16 February 2009

Crow & Jargon/Philosophy

I have been reading Ted Hughes, and his anarchic super-god, Crow. Ted Hughes was a regular customer at my grandparents pub, The George in Hatherleigh, a little town in Devon. He is my Aunt’s godfather. I never met him, to my eternal chagrin. There he would drink quiet pints, there he told of his recent addition to the proud pantheon of poet laureates, there, probably, he thought up, in his angular brain, poems like ‘Nefertiti’:

Sits in the bar-corner – being bought
Halves by the shouting, giggling, market-tipsy
Farmers who squabble to pay –

She hunches, to deepen
Her giddy cleavage and hang properly
The surrealist shocking masterpiece
Of her make-up

Ted has been labelled a “survivor-poet” and his apocalyptic verse in Crow is as pertinent as ever. The animalistic savagery of Crow is tempered by Hughes’ opinion that humankind has overstepped Nature’s mark. Nature, for Hughes, has a raw beauty that in humankind becomes hellish, unthinkable. Crow, often humorously, beats God at every turn, making him look pompous: ‘When God said “You win, Crow”/ He made the Redeemer.’ One of Hughes’ most triumphant and hilarious poems for me is ‘A Horrible Religious Error’, a cheeky take on creationism:

When the Serpent emerged, earth-bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
With its alibi self twisted around it

Lifting a long neck
And balancing that deaf and mineral stare
The sphinx of the final fact

And flexing on that double flameflicker tongue
A syllable like the rustling of the spheres

God’s grimace writhed, a leaf on the furnace

A man and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed
Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground
Their tears evacuated visibly
They whispered ‘Your will is our peace.’

But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slack-skin nape,

Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.

The crow, Odin’s twins Huginn and Muninn (who he sends off at daybreak to gather news), those black birds that flock noisily in the twilight, is a bird of great power. Hughes sees him, poetically at least, as the true maverick soul of the Universe, forever alone and fighting his own fight. For my blog readers, who know my affinity with the hare, the only animal that gets the better of the crow, or at least equals him, is the hare itself. The hare, that mystical joker who boxes madly in fields, fronts up to Crow thus at the end of ‘Crow goes Hunting’:

The earthquake turned into a hare and leaped for the hill
Having eaten Crow’s words.

Crow gazed after the bounding hare
Speechless with admiration

I am pleased that the Crow is not infallible, although I should have known it, with Hughes’ poetry suggesting it at every turn. Crow may be a dark loner, but he can be got at through humour, and undone, he can relax if only momentarily. It is almost a relief to know that even Crow cannot always be alone. However, do not be lulled into a false sense of security or romanticism. Crow is shatter-skull, man-eater, end-of-world blackness. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Adrian Mitchell (who died last December) once wrote a poem about a bear who every day dresses up in a human skin and goes to work, his grizzle hidden by a human face. What would happen if Ted Hughes’ Crow were to don a human shell and go blackly about the world? What if Crow were to fall in love? I have tried to imagine this in poetry, which may seem rather far-fetched, but I have plenty of time on my hands at the moment.


The castle crag ploughs up-ended into
A grey spooling marsh of sky. The jutting-
Cliff, my face and the murder of crows,
Your eyes. Bracken and bog. The whistle-
Snap of wet reed. Little prose poems about
Scenery will not cut the mustard, I
See you have harnessed ley-lines and
Are about to saddle
Up. Do
Not try to read and translate the
Scroll of my features that has you hidden
In it; every contour of the map
Has been whittled down to one single
Track through the forest.
The archaeologists will find it
Later when we are gone and the whisper
Of that day is fossilised, a breath trapped
Between rocks. Hand to hand we stand
Now, your eyes bright with
Pagan poetry and mine x-raying
Your bones,
Will this snapshot, etched in slate,
Last until the end of Fate?
Or next week. It shouldn’t
Matter, the truth is that
It might or might not,
We are two hearts beating, silly
Really. I do not believe that flesh
Can be so cold.
This is the timeless moment you
Conjured up in small talk – a spell to
Make me wait
As we watch the crows
Gather in the trees. I am not afraid.
I eyeball them, your
Shadows (thought and memory), they
Have dark wings that are your
Symbols. I do not
Hope to wrap my arms about you
And protect you and your carrion
(Life is nothing we decide it starts it ends)
My own protection dripping rivulets down
My back like sweat and collecting in amulets.
Your dark fire
Lies cradled in my cold fist,
A dark crocus bursting up through snow,
Heads up to the mercy of Crow.

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