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Crowshite

04/20/2011

Crow is a collection of poems by Ted Hughes.

Most of the poems in Crow feature the central character, Crow. Crows are both predators and scavengers–they will eat anything. Crows are very intelligent. Some crows make tools from stiff leaves and grass, which they use to get more food.

Crows are black. The word black appears a lot in Crow. The first poem in the collection, “Two Legends”, calls Crow a “black rainbow.”

For me, Crow came to represent several things as I read. Crow is the ugly truth we can’t unsee. Crow is both human and animal–actually, he’s everything living. Crow is a carrion eater: he benefits from death. Crow is black, the colour that never emits or reflects light, only absorbs it. Crow is folly. Crow is the drive to consume (everything).

Hughes represents virtually all human endeavour as facilitating or justifying consumption. He draws heavily on religious mythology, especially Christian mythology, presenting a twisted version viewed through Crow‘s distorted lens.  The second poem, “Lineage”, begins with a brutalized allusion to Genesis:

In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear

The genealogy continues for nine lines, and ends with

                      God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never

Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood
Grubs, crusts
Anything

According to Christianity, Jesus Christ died so that we might be reborn after death. In “A Childish Prank”, Hughes replaces Jesus with the Worm, who Crow bites in half while God sleeps. God is in the middle of creating man and woman, who yet “lay without souls,/Dully gaping, foolishly staring, inert/On the flowers of Eden.” God takes a nap, and instead of souls Crow fashions a penis for man out of the Worm’s tail (“the wounded end hanging out”) and a vagina for woman from the head.

Man awoke being dragged across the grass.
Woman awoke to see him coming.
Neither knew what had happened.

God went on sleeping.

The worm represents a different sort of resurrection. Man and woman become obsessed with sex, which produces children who outlive them. Man and woman leave bodies that are turned into fertilizer by worms–food for flowers, weeds, carrots.

“Lovesong”, a poem about sex, portrays love as an extension of hunger: “He had no other appetite…She wanted him complete inside her/Safe and sure forever and ever.” The man’s whispers are likened to “occupying armies,” and the woman’s kisses to “lawyers steadily writing.” The lovers want to possess each other, consume each other, and, ultimately, be each other. The last line reads “In the morning they wore each other’s faces.”

In Crow, Christianity is condemned for subjugating nature and women. The Christian God is male, and in many churches women are not allowed to be ordained. The doctrine of original sin casts Eve as the culprit, not Adam.

Eve’s ‘crime’ was consorting with nature–talking to a snake and eating a fruit. Hughes delivers his rendition of the incident in “A Horrible Religious Error”, in which the “earth-bowel brown” serpent elicits a grimace from God, which causes man and woman to fall to their knees whispering “Your will is our peace.” Then Crow steps forward, grabs the serpent, beats “the hell out of it”, and eats it.

In Christianity, nature is frequently portrayed as demonic. Horns, forked tongues, fangs, tails and pointy ears are all features commonly assigned to demons. “Crow’s Account of St. George” portrays the legendary martyr as a scientist, who

       sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.
With delirious joy, with nimble balance
He rides those racing tracks. He makes a silence.
He refrigerates an emptiness,
Decreates all to outer space,
Then unpicks numbers.

Like every scientist, he reduces the world to facts and numbers in an attempt to control it. Next, while he’s melting “cephalopods” and picking “the gluey heart out of an inaudibly squeaking cell” Saint George is visited first by a “demon with a face flat as a snail/Or the underface of a shark” and then by one with a “bird-head,/Bald, lizard-eyed, the size of a football, on two staggering/bird-legs.”

Using a chair, he smashes the second demon “to a blood-rag” and “beats the chair to pieces” on the first. A new demon appears–a “belly-ball of hair, with crab-legs, eyeless”–and Saint George grabs a katana. Like a scientist, he “bifurcates it/Top to bottom.”

Saint George wakes up from his trance, “Drops the sword and runs dumb-faced from the house/Where his wife and children lie in their blood.”

In the actual legend of Saint George and the Dragon, the martyr saves a ‘helpless’ princess by slaying a large lizard. The princess’ village is so grateful that they convert from nature worship–Paganism–to Christianity.

Hughes’ retelling is grotesque yet apt. Man is unblinking in his quest for mastery. In Genesis, God grants man dominion “over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth,” which gives man license to exploit and experiment on nature however he likes.

The result? Detergents, plastics, microwaves, skyscrapers and bulldozers. Spears, swords, guns, bioweapons and nukes. Landfills, deforestation, toxic waste, CO2 emissions and mass extinctions.

“Crow’s Account of the Battle” relates the apocalypse. The same “mishmash of scripture and physics” that produced “many a proved watch” sends bullets “Through clods of stone, earth and skin,/Through intestines, pocket-books, brains, hair, teeth.” Our mastery of physical laws is used to destroy each other.

Hughes makes several mentions of watches in Crow, satirizing our obsession with time–with knowing exactly how much of it has passed.

It’s how much is left that counts.

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