Just a note here about a slim Salt Publishing publication I recently read, Siân Hughes’s The Missing. The Missing is a first book, but it’s author is no novice at life. Her jacket bio reads: “Siân Hughes is a lone parent who lives in the middle of nowhere with her two young children and works part time as a teacher and in a bookshop/cafe.” How mournful that word “lone”! Especially when we find that her collection’s centerpiece is an elegy for her third child, which bears a bitter title: “The Send Off.” I’m tempted to quote it, but the poem is the chief glory of this strong collection, so I’ll leave it for buyers of her book to discover.
Instead, I want to focus on Hughes’s extraordinary restraint—they way she alternately sidles up to a tough subject, pouring all her emotion into just the right phrase, and then in the next poem confronts another, spitting bitten-off words into its face. For a sidling poem, consider “Results”:
Of course it was always going to be secret,
an envelope no one would know had arrived
that I’d lock myself in the bathroom to read.
Nothing like coming down late to breakfast
and you saying “How you failed history
I’ll never know.” Or standing in a queue
in the only taverna with a land line,
the owner grinning between black teeth
while I ask you “How did it go?” and wait
for a pause that might mean well, or not.
Out on the terrace the old dog gets up
and drags his chain two steps into the shade.
On my first reading this struck me as a tad too oblique. But the spare music of it, and the mysterious “late to breakfast,” and the old dog on its chain all kept me rereading. I continue to feel tantalized by what I understand to be a father-daughter impasse. What do her results, which must involve some life-changing news (illness? pregnancy?), share with her father’s, which I take to involve a desultory search for work. The salient reality, though, is the mutual withdrawal—the daughter’s to the bathroom, the father’s to the taverna—and the wordless pause that sums up their estrangement. It makes me think that Hughes has come to poetry for the same reason as Emily Dickinson, to write a letter to the world that never wrote to her.
Here’s an example of Hughes’s more confrontational mode:
scrubber, slattern, slag, doxey,
white trash, bit-on-the-side,
—not to be taken home, taken
in your mouth, not to be
taken to heart
a pick-up, practice-run,
day-time, texts-only, token gesture:
someone you’re sort-of seeing—
but only with one eye.
It’s the combination of her sidling and confrontational modes in “The Send Off” that make it such a powerful poem, less an elegy than a conflicted cri de cœur, in which there is no comfort, only clear-eyed, painful struggle.
Where Hughes goes from here I have no idea. All I can hope is that her letter to the world isn’t finished, and that the magic of her language will conjure up more joy than life seems to have handed her so far.