Ted Hughes: The Hanged Man and The Panic Bird
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/Vct2D4rZfmc) 31.3.2021.
Life after Death
What can I tell you that you do not know
Of the life after death?
Your son's eyes, which had unsettled us
With your Slavic Asiatic
Epicanthic fold, but would become
So perfectly your eyes,
Became wet jewels,
The hardest substance of the purest pain
As I fed him in his high white chair.
Great hands of grief were wringing and wringing
His wet cloth of face. They wrung out his tears.
But his mouth betrayed you - it accepted
The spoon in my disembodied hand
That reached through from the life that had survived you.
Day by day his sister grew
Paler with the wound
She could not see or touch or feel, as I dressed it
Each day with her blue Breton jacket.
By night I lay awake in my body
The Hanged Man
My neck-nerve uprooted and the tendon
Which fastened the base of my skull
To my left shoulder
Torn from its shoulder-root and cramped into knots -
I fancied the pain could be explained
If I were hanging in the spirit
From a hook under my neck-muscle.
Dropped from life
We three made a deep silence
In our separate cots.
We were comforted by wolves.
Under that February moon and the moon of March
The Zoo had come close.
And in spite of the city
Wolves consoled us. Two or three times each night
For minutes on end
They sang. They had found where we lay.
And the dingos, and the Brazilian-maned wolves -
All lifted their voices together
With the grey Northern pack.
The wolves lifted us in their long voices.
They wound us and enmeshed us
In their wailing for you, their mourning for us,
They wove us into their voices. We lay in your death,
In the fallen snow, under falling snow,
As my body sank into the folk-tale
Where the wolves are singing in the forest
For two babes, who have turned, in their sleep
Beside the corpse of their mother.
Under its glass dome, behind its eyes,
Your Panic Bird was not stuffed. It was looking
For you did not know what. I could feel
For the glass - not there and yet there -
A zoo gecko glued against nothing
With all its life throbbing in its throat,
As if it stood on ether. The Princess
Let her hair right down to the ground
From her solitary high window. Remember,
Circling Boston Common together,
The defective jailbird walk we perfected,
Feet swinging from the knees. A Tyrolean
Clockwork, revolving under glass,
To a tinkling. You told me
Everything but the fairy tale. Step for step
I walked in the sleep
You tried to wake from.
You widened your pupils
For thunderclap dawn - at the wharf,
And in came the ice-caked ship,
Fretworked chandelier of lacy crystals,
A whole wedding vessel lifted from under
The ocean salt- flash-frozen. Then you turned,
Your eyelashes clogged, and stretched your eyes,
At the charred-out caves of apartment block
That had burned all night, a flame-race upwards
Under the hoses, behind the Senate. You howled
With your sound turned off and your screen dark
For tragedy to go on - to hell with the curtain.
You willed it to get going all over again,
Split one spark of woe trough the frozen suds
That draped the gutted building
Like a sold Niagara.
What glowed into focus was blood suddenly
Weltering dumb and alive
Up trough the tattooed blazon of an eagle.
Your homeland's double totem. Germany's eagle
Bleeding up trough your American eagle
In a cloud of Dettol. It jabbed
Its talons at the glass. It wanted
To be born, pecking at the glass. Tears were no good.
Though you could smash a mahogany heirloom table
With a high stool for an axe,
Tears were rain on a window.
We stood married, in a packed room, drinking sherry,
In some Cambridge College. My eyes
Had locked on a chunky tumbler
Solid with coins (donations to pay for the booze),
Isolated on a polished table.
I was staring at it when it vanished
Like a spinning grenade, with a bang.
The coins collapsed in a slither. But the table
Was suddenly white with a shatter of tiny crystals.
A cake of frozen snow
Could have crashed in from space. Every crumb
Of smithereen that I peered into
Was flawed into crystals infinitely tiny
Like crumbs of the old, slabbed snow
That all but barricaded London
The day your bird broke free and the glass dome
Vanished - with a ringing sound
I thought was a telephone.
I knew the glass had gone and the bird had gone.
Like lifting an eyelid I peered for the glass -
But I knew it had gone. Because of the huge
Loose emptiness of light
Wheeling trough everything.
As if a gecko
Fell into empty light.
The waters off beautiful Nauset
Were the ocean sun, the sea-poured crystal
Behind your efforts. They were your self's cradle.
What happened to it all that winter you went
Into your snowed-on grave, in the Pennines?
It goes with me, your seer's vision-stone.
Like a lucky stone, my unlucky stone.
I can look into it and still see
That salty globe of blue, its gull-sparkle,
Its path of surf-groomed sand
Roaming away north
Like the path of the Israelites
Under the hanging, arrested hollow of thunder
Into promise, and you walking it
Your sloped brown shoulders, your black swim-suit,
Towards that sea-lit sky.
Wherever you went
It was your periscope lens,
Between your earthenware earrings,
Behind your eye-brightness, so lucidly balanced,
Such a flawless crystal, so worshipped.
I still have it. I hold it -
"The waters off beautiful Nauset".
Your intact childhood, your Paradise
With its pre-Adamite horse-shoe crab in the shallows
As a guarantee, God's own trademark.
I turn it, a prism, this way and that.
That way I see filmy surf-wind flicker
Of your ecstasies, your vision in the crystal.
This way the irreparably-crushed lamp
In my crypt of dream, totally dark,
Under your gravestone.
Source: Birthday letters (Hughes, T. (1998.), Birthday letters, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux)