The current number of Agenda (Vol 52, Nos 3-4, the “Ekphrastic Issue”) includes interviews by the Editor, Patricia McCarthy, with two poets, Pascale Petit and Frieda Hughes, who were or are artists as well as writers.
Petit gave up her ambitions to be a sculptor, after exposure to the then male-dominated world of the Royal College of Art and its emphasis on the monumental style. Having switched first to painting, she decided then to return to poetry, which had always been an interest. Frieda Hughes also began with both poetry and art, and although she gave up writing poems for a decade, concentrating instead on children’s stories, which she illustrated herself, she now works as both a painter and a poet.
Even when practising more than one art form, both poets switched between genres rather than pursuing them in parallel. Torn between art and literature, Petit would pursue one or the other obsessively for perhaps a year and then switch to the other. For Hughes, the process was more a deliberate. Unable to decide which should have priority, she planned in her early twenties to devote a year to each, only to fall short after roughly three months, once dramatically deserting her friends in the middle of a pub meal to go home and start working at painting again — an incident similar to one she recalls in the introduction to her selected poems, Out of the Ashes, when as a bored teenager enduring a family meal at a local hotel, she spent the time writing poems and ideas in a little notebook. The “sensation of time passing uselessly” is one that will be familiar to writers forced to devote their attention to other things.
Interestingly, the two poets have sharply differing views about how their poetry relates to art. Petit thinks of her books as exhibitions with some poems as sculptures and others as installations you can walk inside. She needs the works to be as physical as possible, she says, to create images in the reader’s mind that are real enough to help them and her survive. Hughes, on the other hand, (perhaps because she still practises both) regards her poetry differently from her painting:
“When the painted response is abstract … it is all about how I feel in a visceral sense; I can rant in paint and it can look fantastic, but if I rant in the poem then I close the ears of my audience. In poetry, I want to present a situation, scenario or case to the reader, and leave them free to have their own emotional reactions, but the painting is mine!”
What Petit and Hughes actually have most in common is not so much their artistic leanings as a shared sense of alienation, which in each case has been the result of childhood trauma. Petit agrees with McCarthy’s suggestion that her sense of being an outsider has given her a freedom to write what is “pushed out of” her, but she says that the alienation derives not just from the fact that she didn’t have a literary education, is self-taught as a poet and isn’t British: she grew up feeling not quite like other children.
Reading about her life there is little wonder. Both Petit and her mother suffered from depression, as a result of domestic and child abuse. Quite apart from that, her early years lacked any kind of stability. When she was only two weeks old, she was brought initially to live with her Indian/Welsh-Irish grandmother in rural Wales, then taken away when she was two and sent back to Paris to her parents. After two years in a children’s home, she stayed with families in other countries, before being sent back again to her grandmother.
Hughes, too, had a difficult childhood. She is the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and appears in Ted Hughes’ poem, “Full Moon and Little Frieda”. Aged two, she was in the flat, when Plath committed suicide, along with her six-month old brother, Nick, who was himself to commit suicide.
“Did I watch my mother’s face
As she left us bread and milk before
She shut us in and Sellotaped our door?
Did I hear the silence
When she ceased to breathe,
Her head in the oven,
Body on the floor?”
she asks in her poem, “Sleepwalking”.
McCarthy points to the depersonalisation that Hughes felt in witnessing her parents’ final row and then after her mother’s death, the strain caused by her grandmother’s determination to get her grandchildren back to America, an experience Hughes describes in her poem, “Thief”, as: “I became blank, wiped clean like a pale sea stone. // I made myself as hollow as a dead tree, / Not worth having.” Although McCarthy talks about recovery, Hughes says: ” — in truth, I never recovered, but had to learn myself again. I became very watchful and felt estranged.”
Both Hughes and Petit consider writing to have a therapeutic value. Hughes gave up poetry for ten years, because she feared comparison with her parents, but she began writing it again after suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. “The poetry was like a waterfall,” she says. She stopped putting what she regarded as “societal” constraints on her work, so that she felt it more accurately reflected the person she was: “working with my own reactions helps me process my experiences by facing them in an objective way.” For Petit, it appears to be more about validating the experience. She says of her poem, “King Vultures”, that she felt better about a particularly painful memory of her mother, because she now also had a poem about it.
They are, in fact, very different poets, Petit a magical realist, whose jungle images take on a life of their own, Hughes more concerned with pinning things down. She describes herself in her introduction to Out of the Ashes as “Examining aspects of my life through poetry … I am forever analytical.” Even so, she says that it has taken her years to get to the stage of writing openly about her childhood traumas.
Petit usually takes an indirect approach. Writing about Frida Kahlo being “raped by a bus” in the traffic accident she suffered as a teenager, was a way for her to address the subject of rape and childhood abuse without, she says, having a perpetrator to blame. Her most fertile source of imagery is the richness and ferocity of the natural world — like Hughes père, but more exotic — as in her books, The Zoo Father, Fauverie and most recently Mama Amazonica. In “King Vultures”, from that book, she does achieve a degree of directness that was clearly difficult for her. She says in the interview that it’s very hard to write about painful memories without becoming bitter or angry and that she wanted to write from her mother’s viewpoint without rancour and with compassion. The central image in the poem is that of a burial myth a guide told her of during her visit to the Peruvian Amazon, in which shamans’ corpses are left on a table under the buttress roots of a kapok tree for king vultures to eat, so that they are returned to the sky kingdom. Like Zoroastrian “sky burials”, the exposure of the corpses is a form of purification. It provides an apt metaphor for the way in which she openly describes the incident that so profoundly affected her in a poem that takes her mother backwards through her life to a state of childlessness:
“I have gone back as far as I can. You must do the work now
my pregnant mother, you who once told me
what your psychiatrist said — that
you should never have had children.
You were crying at the time and I consoled you
in the hall of my bedsit, cradling the black phone.
The vultures stayed with me all my life … “
People don’t recover from childhood traumas of the kind suffered by Pascale Petit and Frieda Hughes. They can adapt, though, as both have done so well through their poetry.