doubt it). Of course, it was a thing impossible for Hughes to admit during his active life; the admission would've seemed to him to be a surrender to those who picketed his readings, calling him a murderer, and who repeatedly chipped his name off her tombstone. Perhaps it was his gigantic egotism, or perhaps just a blind spot where Sylvia was concerned—but he could never engage the very real blame Plath's admirers directed toward him, to the point where it seemed he could not comprehend it. How different things could have been, if he could've simply revealed his feelings—his guilt, his shame, his loss—but then, Ted wouldn't have been Ted, would he? It just wasn't in his nature to reveal himself so nakedly, or even to concede an inch of ground; she was his goddamm wife after all, and it was private.

From reading Plath's letters and journals, and some of the biographical material, as well as Hughes' poems, I've formed a theory about the dynamic between them. When they famously met that February evening in 1956, Hughes had only published a few poems. His career was going nowhere, it seemed, and he was actually on a wait-list to join his brother in Australia—to find adventure and fortune, or whatever they were doing down there—and working a dead-end, subsistence level job for the Arthur Rank Company. Plath knew pretty much immediately that he had greatness in him, and her faith changed everything, centered him and caused him to see himself as the man he wanted to be. The standard she held him to may have felt like a yoke, sometimes; and in Birthday Letters, I often sense what I can only describe as a kind of self-recrimination, attached to bitterness—the result, perhaps, of an egotistical, chauvinistic man who was dominated by a woman, and his love for her, and who is still in her thrall—unsure of how to deal with it long after her death, still flailing about in the vicissitudes of many thousands of his own dark nights, for answers.

It is a remarkable document.

Early on, Hughes, the Rube from Yorkshire, tells us that "At 25 (he) was dumbfounded afresh/By (his) ignorance of the simplest things" (Fulbright Scholars)—stumbling about, it seems, all fidgety talent and uncertainty, unaware he "was being auditioned/for the male lead in (her)drama." In Sylvia's world, which Ted merely inhabited, "Ordinary jocks bec(a)me gods/deified by (her) infatuation/that seemed designed at birth for a god" (The Shot). It was a fruitless endeavor, for both she and whoever she annointed, because "a god/who was not (her) father/was a false god" (Being Christlike). What remained for him was the recognition that reality—or rather, the reality of him—would never be enough:

"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, a ring, your watch, your nightgown"
(The Shot)

Among my favorite verses, and most telling, I think, appears at the end of Ouija, a poem literally describing their experience fooling around with a ouija board:

"...Once, as we bent there, I asked:
'Shall we be famous?' and you snatched your hands upwards
as if something had grabbed it from under.
Your tears flashed, your face was contorted,
your voice cracked, it was thunder and flash together:
'And give yourself to the glare? Is that what you want?
Why should you want to be famous?
Don't you see—fame will ruin everything.'
I was stunned. I thought I had joined
your association of ambition
to please you and your mother
to fulfill your mother's ambition
that we should be ambitious. Otherwise
I'd be fishing off a rock
in Western Australia. So it seemed suddenly. You wept.
You wouldn't go on with ouija. Nothing
I could think of could explain
your shock and crying. Only
maybe you'd picked up a whisper that I could not.
Before our glasses could stir, some still small voice:
'Fame will come. Fame especially for you.
Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes
you will have paid for it with your happiness.
Your husband and your life.' "

These are the thoughts Hughes was left with, in the intervening years, between their deaths. Perhaps it is no real wonder that he succumbed to Assia's seduction—a beautiful, far less complicated woman, who desired him, I would wager, more specifically, or so at least it seemed to him. The "dreamer in (him)" fell in love with her "black Mongolian hair" and "many-blooded beauty"—the dreamer in him, the very real man who lived outside the expectation, and inevitable disappointment, of his strange and brilliant—and at the level he probably desired, unattainable—futurely famous wife.

From Fever, a poem describing Plath sick with a virus when they were in Spain:

...You cried for certain that
You were going to die.
                                      I bustled about.
I was nursemaid. I fancied myself at that.
I liked the crisis of the vital role.
I felt things had become real...

In the end, according to Ted Hughes' version of The Truth, it seems that was all he wanted.

Miss Judith

Miss Judith lives at the top of a hill
by the edge of the Barton Spring
in a winding lane that has no name
for those who don’t belong to see.

Her house created quite a stir
when it happened, in '78.
Designed by a guy who gave speeches
about deconstructed space.

She stands in front of a concrete step
That leads to seven more.
Quaking like a just-born foal
She will conquer every one.

When Miss Judith finds the doorway
She hesitates, and frowns;
Chaos and Order, as aesthetic, she thinks
A little unprofound.

Tuttle, Closer

When Mother was a girl
the streetcar came
while it was still an hour dark
(“To fetch the early worms to town”, she said).

She would wait under the tower
at 42nd street and Avenue E
swathed in fake blue moonlight
a sister then, and a daughter

no thought of anything more.
The lot was filled with ash juniper
and smelled so cedar-sweet
she didn’t mind sneezing in winter.

And when the streetcar came
she would hang to a strap facing east
hoping to see the sun peek
through the window along the way.

In early morning, beneath
the same moon tower, I praise
the descendents of ash juniper
that flowered for her—

so close—
my God, so close in time—
I feel a sense—
it is the rest of me—

the words I cannot find—
the In-Between—where True Word is—
seeing square, no turning
here—only this latter time—

desert sand—cactus land—
and burning

Tuttle, Alone in the Dark

In the middle hours of morning
while the yawning city stumbles awake
I feel the chasm of night receding
window by window, light by light.

I follow the dark river, leading
west, leading home.
Day and night thinly joining
until Time is bare in the gloaming sky.

O where goes love in the fullness of
these dwindling desultory days?
Does it wait there—in spectacle where
these moments are glimmered away?

River is true. Actual as Earth.
More real than Tuesday morning.
By its edge, its murk and gush
contain the fruit of love.

Somewhere between is everything.
Wind soft across my cheek.
Lungs in thrall to junipered breath.
Throat, upon my sleeve.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thomas Wolfe Whispering in My Head...

Six feet six and 240 pounds, Wolfe ate and drank and consumed life in huge portions. He wrote the same way. There is little tranquility in his works. Life was a desperate affair. He attacked life. He shouted his art at the top of his lungs. His favorite words are "furious" and "savage." His world reeled about him. Life was a demonic dance. Of his own creative process, he wrote: "The words were wrung from him in a kind of bloody sweat, they poured out of his finger tips, spat out of his snarling throat like writhing snakes; he wrote them with his heart, his brain, his sweat, his guts; he wrote them with his blood, his spirit; they were wrenched out of the last secret source and substance of his life."...His work has been called "a vast but incomplete saga of one man's pilgrimage on earth, a saga so formless that the term novel can be applied to its parts only with extreme caution and so monumental that it exploded the covers of four vast books in which its portions were imprisoned."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The stuff that dreams are made on...

Ronald Clyde Crosby, AKA Jerry Jeff Walker

It was on Country Sunday, a weekly feature on KILT-FM—my favorite rock&roll station, at the time—that I first heard Michael Murphy's Cosmic Cowboy...And even more significantly, Jerry Jeff Walker, who to me embodied best what that meant...I was 15, and never—as in, NEVER—listened to country music, which I regarded as being, at best, my parent's music, and at worst, the sounds that fascist rednecks made while making me ashamed to be southern...(It is a hard and bitter thing to understand so much so early, but I managed)...I guess the first song—the one that prevented me from switching the station, once the steel guitars and fiddles set in—was Redneck Mother, the likes of which I had never heard before...It was followed, during that two or so hours, by Gettin' By, London Homesick Blues, I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning, OD Corrall, Charlie Dunn, Harry-Ass Hillbillies, LA Freeway, and many others...And Murphy's Geronimo's Cadillac, as well as the aforementioned Cosmic Cowboy...The music was smart, funny, and it moved...Sometimes it was sentimental, sometimes thoughtful, but never mean and never small—it had a largeness of spirit, I guess you could say, that I did not perceive in country music I'd heard before...And it was undeniably Texas music—whatever thing it is I love about Texas was infused in those sounds...And in that largeness...It was from listening to these guys that I was able to connect to my roots—to find my way backward to the honest and soulful music of George Jones and Buck Owens, and more essentially to Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills and Hank Williams...Fact is, it is a part of who I am—a shade of red I can't scrub off my neck, dirt I can't clean from under my nails—and it was mainly Jerry Jeff who opened that up for me, who gave me an outlet that connected me to those I came from, and felt both joyful and real, on my terms...Also gave me a new kind of music to drive my parents nuts...(Pissin' in the Wind was a big, big hit at my house)...

This video is rather amazing...Jerry Jeff introduced by God's Original Quarterback, lookin like he could still play a little...

Tuttle Explains Himself

43rd street and Duval
Is the hub of my city
Where I walk in the morning

And talk with strangers
Passing by, who nod and smile
Like friends. The pastry shop

Fills my coffee mug for free
And at a small table
By a large window

I sit sometimes for hours
And watch my city
Ecstatic in its thrumming

Flowing lines and textures
Gushing, green, going—
Alive in sacred brightness—

So bright sometimes I see the end—
The very end—
Where we combust

And everything happens again.

43rd Street and Duval

—On a brilliant day,
A blinding day, thick
With leaving and coming

Bustlers and slackers
And odd sombreros
Clutter the burning pavement.

And under a narrow canopy
Where wines and melons bake
An old gypsy falters

In late afternoon
Barefoot and ringing
To the havoc of the street:

Why must it be so hot in June?
And can these changing faces ever cease?
But the heat is unfazed

And the faces sure
As the sparrow’s nimble feet
On the concrete and the asphalt.

She is half-way down the sidewalk
When the portly old Lenin-cap
Looks up from his tub of folded laundry:

The Trattoria is to blame, I think.
But who can really know? It happened
Noiselessly, like the spaces between

Meanings. It happened in pieces.


Wednesday at the Spin-Cycle
I clean my weeping skin
for a dollar.

These are heady days—
my lizard-blood drip-dripping
on the asphalt

my features a blur
in the shimmering heat.

You may not know me
next time we meet.
May think I'm the one gaining fast

in your rear-view mirror
or zig-zagging down the Drag
in my sweet, sweet ride

and you will be right
every time. But if you
find yourself unsure:

watch my mouth
watch my lips
watch my tongue

you will know me

by their gorge
by their gorging
by their raven

by their ra-ra-ra-ravening

by the brightness of my hunger,
You will know me

by its shine.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tuttle Imagines Diaspora

When I enter in to that moonless night
by the gleaming of a billion dead stars
I will remember how rare Earth was
how bright and full and nearly impossible.

Over spindly tall grass and red clay I will tread
where hackberry and mesquite glance over my head
the way to my descent.

Like sanctuary for exile among indifferent space
mine will be a better sacrament of praise—
I will keep it close, and safe
when I enter in

where dead stars live.