I wonder if writing has begun to make me sad. It’s not writer’s block, but a kind of writer’s lament. Not “the words won’t come”, but “the words are not enough”. A Beckettian paradox for the meek scribbler: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.

It is a feeling too pathetic to warrant dissection. Woe, I am mildly perturbed by the thing that I love! But the sensation is peculiar. It is a sadness that eats its own tail. I am sad that I am sad.

Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe it’s just post-book blues.

I’m once again thinking a lot about “emotional dysregulation”, an oddly mechanistic term thrown around by the crisis team last year. The emotions constitute a strange ecology, an emosystem. Mine has a tendency to become periodically unbalanced.

In 2014, on Hallowe’en, I awoke one night in agony. I had a feeling of a deep inner burning. It sounds like heartburn; it was heartburn… But the pain was nonetheless so excruciating I collapsed on the bathroom floor whilst rummaging for a remedy. My girlfriend at the time found me, at first annoyed by my insomnia before realising I was in real trouble, and called for an ambulance. A few hours later — it was a very busy night for the emergency services — I was propped up against the wall in the corridor giggling with light relief, a shot of morphine injected into the back of my hand, in the only vein that would give itself up to the needle.

This happened a few more times over the years, before a well-hidden eating disorder was identified as the obvious cause. The pain was manageable after that, as I realised I could hold it back if I caught it early. But if the pain was allowed to run away with itself, it could become all-consuming. Irrespective of the cause, I discovered that pain itself was something I found hard to regulate.

I’ve come to understand my responses to emotional pain in much the same way over the last nine months or so. Depression, however, is entirely unaffected by acid reflux suppressants… It is more amorphous and elusive; psychosomatic in its dark effects upon the body and its apparent dwelling beyond any physicality.

Writing bridges the gap, I find. I write to regulate. It works well. The linear flow of words across the lines of my notebook, contained within these single centimeter rows, puts my emotions in order.

Words emerge from the emosystem like crows, gathered on the wires.

Crows, Huddersfield, 2021

Crows flutter loudly in my emosystem. I can’t sleep for them.

There’s a feather on my pillow.

Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.

It’s a big, black feather.

Come and sleep in my bed.

There’s a feather on your pillow too.

Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.

Max Porter’s deservedly celebrated Grief is a Thing with Feathers brings the emosystem to life. The mixture of poetry and prose provides a dynamism to the experience relayed. Sometimes ordered and reflective; sometimes taking flight from the page. Lines break as hearts break.

The crow motif is a knowing nod to Ted Hughes’ fondness for corvidised grief, and Hughes’ own poems are the most affective on the topic I know.

To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
over emptiness

But flying

Hughes has his own mythology of grief, and so much to grieve. But crow is a shroud. His wings envelop emotions in darkness. The poems are thus far from confessional. Crow flies high above the personal. It was not until the publication of Hughes’ Birthday Letters that crow’s wings were clipped.

In a different sort of letter to a friend, writing about the Birthday Letters themselves, Hughes remarks:

I think those letters do release the story [of his tumultuous, tortured and tragic relationship with Sylvia Plath. The story] that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them — I had always just thought them unpublishably raw and unguarded. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer. How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets. But we do. If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career — certainly a freer psychological life. Even now the sensation of inner liberation — a huge, sudden possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.

With this in mind, perhaps the previous metaphor has it backwards. Crow’s wings are not clipped with the publication of Birthday Letters; it is only then that crow is freed from the cage in which Hughes has kept it, examined and imagined in its natural habitat, but never allowed to roam as free as crow does in Hughes’ poems. Until then, crow had never taken flight, instead “Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth.”

It is for this reason that Hughes’ crow feels different from Porter’s. In Grief…, crow arrives after death. “Four or five days after she died…” At least for Dad. The Boys, whose lives are just beginning, may never recall a moment prior to crow’s arrival. Always there from the start, the shroud over a still developing emosystem; “every surface dead Mum”.

The Boys are relatable. I’ve always known crow. A constant companion. Crow looms larger when loss comes to visit again. Not one crow, but a whole murder, and I have often felt that crow would one day be the death of me.

Life amongst a conference of birds. Tippi Hedren trapped in a phone box. Call for help! But crows line the telephone wires. Every communication is intercepted by crow. Crow listens in. But can crow speak?

God tried to reach Crow how to talk.
‘Love,’ said God. ‘Say, love.’
Crow gaped, and the white shark crashed into the sea
And went rolling downwards, discovering its own depth.

Oscine passerine. Crow is a perching songbird of the shapeshifting sort who moults just once a year. Crow lives almost everywhere but never travels far. Crow has its own complex emosystem, with an intelligence displayed most strikingly in play, empathy and affiliation. In disagreements amongst peers, crow takes a side. Watching over more human affairs, crow lingers and picks at the dead. In grief, crow picks at the living too.

Crow tore off a mouthful and swallowed.

‘Will this cipher divulge itself to digestion
Under the hearing beyond understanding?’

(That was the first jest.)

Crow feeds on grief, the inexhaustible carrion of the human emosystem. Some genus of crow are threaten by extinction; extinction is the black light that never goes out.

Crow saw it killing men. He ate well.

Hughes’ crow is silent; Porter’s crow a poet in his own right.

Decided to try words.

Hughes’ crow chooses silence. Rimbaud crow.

Crow turned the words into bombs […]

Crow turned the words into shotguns […]

Crow turned the words into a reservoir […]

Crow sings an “undersong”. Baritone crow sings a quaking bass. The rupture of all creation and decreation.

A cry
As the newborn baby’s grieving
On the steely scales

Gasp of frigid cold, intake shiver; pressure pull, vocal vacuum perforated; talking squawkward.

His wings are the stiff back of his only book,
Himself the only page — of solid ink.

Crow speaks wordlessly, much as Hughes does. The crow poems are not themselves solipsistic but oddly voided. Not a response to crow’s call, since crow’s call is itself an expulsion without meaning. A rich inner experience is observed in the narcissistic animal, impenetrable to us and wondrous for it. It is the formless experience of an abject other.

Neither meaningless nor meaningful, the words on the page play together like crows themselves do, with a strange intelligence and intent. Significant, signing, signifying, but in some ways still illegible. No one knows crow’s mind, or at least much less than we know our own. A communion held with crow is far from a conversation.

Erica Wagner: “it is vital to acknowledge the reality of Hughes’ silence to himself“; contra Plath, whose “unflinching gaze was forever directed at herself and those around her.”

Crow, who eats ciphers, is a cipher — for crow, for Plath, for Hughes, for Porter, for all.

Hughes, though perceived monstrously in many a Plath biography, no doubt knew her best. His cruelty cuts with only one half of a double-edge: his twisted affections a product of both a repressive coldness and a deeply loving familiarity. The privacy he seemingly demanded is double-edged too. In accounts of his behaviour after Plath’s death, there is a sense of Hughes being cruel to be kind. Hoping to protect their children from the public compounding of their grief, he denounces all who attempt to make gossip of their affairs (describing Al Alvarez’s disclosure of the circumstances surrounding Plath’s suicide as a “permanent dynamite” thrown from without into their lives). But to what extent was this privatisation of self and other itself a form of torture for a woman whose writing was often so confessional?

Introducing a collection of Plath’s stories, Hughes gives an account of her approach to the writing life that seems as perceptive as it is scathing in this regard:

Nothing refreshed her more than sitting for hours in front of some intricate pile of things laboriously delineating each one. But that was also a helplessness. The blunt fact killed any power or inclination to rearrange or see it differently. This limitation to actual circumstances, which is the prison of so much of her prose, became part of the solidity and truth of her later poems.

Ariel’s gift was her curse. Ariel’s gift was her writing. Did her writing-prison make her sad as much as it refreshed her? Is the ordering and regulating of the emosystem not at once as way to cope and a way to carve calendrically onto its walls? Crows in a zoetrope — beautiful and fragmented, furious and static.

Michael arrives for a pint or two and I stop writing. I feel a lot better.

The next day, I type up my notes and listen to Phil Elverum’s crow poems:

I feel so much better.

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