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Keith Sagar: Review of Ehor Boyanowsky: Savage Gods, Silver Ghosts: In the Wild with Ted Hughes

Cover: Ted Hughes - Collected Poems Douglas & McIntyre, 2009 
© (this review) Keith Sagar 2009
Book cover reproduced by kind permission of the publisher

You may also listen to a podcast in which Ehor Boyanowsky talks about the book and his relationship with Ted Hughes.

The significance of wild nature was not only directly experienced by the young Hughes, but also mediated to him by his boyhood reading. Around the campfires on the moor, Ted and his older brother Gerald would discuss the wonders they read about in the books of Roderick Haig-Brown, a British expatriate who settled on Campbell River on Vancouver Island and enthralled young people the world over with his stories of fishing, hunting and life in the woods. They made a pact to emigrate together to British Columbia ― but Gerald emigrated to Australia and Ted went to Cambridge, then no farther than Devon. … ›For Ted, British Columbia was the road not taken‹ [3]. 
In 1986 Hughes finally reached British Columbia, but not to fish. Being already in the States, he had accepted an invitation to give a reading at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In his audience was Ehor Boyanowsky, a criminal psychologist and subsequently President of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia. After the reading he talked to Hughes, and showed him a book, John Fennelly’s Steelhead Paradise, which ›set his heart pounding‹ [15]. They kept in touch, and Boyanowsky invited Hughes to join a party fishing for steelhead on the Dean River the following year. It was to be the first of several such trips.
Boyanowsky describes the steelhead as ›the rarest, most beautiful, most difficult to catch and powerful freshwater fish of them all‹ [74]. They are incredibly strong sea-trout, the largest a metre long and weighing ten kilograms or more. In two weeks of fishing on the Dean, Hughes and his three companions hooked eighty fish and landed fifty-four. Of these they ate one. The rest were returned to the river unharmed, ›deserving a protracted reflection on their beauty as they slowly come back to life and, with an insolent flick of their tails, free themselves from our grasp and vanish into the aquamarine currents‹ [85].
The attraction for Hughes was not, of course, just the steelhead, but also the setting of a vast, imposing, unspoiled wilderness evoked by Boyanowsy: the raging river, the giant grizzlies, the great cedars, the granite cliffs, the snow-capped peaks:

There is always a discomfiting suspension of the familiar, of the normal reassurances of civilization, in true wilderness, in the domain of the savage gods. For all to go well on a remote river ― in fact, merely to survive ― you rely entirely on whatever skills and resources you can marshal. Layers of dull, insulating habit peel off, and the senses, the very nerve endings, go into overdrive. It is a reawakening that the bush dweller experiences every day but the urbanite pays for dearly (the intensity can startle and the fear and dread overwhelm). You are less than insignificant, it suggests, no more than a mud wasp. The feeling of relief is humbling and reassuring. Time to fish. [23]

Hooking, landing, briefly holding, and releasing a steelhead was for Hughes the ultimate privilege, a holy communion. The steelhead was an atavar of the goddess, a messenger from the source. Such fishing was for Hughes a lifeline, a corridor back into the world that made us as we are. Without it he would have felt as though something essential had been amputated.
Boyanowsky recalls conversations with Hughes about literature, such as his enthusiasm for Lorca's essay ›The Theory and Function of the Duende‹. Recommending it strongly to Ehor Boyanowsky, he stressed its importance to him

first as a kind of muse, which if I feel is not kindled within me when working on a poem, I discard it and begin again. But once I feel it, I struggle until the work is done regardless of how difficult and exhausting it is. Second, as an effect, once the poem is finished and read aloud. … The power to move many people regardless of their education or culture ― that is the mark of true art. Art with and of duende. [148]

They discussed conservation issues: how best to preserve salmon stocks.
Boyanowsky vividly relives the cloudburst which occasioned the poem ›The Bear‹. He describes in great and evocative detail not only Hughes’ response to the place and to what he called ›this fabulous superfish‹, but also his vitality, the gusto with which he savoured his food and drink, his storytelling (especially ghost stories) and relaxed conviviality. His book is a unique picture of a Hughes at peace with himself and the world.

Keith Sagar.

 
Keith Sagar, formerly Reader in English Literature at Manchester University, is the author of The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes published by Liverpool University Press.

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