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  • Ana Savković

Ted Hughes: The Hanged Man and The Panic Bird

Image: Unsplash, downloaded ( 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

Into orphans

Beside the corpse of their mother.

The Bird

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 Prism

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)



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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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