by Ted Hughes
He loved her and she loved him
His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to
He had no other appetite
She bit him she gnawed him she sucked
She wanted him complete inside her
Safe and sure forever and ever
Their little cries fluttered into the curtains
Her eyes wanted nothing to get away
Her looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbows
He gripped her hard so that life
Should not drag her from that moment
He wanted all future to cease
He wanted to topple with his arms round her
Off that moment's brink and into nothing
Or everlasting or whatever there was
Her embrace was an immense press
To print him into her bones
His smiles were the garrets of a fairy palace
Where the real world would never come
Her smiles were spider bites
So he would lie still till she felt hungry
His words were occupying armies
Her laughs were an assassin's attempts
His looks were bullets daggers of revenge
His glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets
His whispers were whips and jackboots
Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing
His caresses were the last hooks of a castaway
Her love-tricks were the grinding of locks
And their deep cries crawled over the floors
Like an animal dragging a great trap
His promises were the surgeon's gag
Her promises took the top off his skull
She would get a brooch made of it
His vows pulled out all her sinews
He showed her how to make a love-knot
Her vows put his eyes in formalin
At the back of her secret drawer
Their screams stuck in the wall
Their heads fell apart into sleep like the two halves
Of a lopped melon, but love is hard to stop
In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs
In their dreams their brains took each other hostage
In the morning they wore each other's face
Ted Hughes wrote Lovesong as part of his collection featuring his famous Crow character. The collection came out at the end of the 70s, and I got to read it a few years after. What stamped onto my consciousness then was the Crow poems more than the others. Today I am reading this poem, and all the other Crows one, from his recent tome Collected Poems - more than a thousand pages of all his oeuvre, including some he never published before.
When Collected Poems came out a while back in hardback it cost over RM200. I decided to wait a year for the paperback. Then two editions were on offer in our local book stores, the British and the American ones. The American one costs less, below a hundred. I confess that I opened the Faber and Faber one - and cracked the spine – right there in the book store! I put it back, carefully, looking around for any of the store assistants. I didn’t have any alternative but to check out the American edition. Its spine doesn’t crack that easily, and is more supple. But the paper quality is rather crap. The sweat from your fingers or hand tend to dent the pages.
And talking about sweat, the love making in Lovesong is some of the most intense I’ve ever read. Hughes starts off with a mere declaration of love:
He loved her and she loved him.
This line is so deceptively simple and straightforward: two short sentences co-joined and ending with the only punctuation, a full stop. There seems to be 3 beats, and the rhythm seems to start to rise and to fall at the end. The rhythm seems regular, like steady heartbeats. The falling rhythm at the end seems to be it, but not really so. The full-stop gives a very long or heavy pause, and this is meant to prepare you for the passion and intensity to follow.
What begins in the love making is a kiss, a very, very deep one. There are more beats here and the rhythm starts out regular – fall-rise – but gets broken in the course of the long line, like heartbeats rising. Note the new lines all have no punctuation to signal pausing or the end of a sentence or clause. That’s because the entire scheme now predicates on the way you have to read to the end of a line and make your own mind up to pause if there is an end-stop or to read past to the next line if a run-on. This underpins the theme here of two people or bodies becoming one. Notice also how this theme is encapsulated in the poem’s title not as Love Song, separated, individual words, but as Lovesong, one merged word. The ending five lines have the lovers completing their love making with exchanges of limbs and faces, beyond mere merging of two bodies.
Line 4 tricks you into believing, when reading, that there is some regularity in rhythm here: 'She bit him she gnawed him she sucked'
Try to read this line at a faster clip, without pausing. You’ll find the rhythm is almost staccato – like heavy heartbeats - when there are no punctuations between the perceived clauses. These clauses repeat the structure SPC (Subject-Predicate-Complement). So, you somehow expects the last or third clause to have a complement as well, a second repetition of "him". However, this anticipation is dashed as its structure closes with an intransitive verb. This effects such a poignant pause, such a heavy end-stopping; even if there is not full-stop and the next line starts a new clause.
The last three of lines of this stanza are very intense:
‘She wanted him complete inside her’ goes back to some regularity in rhythm. ‘Safe and sure forever and ever’ is pregnant with an abundance of sibilant sounds, both unvoiced or voiceless and voiced, from “s”, “f” to “v”. This may sound a bit close to the bone to some – sorry – but the shifting of the sibilance from unvoiced to voiced seems to bring out a sensation of going into some depth and of vibration even. The last line of this stanza is like the lovers’ climax, which is so high that they seem to feel or hear their cries flying into the room’s curtains. If you think this is their most intense climax, you have to read through to the line near the end of the poem, “Their screams stuck in the wall”. This is so graphic in detail, almost pornographic even.
The rest of the poems have details just as graphic. You see these a lot particularly in the largest stanza, the third one. These details are not about the actual physical act itself. They are mainly powerful and S & M-sounding metaphors: "immense press", "spider bites", "whips and jackboots","surgeon's gag", as a couple of instances.