Clown like, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.
Frieda Hughes, SP’s first child, was born on the first of April 1960. The poem infers conception was on the fourth of July. I think the poem was published after the birth – but the imagery could have been latent in SP’s mind while pregnant. Each stanza is nine lines.
The fish comparison flows through both stanzas. It starts with the foetus being ‘gilled like a fish’ indicating that it is very much in an underdeveloped state and ‘farther off than Australia’ in the second stanza reinforces the idea that it is at an early stage of development.
SP likens the foetus to fog, to a loaf, to a turnip, to a bud, to a sprat, to a prawn, to eels in a basket and to a Mexican bean. I think all of this imagery is quite appropriate to the shape and nature of a foetus as experienced by a woman, pregnancy being an experience that only a woman can understand.
‘Bent-backed Atlas’ – well he, or she, is certainly holding up his, or her, ‘world’. This is an immense thought considering the comparison of the smallest of being with Atlas.
The second stanza also shows excitement and anticipation as in ‘looked for like mail’. The last two lines are interesting. Birth is ‘right’ and natural and in the end can easily be seen as a ‘well-done sum’ – an accumulation of cells over time. The end product being all important. And to my mind birth is always a clean slate and the uniquenesss of the new arrival is given emphasis by ‘your own face’. Humanity is pure at this stage and of course we always hope the new generation will improve things.
Looking at some of the words –
Spool – a cylinder on which thread is wound
Sprat – a highly active small oily fish
Creel – wicker basket used to hold fish
Dodo – large extinct flightless bird
Atlas – primordial being holding up celestial spheres
Mexican bean – Mexican jumping bean contains lava in the bod causing the bean to jump
A clean slate – an opportunity to start afresh