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Frieda Hughes

Harper Collins

US Hardback

ISBN: 006 001269 2

Pages: 96; Price: $22.95

Publication Date: 02-04-2003

Date Reviewed: March 2004

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004



General Fiction, Fantasy, Horror


Waxworks is the second book of poetry from Ms Hughes, daughter of the feted poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. She does not choose to make anything of the connection, however - wisely; preferring to be taken on her own merits, which is something that as an accomplished poet she well deserves. Her first book of poems, Worraloo, was critically acclaimed, and her children's books have also proved popular, but initially she expressed her creative instincts as an artist and has exhibited in Britain and the US. In fact, the cover of Waxworks bears her own sculpture of Medusa, the first poem in the book, which links the correlation between art and poetry very effectively.

In Waxworks, Hughes selects 53 characters - mostly infamous rather than famous - and as diverse as Vlad the Impaler, Dr Crippen, Lucrezia Borgia and Nemesis. As an artist her primary instinct is clearly visual, and she renders a very vivid, tangible picture of each of her chosen characters, molding them in the wax of words. The term waxworks is apposite for what she does: she takes the fluid characteristics and the unknown about the figures, and turns them into a real, breathing person with a consciousness, allowing the wax to set at the moment she chooses. The secret life of Arachne, Rasputin et al are exposed here, sometimes with a flash of their inner thoughts, sometimes with illuminating imagined events. Ancient and timeless themes are often given a modern setting, and some are darkly humorous, such as the modern Cinderella who would prefer not to wait for her prince to rescue her, but decides "to go it alone and leave home."

The struggle between feminine sexuality and masculine power is edgy and modern, despite the ageless sense of the waxworks.

The sequencing of the poems is fascinating; starting with Medusa, followed by the somewhat macabre Madame Tussaud, collecting people for display, tangled in madness and a search for the past (Madame Tussaud began by making wax heads as a pictorial record of aristocrats guillotined in the French Revolution), then moving through a rogues gallery that includes murderers, seducers, thieves and so on. The tone becomes steadily more menacing and death-bound. The final few poems take the reader literally to Hell: the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are the harbingers of doom, and each represents a sign of the end of the world which is, Hughes points out, already present in the world we live in. There is also Satan, Faust, Lazarus, and finally Cerberus, and that is where she leaves us - at the gates of Hell.

There are several hints of intertextuality with her parents' work. Many of the poems also seem haunted by women whose individuality and sexuality threaten to upset the balance of the family relationship, or by the archetypal wicked stepmother. In some inexplicable way I found that the rhythm and movement of the poems seemed to echo Plath's, while an interest in the relationship between humanity, the natural world and the divine bears a resemblance to the writing of Ted Hughes. But as I said, these poems should and shall stand alone.

I have never read poetry like it: at once quite simple and straightforward, but with underpinnings of somber truths and hinted-at complexities. However it is highly readable poetry, which I suspect that many who do not consider themselves poetry-lovers will also enjoy, and to make the poems even more accessible there is a handy short list of characters in the back of the book which outlines briefly the figures who appear as "waxworks". The verbal pictures Hughes paints of Pandora and Medea, with their obsessive desire to be loved and unreasoning behavior at the cost of the world around them, are images that will haunt the readers forever. Hughes does not shrink away from that which is graphic, even gory, but she tells it how she sees it unflinchingly and honestly, and that makes the best kind of poet.