Birthday Letters, Illustrated

Along with approximately 250 thousand other firm intentions and ideas, a promise to illustrate all the female characters from Ted Hughes prose poem, Gaudete, using clothes-off life models only, to exhibit at the Ted Hughes Festival, alongside a ballet performance, has toppled into the ‘Haven’t Done It Because Life’ chamber.

In the ‘Putting Off Because Insecurity and Need for Reassurance’ corner, my paid-for commissions and responsibilities languish, while I distract myself with another Ted Hughes side project, using the excuse of potentially career-furthering, future book illustration employment as reason.

I’ve started illustrating poems from Birthday Letters, Hughes’s parting salvo – released a few months before his death in 1998, after 35 years of silence on the subject – a softener and/or fan flamer to the ‘Ted or Sylvia?’ lead teamsters, lifting the rocks from his chest.

About Sylvia, about Ted, of Sylvia, of Ted, addressed to Sylvia, from Ted.

Here are the first two illustrations, more will follow, sporadically, no doubt. The poems, below each image.

Black Coat

I remember going out there,
The tide far out, the North Shore ice-wind
Cutting me back
To the quick of the blood – that outer-edge nostalgia,
The good feeling. My sole memory
Of my black overcoat. Padding the wet sandspit.
I was staring at the sea, I suppose.
Trying to feel thoroughly alone,
Simply myself, with sharp edges –
Me and the sea one big tubula rasa,
As if my returning footprints
Out of that scrim of gleam, that horizon-wide wipe,
Might be a whole new start.

My shoe-sole shapes
My only sign.
My minimal but satisfying discussion
With the sea.
Putting my remarks down, for the thin tongue
Of the sea to interpret. Inaudibly.
A therapy,
Instructions too complicated for me
A the moment, but stowed in my black box for later.
Like feeding a wild deer
With potato crisps
As you do in that snapshot where you exclaim
Back towards me and my camera.

So I had no idea I had stepped
Into the telescopic sights
Of the paparazzo sniper
Nested in your brown iris.
Perhaps you had no idea either,
So far off, half a mile maybe,
Looking towards me. Watching me
Pin the sea’s edge down.
No idea
How that double image,
Your eye’s inbuilt double exposure
Which was the projection
Of your two-way heart’s diplopic error,
The body of the ghost and me the blurred see-through
Came into single focus,
Sharp-edged, stark as a target,
Set up like a decoy
Against that freezing sea
From which your dead father had just crawled.

I did not feel
How, as your lenses tightened,
He slid into me.

© Ted Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

Red

Red was your colour.
If not red, then white. But red
Was what you wrapped around you.
Blood-red. Was it blood?
Was it red-ochre, for warming the dead?
Haematite to make immortal
The precious heirloom bones, the family bones.

When you had your way finally
Our room was red. A judgement chamber.
Shut casket for gems. The carpet of blood
Patterned with darkenings, congealments.
The curtains — ruby corduroy blood,
Sheer blood-falls from ceiling to floor.
The cushions the same. The same
Raw carmine along the window-seat.
A throbbing cell. Aztec altar — temple.

Only the bookshelves escaped into whiteness.

And outside the window
Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail
As the skin on blood,
Salvias, that your father named you after,
Like blood lobbing from the gash,
And roses, the heart’s last gouts,
Catastrophic, arterial, doomed.

Your velvet long full skirt, a swathe of blood,
A lavish burgandy.
Your lips a dipped, deep crimson.

You revelled in red.
I felt it raw — like crisp gauze edges
Of a stiffening wound. I could touch
The open vein in it, the crusted gleam.

Everything you painted you painted white
Then splashed it with roses, defeated it,
Leaned over it, dripping roses,
Weeping roses, and more roses,
Then sometimes, among them, a little blue
bird.

Blue was better for you. Blue was wings.
Kingfisher blue silks from San Francisco
Folded your pregnancy
In crucible caresses.
Blue was your kindly spirit — not a ghoul
But electrified, a guardian, thoughtful.

In the pit of red
You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.

But the jewel you lost was blue.

© Ted Hughes. All Rights Reserved.

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Meditation on a Disastrous Painting Experience

“Did Cecilia Giménez burst in and finish that while you were out of the room?”

It’s actually quite useful to be living with the ghost of Brian Sewell, even if I don’t act like it all the time, and I only really lap up the criticism when it’s not really criticism at all.

But my dear partner was right, of course. I had somehow taken a mysterious, sylph-like creature into a bog-dwelling Jenny Greenteeth, in but three or four brush strokes.

“It’s okay, I’ll pull it back. You can be crap if you’re good.”

Saying something like this is just like turning to a crowd of your mates and saying “Hey, watch this!” before you prepare to jump the Grand Canyon on a pair of Argos roller skates. It got worse, yes it did.

Cecilia Giménez, if you remember, is the Helpful Lady of Borja, Spain, who decided to give Elías García Martínez a helping hand with his fresco, ‘Ecce Homo’. Now it seemed she had come to live with us, in North London, England.

This is a tale I can only really tell with the aid of photographic evidence, so I will share the horrors, whilst guiding you through my torturous three day, but felt like years, relationship with a disobedient painting.

Day 1, AM: Fondly recalled as the ‘good times’. A lot of flirting, ridiculous infatuation, in some part god-like complex that felt I could in fact walk on water, surely, as I was already walking on air with this gorgeous being. I loved the way she looked at me. She was keen on how I built her up. Everything was working out.

Day 1, PM (left image): Things took a sour turn very quickly. As much as we loved being in each others company, we’d rushed into things far too fast, had no idea of each others’ horrid peccadilloes which would ultimately lead to a long stretch at Her Majesties pleasure.

We could barely look at each other for more than ten minutes before wanting to punch our fists through each others faces. Me for her brain-draining inability to do anything she was asked, she for my ruining her entire being.

Day 1, PM (right image): CECILIA HAD ARRIVED.

FOR COMPARISON…

Day 2, AM (left image): Having slept on it, I was brimming with misplaced self-confidence which seemed to allow me to take The Girl from the clutches of Giminez to something that resembled almost humanoid form. I probably should have stopped here. But no, no. I carried on, slicing and stitching and shoving the implements in, until my simple procedure of a neat stomach staple was actually a gut full of wrenches and spanners.

Day 2, PM (right image):
We weren’t speaking at all. Fuck her. That’s how I left her to sleep that night. With that face on. Perhaps I could foist this off as an outsider folk effort?

Day 3, AM: Collateral damage mode. Thoughts: She can keep the car, I’ll take the house. Maybe this will be okay. Maybe it can go in the outsider folk art box. Things had reached stalemate, both of us still refusing to have anything to do with each other. I spent some time wondering how long it would take to dig a canvas sized hole in the garden, deep enough for the horror beast never to emerge in heavy ground-rearranging rain. We decided that whilst we weren’t entirely happy with each other, we could make do and mend, and this is how our relationship would end. We’ll chalk it up to experience.

Day 3, PM: Having stared at her teeth-like-a-bag-of-chips mouth for a few hours, wishing I’d never ever seen her face, I felt an empathetic awakening. I couldn’t leave the poor girl like this. I would have to be a real woman, step up to the mark, and put things right as best I could.

Anyway, here she is now. And this is how she is going to stay. I was a little unsure, but having received such heartwarming feedback as “Those eyes! Stuff of nightmares”, I know my work with this girl is done. And let that be a lesson to me.