Crow is an enigmatic character who appears throughout this cycle of poems, and in spirit when he isn’t named. He has attributes of bird and man. His defining characteristics are his colour – an absence of light that I imagine as Vantablack – and his hunger for all things dead – entrails, carrion, rotting flesh.
He is an ur-being, a creature who predates God and creation. Crow is obsessed with death, but does not seem to be death. He seems to represent something even more fundamental. That Hughes has managed to create a character out of something so primal is an achievement.
What narrative there is draws heavily on the Bible, with Crow present at various significant moments, although seen through his warped gaze. As gross as they are, I enjoyed the playful blasphemy of A Horrible Religious Era, in which Crow kills the serpent (he “beat the hell out of it, and ate it”) and Apple Tragedy in which God creates apple cider in Eden “and everything goes to hell”.
I found it more compelling as a depiction of a man in existential agony. He is estranged from everything, and yet searches for belonging, “unwinding the world like a ball of wool” and finding “the last end tied round his own finger” (Crow Sickened). There are some lovely lines on the loneliness of being alive. In Crow Hears Fate Knock on the Door, Crow looks at the world and is defeated by its very existence:
He found a dead mole and slowly he took it apart
Then stared at the gobbets, feeling helpless.
But then he makes a promise to himself:
I WILL MEASURE IT ALL AND OWN IT ALL
AND I WILL BE INSIDE IT
AS INSIDE MY OWN LAUGHTER
AND NOT STARING OUT AT IT THROUGH WALLS
OF MY EYE’S COLD QUARANTINE
He exhibits an commitment to abjection that is almost comical, like a moody goth teenager in an art class seeing what he can get away with. As with all these types of things, it can be both maddening and charming. Being alive sucks, right? If things are going well, just wait a minute. Where there is life there is death, where there is love, heartbreak. In the end I felt only pity.
Not that there aren’t some good reasons for having this view. Some of the best writing in the collection is around war. Crow’s Account of the Battle depicts the ruthless mechanics of modern warfare:
The cartridges were going off, as planned,
The fingers were keeping things going
According to excitement and orders.
The unhurt eyes were full of deadliness.
Later Crow turns his eye on what seems like nuclear weapons, as in The Smile, which:
Began under the groan of the oldest forest
It ran through the clouds, a third light
And it ran through the skin of the earth.
Women do not fare well in these poems. “O it was painful,” describes Eve’s first violation in A Childish Prank, and it continues thus. Women (and children) are brutally murdered in several of the poems (Criminal Ballad; Crow’s Account of St George) and the collection seems to subscribe to the idea that they are entirely unknowable and mysterious, creatures of pain and blood and never to be trusted. It’s hard to separate this misogynistic vision from Hughes’ alleged treatment of his wife Sylvia Plath.
That being said I do think Hughes is a terrific writer of animals. From the hyenas who can’t escape their evil nature, “their shame-flags tucked down hard” in Crow’s Elephant Totem Song, to Crow himself “trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth” (Lineage), I was reminded of Laura Jean Mackay’s recent prize-winning novel The Animals In That Country which also uses poetry to convey the strangeness of other beings.
Gay rating: not gay