Lifesaving Lines: An October Salmon, by Ted Hughes

An old salmon, covered in lichen-like spots, feeds in the shallows close to a shale riverbank.

I walked into the middle of a Ted Hughes poem the other week. An early morning dog walk, like any other, except that suddenly I was looking at the most enormous fish, the fish of legend, the fish of myth, a fish I had met before but only in my mind’s eye. It was put there by Hughes’s own reading of the poem, from the flock wallpaper Faber and Faber cassette shared with Paul Muldoon. It’s also in my ancient copy of River, the original coffee table edition with photos of the Exe and Taw and Torridge.

But here it was in the flesh, on an ordinary Tuesday, the film of the words I had driven to, cooked and made coffee to, happening actually yards from where I stood in a Devon field not a mile from the city centre. The poem is clear: this is an October salmon, not mid-May. But I swear the fish was the same. It all came back, as we say, flooding. The fish is dressed by death in ‘clownish ceremonials, badges and decorations’, its ‘face a ghoul-mask, a dinosaur of senility’, its ‘whole body/ A fungoid anemone of canker’. As Seamus Heaney has said, to hell with overstating it! Sometimes that is what is required.

Other lines quickly joined them as I stared, daring to inch the phone out of my pocket for a surreptitious photo, lest I spook the moment. ‘Ravenous joy’ (‘The savage amazement of life,/ The salt mouthful of actual existence,/ With strength like light’) ghosting a dying fall (‘This was inscribed in his egg’). He was probably hatched in this very pool. Fundamental accuracy of statement (Pound), never weighed more.

I would like to say that ‘nothing prepares’ you for the way the poem ends, but I don’t think art is like that, and nor is life. If we are honest, we know how the script will end, we just don’t want it to, or we do and can’t face it, or we do and it delights us. But change there must be. In another great fish-poem, she lets the fish go. Of course that is where she is taking us, but it still comes as a surprise.

I think of the final words as Shakespearian: ‘so steady in his wounds, so loyal to his doom, so patient/ In the machinery of heaven’. I have had to pull over in the car to them, the tears pricking. That morning it was more of a body-shiver, hairs on the arms and nape suddenly erect, cold-and-warm-at-once, like packing up after a day at the beach aged six. Why can’t we stay, why? Because we have to go home.

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