On Frieda Hughes’s Wooroloo

The fox has a special symbolic significance in the Australian landscape. Introduced, it has, along with domestic cats, been responsible for the decimation and extinction of many native Australian bird and animal species. So the use by Frieda Hughes of the fox in this context has a meaning outside that of its native landscape. And context is the key to appreciating her first collection of poetry, Wooroloo.

Since Hughes is a visual artist, it is not surprising to find that hers is a book drenched in “paint” and drawing. She has a keen eye for people, relationships, animals, and life-force. She paints landscapes and portraits, and visualisations of psyche. Death is here, but only because of the living. And this is an important point.

Hughes has been criticised for focusing her poetry through the voices of her parents, with claims that her work is heavily shaped both in form and content by their work and lives. But a close reading of Wooroloo shows this to be superficial.

Hughes’s poems are largely formed by her interaction with the “fringe”, and the tensions between the Edenic potential and potentially hellish reality of exile and isolation. And her book is about the terrors of isolation, of aloneness. It is a book about cathartic confrontation and rebirth. The strongest work shows tension between these states at its most ambiguous, most tenuous. For Hughes, the world is alive. Even death is alive. She recognises its finality in fleshly terms, but examines the way it is animated through the interweaving of life and “nature”.

A “negative” reading of Hughes’s voice would place her at the centre of a world constructed out of artistic and personal dislocation, where even fire is a living entity that must be weighed in against. Where sheep are not just burnt, but cooked.

Still, I didn’t hear.

It was louder now. The neighbour’s sheep

Were cooked in a field corner, and chickens blackened

Beyond possessing even a beak or claw to make them birds.

And it is feat and threat that contribute to what we are. But they are only part of the picture. We can have many lives, all interconnected. The human soul and human disquietude and hellishness inhabit all. But Hughes’s is a more complex book than this allows — it explores how the poet restructures an often alien world to gain kinship with it, to open lines of communication in moments of the greatest despair. A poem such as “Laszlo” demonstrates how interaction with other people can be healing.

The presence of birds epitomises this: they symbolise the interconnectedness of things. The small space can be the most infinitely complex, all nature is read and reads through them.

And the body bears feathers

In its quiet. Its little soul sleeps,

So small in its twigs.

If it yawns, or belches,

There is a city in there,

With its lights on.

They are metempsychotic. But they are just flesh as well, and in this as insignificant as human remains. A rich and dazzling poem is “Kookaburra” — dead — beyond his “bitten body”, beyond “ribs like open rafters”, we have: “Stripped of what made him/He is only a fraction of his noise”. But despite the reduction, he is there after death. Another key to understanding the Hughes “darkness”.

The human world invests its symbolisms to maintain order and connection — and twelve not at the table are twelve nonetheless. The fox that is both inspiring and obviously symbolic of heritage, the creative urge, and the terror of presence and memory, is also an intruder. A strangely beautiful intruder, of either gender. Communication between male and female, between child and parent, is very much at the core of this book. It is the fox that will come to the smell of human food — to the very creatures who most threaten its existence. And there’s the question of “belonging” and exile again, of paternity and art. Of what remains the same, and what changes, becomes new and different. In “The Different Voice” we read:

The fox chewed his thoughtful paw, gnawed

At his own toes and knew his differences.

When he opened his sharp mouth, long tongued

And lined with hard white spires, his voice rose

Like the howl of a ripped tree gasping for roots.

This was not a fox noise. The others listened.

As a Western Australian, from the same physical setting as many of these poems, I feel a kinship with the tainted expositions of this rich and varied place. It’s a flawed paradise. And there is loss — the burning down of a studio, a place for creating — there is the operation that removes the fertility of the body, and there is the healing — the laying on of the hand over the scar, the suture. And the “return” to London, the uncertain step towards some kind of acceptance. A simple literal reading of this movement, all too easy, leaves the reader the poorer.

At her best, Hughes is a deft technician who can shape a series of images and neatly come back on them. Some of the best poems finish with sharp couplets. Hughes has that knack. She does see outside the self. The position of the confessional voice in this poetry is quite deceptive — the “I” can be both public and personal. Consider “The Reader” and note how she needs to outflank the obvious. This is poetry come out of siege. At its best it has wit and a rich and complex vision. Hughes is a good judge of the line and works “others’” voices well through her “own”. This is a “confessional” poetry that doesn’t fall into the trap of poetry as mere therapy, but toys with the possibility.

Wooroloo will lead to significant work. Hughes is finding her feet, not so much technically (most of these poems are assured), but in terms of what she can and can’t say, of what she’s allowed to claim as her own. It’s not a case of coming out of the shadow, but allowing that once introduced, even the fox with its destructive potential has its place. It’s valuing and respecting what’s already there and also allowing for the new, the benefits of catharsis.