Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama by Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin


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Faber & Faber, 1978. First Edition. 64 pages. Jacket cover has a mark in the bottom right corner, slight wear to spine edge. Very good copy. The text of this first full general edition is somewhat altered from that which appeared in 1975, and from the dramatic re-working staged at the Ilkley festival. 

The Owl Flower

Big terror descends.

A drumming glare, a flickering face of flames.

Something separates into a signal,
Plaintive, a filament of incandescence,

As it were a hair.

In the maelstrom’s eye,
in the core of the brimming heaven-blossom,
Under tightening whorl of plumes, a mote
Scalds in dews.

A leaf of the earth
Applies to it, a cooling health.

A coffin spins in the torque.
Wounds flush with sap, headful of pollen,
Wet with nectar
The dead one stirs.

A mummy grain is cracking its smile
In the cauldron of tongues.

The ship of flowers
Nudges the wharf of skin.

The egg-stone
Bursts among broody petals-

And a staggering thing
Fired with rainbows, raw with cringing heat,

Blinks at the source.

'Cave Birds is Hughes’s most intense collaboration with the American artist Leonard Baskin, whose drawings had inspired Crow. Along with Remains of Elmet it is his most important collaboration with a visual artist. Whereas Baskin had little influence on the composition of Crow after the first impulse, the majority of the poems in Cave Birds are directly inspired by his images. It is not merely a book of illustrated poems, but a joint work in which Baskin’s contribution is as important as Hughes’s.

In 1974 Baskin sent Hughes nine drawings, around which he wrote a sequence of poems constituting a loose narrative in which a male protagonist is accused, brought to trial and executed for a crime against a female victim, and finally brought back to life and redeemed. Each drawing is of a fantastic bird, and in Hughes’s sequence these birds become actors in the drama: the guilty protagonist, his accuser, the judge, the executioner, his reborn self and so on. As my summary of the narrative suggests, Cave Birds is one expression, perhaps the most complete and unified, of Hughes’s central myth, in which the crime of modern humanity (symbolically male) against nature (symbolically female) is superimposed on his personal guilt about the deaths of women he had loved. The sequence was written when he was struggling to come to terms with the deaths of AssiaWevill, their daughter Shura, and soon afterwards his own mother, which he thought was provoked by shock at the fates of Assia and Shura. In the poem ‘A Riddle’ the victim identifies herself to the protagonist as his daughter, wife and mother.' - Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes Society. 

Category Poetry