BOOK REVIEW / The poet as a young rat

COLLECTED ANIMAL POEMS by Ted Hughes, Faber (4 vols) DIFFICULTIES OF A BRIDEGROOM: Collected Short Stories by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 12.99.
TED HUGHES is re-publishing a lot of poems. Earlier this year he gave us the New Selected Poems, which trawled his collections from 1957 and 1994, and now these Collected Animal Poems, ranging over a lifetime's writing, of necessity include some work already in print but provide a new focus and context for it. The same poem sounds different in each collection, inviting a new reading, a fresh response.

The atmosphere of these four new volumes is noticeably less gloomy and violent than that of the Selected, perhaps partly because the first two were originally written for children and foreground a delight in wordplay, a relish of sound and rhythm that comes close to nonsense rhyming, over the dark themes of much of the poetry written for adults. In What is the Truth? a rat can be perceived with affectionate enjoyment by the poacher hunting him: "Sing the riff-raff of the roof space, who dance till dawn/Sluts in silk, sharpers with sleek moustaches/Dancing the cog-roll, the belly- bounce, the trundle/... O sing/Scupper-tyke, whip-lobber/Smutty-guts, pot- goblin/Garret-whacker, rick-lark/Sump-swab, cupboard-adder/Bobby-robin, knacker-knocker/Sneak-nicker, sprinty-dinty/ Pintle-bum."

In The Thought Fox, written for adults, a rat re-appears; in "Song of a Rat", the classic Hughesian brilliance of metaphor at the beginning - "a mouthful of screeches like torn tin" - fades into the background, overshadowed by looming images out of some Jungian landscape of archetypes: "the sleep-souls of eggs/Wince under the shot of shadow/That was the Shadow of the Rat/ Crossing into power/Never to be buried/The horned Shadow of the Rat/Casting here by the door/A bloody gift for the dogs/While it supplants Hell."

The most beautiful poems in these four volumes are those that anthropomorphise the least, that allow a separation between the narrating "I" and the observed animal, and many are to be found in the energetically illustrated What is the Truth?

Rats turn up only to meet a bloody end in Difficulties of a Bridegroom, the volume that gathers Hughes's stories from Wodwo and other places. The difficulties of bridegrooms seem bound up with the passage from boyhood to manhood, and puberty rites too bloodthirsty for some of these young and sensitive narrators. "Sunday", an early story written in 1957, closes in on a rat's death, but even before the gory denouement we're made aware of how claustrophobic and deadly boring an English sabbath can be. Michael, the boy recounting the story, emerges at last from the dreary chapel service to find that even the landscape outside has become "Sunday. The valley walls, throughout the week wet, hanging, uncomfortable woods and mud-hole farms, were today neat, remote, and irreproachably pretty, postcard pretty. The blue sky, the sparklingly smokeless Sunday air, had disinfected them." The dull routine of a game of bowls followed by ginger beer at the pub with his dad is the prelude to watching for the rats coming up from the canal, a welcome distraction. Michael wants to escape: "he smelt roast beef and heard the clattering of the pub kitchen and saw through the open window fat arms working over a stove ... The potatoes were already steaming, people sitting about killing time and getting impatient and wishing that something would fall out of the blue." For the men that something is a rat, bitten to death by Billy Red the rat-catcher. Michael flees.

Hunting is a major theme in these stories. In "The Deadfall", a boy out camping with his bloodthirsty brother sees what is perhaps the ghost of a fox and saves the cub. This story is re-told, to spectacularly Grand- Guignol effect, in "The Head", a moral tale about blood-lust, complete with mountains of steaming animal corpses, blood and guts spilling, and the eventual revenge of the gods. The caricature element weakens the horror, as does the conventional idea that perhaps the evil spirit has embodied itself in the young women whom the narrator rescues from the scene of carnage.

Elsewhere, when women aren't embodying stifling domesticity, they are maenads, distant objects of desire, or ghosts. A dead sister becomes an angel, clothed in wings of soft flame. An angel provokes some of the best prose in the book, when it is captured by a bored government clerk and shown in a cage for profit. It's angels and ghosts, pointing the way to a world beyond this one, with its worried rats and worrying brides, that allow Hughes' fiction to soar towards poetry.

! Animal Poems: Vol 1: The Iron Wolf, illus Chris Riddell,pounds 3.99; Vol 2: What is the Truth? illus Lisa Flather, pounds 3.99; Vol 3: A March Calf, pounds 5.99; Vol 4: The Thought Fox, pounds 5.99. Boxed set pounds 30