“The Book of Mirrors” Frieda Hughes (Bloodaxe) – Poetry Review

Book of Mirrors by Frieda Hughes book cover

Book of Mirrors Frieda Hughes

“The Book of Mirrors” focuses on people as they really are, complete with faults and vanities.  Frieda Hughes uses two characters, Stonepicker and her uncle, both blind to their faults and hence not fully alive as a recurring motif.  Stonepicker is a woman who believes she does no wrong, only that wrong is done to her and therefore takes no responsibility for herself or her actions, in “Stonepicker and the Book of Mirrors”:

“Stonepicker has been collecting wounds as pebbles,
Stopping often to study a stone in the road
For the slight it might have
Inadvertently subjected her to. Taking
No offence where none is meant
Would devoid her of purpose,
So she must find some insult in it.”

Stonepicker’s uncle too believes nothing is his fault and he is right, in “Stunckle Goes to a Party”

“He touches her shoulder and something
Beneath her skin flinches. He thinks
It must be the power of his personality
Burning through the tips of his fingers
Like an electrical charge.
The girl shudders a little, her smile falters,
Something is wrong”

The cliché works because Stunckle would think in clichés because to be responsible for an original thought is too much to bear.  He’s incompetent enough to let the girl get away, but naturally her failure to recognise his gifts will be her fault.

There’s a touching moment when describing how, after spraining an ankle, an insensitive school doctor wanted to discuss her mother’s death instead in “School Doctor”

“Waiting, as I wept my mother’s loss
Brought as fresh into the room as flowers
I suppressed my fury at his verbal probing
As he attempted entry
Of my inner self. My anger was
A thing he wanted too much
As if it pleasured him, his touch
Sent ants marauding
Beneath my teenage skin.
My instincts clawed me back
From the precipice of him”

The “pleasured him” is very deliberate, the doctor is probing to satisfy his curiosity and doesn’t care about the effect he’s having on his patient.  Neither has he thought through the implications of the breach of trust in asking about an event that is irrelevant here. A theme also picked up elsewhere, in “My Mother”:

“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 –
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”

A film can never be faithfully accurate.  In two hours or so it can merely represent and carry a flavour of biography.  I’ve not seen “Sylvia”, my hesitation comes from preferring to read her poems and stories and a suspicion the film’s Sylvia will differ from my own, probably inaccurate, image of Sylvia (just as a film of a novel, never quite captures the main characters as you pictured them), so can’t comment on the film.  But it’s clear the film-makers had no regard for living relatives.  Whilst I’m curious, I’ll also respect Frieda’s right to tell her story in her own words, in her own time even if that means I never get to hear it.

Frieda Hughes, naturally, has a painter’s eye too, using visual imagery to good effect, in “Dead Pheasant”

“Bundled like a dropped sweater
Of bronzed threads at the roadside,
As if waiting to be collected.
Only its broken wing
Gives away its identity,
Pointing ten feathered fingers accusingly
At the murderer: That car…”

A substantial collection, 128 pages, from a poet with plenty to say and a rich palette of language with which to say it.  One of my books of 2009.

Related posts:

“Rain” by Don Paterson

“The Continential Shelf” Fred d’Aguiar

“Material” Ros Barber

“Long Haul Travellers” Sheenagh Pugh


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