"My Mother" by Frieda Hughes, a daughter's love & fury

"[My mother] wasted nothing of what she felt" — Frieda Hughes, daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

I'm reading Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath. Published in 2004, it presents the full set of poems that Sylvia Plath intended for her collection Ariel. Initially, Sylvia Plath's widower, poet Ted Hughes, had removed 12 poems from Ariel when published in 1965, two years after Plath's suicide, mostly because they were directed at particular family members and friends that would have been hurtful. He selected 12 other poems and an introduction by poet Robert Lowell. The Restored Edition removes the 12 Ted Hughes added and restores the 12 Plath left in a black notebook with her manuscript.

This book has a facsimile of her manuscript with several edits by Plath. It's interesting to look at her notations and process.

Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath

Some people who project themselves into Sylvia Plath's poetry and biography have long viewed Hughes as a misogynistic villain looking to suppress his gifted wife. Frieda Hughes, one of Plath & Hughes' daughters, defends her father throughout the Forward:

In considering Ariel for publication my father had faced a dilemma. He was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother's poems dismembered those close to her — her husband, her mother, her father, and my father's uncle Walter, even neighbors and acquaintances. He wished to give the book a broader perspective in order to make it more acceptable to readers, rather than alienate them. He felt that some of the nineteen late poems, written after the manuscript was completed, should be represented. "I simply wanted to make the best book I could," he told me.

All of the poems Ted Hughes removed showed up in Plath's Collected Poems, published in 1981 and edited by Ted Hughes. In that book, Ted Hughes listed the original poems in Ariel that Plath had left in her manuscript.

My father had a profound respect for my mother's work in spite of being one of the subjects of its fury. For him the work was the thing, and he saw the care of it as a means of tribute and a responsibility.

Frieda Hughes then becomes devastating toward family interlopers. It took me a long time to read Sylvia Plath because oa cult of possession and preciousness got in the way of my ability to value the work (and I struggle with poetry anyway — and, okay, this silly-ass reason, too). But this section provided a direct connection where she sums up people who attack her father and reshape her mentally imbalanced and astonishingly talented mother into a golem:

But the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them. The collection of Ariel poems became symbolic to me of this possession of my mother and of the wider vilification of my father. It was as if the clay from her poetic energy was taken up and versions of my mother made out of it, invented to reflect only the inventors, as if they could possess my real, actual mother

The Forward is fascinating. With thought and care it fans away the fog of melodrama. It tethered me from a person still living to passionate, caring, flawed people. On the role of her father, Frieda Hughes sums up:

When she died leaving Ariel as her last book, she was caught in the act of revenge, in a voice that had been honed and practiced for years, latterly with the help of my father. Though he became a victim of it, ultimately he did not shy away from its mastery.

Frieda Hughes, a painter and a writer with several volumes, maintains that she did not read either parent's poetry until she was 35, save for a few instances where her father read children's verse to her or played recordings. She wanted to establish her own identity away from her parents' work. Intellectually, avoiding your famous parents' poems is possible. When they came up as a subject of study, Frieda says she was able to develop another course of study with her tutors. Bad marks would be devastating, good marks would lead to her being thought as having an advantage. Though, Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence howls at this claim at decades-long avoidance. Frieda Hughes in a speech also describes holding her mother's books in bookstores, presumably without opening them, thinking of what if her mother had lived, and setting the books down and leaving.

Frieda Hughes wrote the furious poem "My Mother" on the verge of the movie Sylvia, a BBC production starring Gwyneth Paltrow released in 2003. Frieda Hughes, her mother's literary executor after the death of her father in 1998, denied the use of her mother's poetry in the film. Biography can add color to art, but there's a balance to be struck between sublime absorption and ghoulishness.

MY MOTHER

by Frieda Hughes

They are killing her again.
She said she did it
One year in every ten,
But they do it annually, or weekly,
Some even do it daily,
Carrying her death around in their heads
And practising it. She saves them
The trouble of their own;
They can die through her
Without ever making
The decision. My buried mother
Is up-dug for repeat performances.

Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children. Then
It can be rewound
So they can watch her die
Right from the beginning again.

The peanut eaters, entertained
At my mother’s death, will go home,
Each carrying their memory of her,
Lifeless – a souvenir.
Maybe they’ll buy the video.

Watching someone on TV
Means all they have to do
Is press ‘pause’
If they want to boil a kettle,
While my mother holds her breath on screen
To finish dying after tea.
The filmmakers have collected
The body parts,
They want me to see.
They require dressings to cover the joins
And disguise the prosthetics
In their remake of my mother.
They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it –
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother’s words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll,
Who will walk and talk
And die at will,
And die, and die
And forever be dying.

Published in The Stonepicker and The Book of Mirrors