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In Ted Hughes' "A Kill" (A Crow poem. See the full poem here), Crow's conceiving and its coming into life is described with opposite terms related to death. Specifically, the creation of Crow's organs, instead of enabling life for him, actually take life out of him, one by another.

I'd like to focus on one particular line which seems kind of out of place: that's the last line just before Crow is actually born. Here it is in context:

Dragged under by the weight of his guts
Uttering a bowel-emptying cry which was his roots tearing out
Of the bedrock atom
Gaping his mouth and letting the cry rip through him as at a distance

My question is: What does the bolded sentence mean?

The meaning of rip through is:

to move very powerfully through a place or building, destroying it quickly

Sure. But what does it mean to "rip through" something "as at a distance"?
Moreover, considering that Crow's cry is coming out of him, from within his bowels ("uttering a bowel-emptying cry"), how come it's suddenly kind of repositioning itself to be coming from a distnace?

I may be completely missing something here because of simple wrong literacy, but can you please help me out interpret this sentence in the context of the poem?

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3 Answers 3

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The first three lines of the poem establish this sort of patterned violence:

Flogged lame with legs
Shot through the head with balled brains
Shot blind with eyes

Here we have organs destroying organs. Legs disable legs, brains shoot brains, eyes are bullets that blind etc.

In the next three lines, the parallels continue and are heightened when we hear that these organ-weapons are the victim's own:

Nailed down by his own ribs
Strangled just short of his last gasp
By his own windpipe
Clubbed unconscious by his own heart

By the time we get to the line you are interested in, this pattern is well established.

Uttering a bowel-emptying cry which was his roots tearing out
Of the bedrock atom
Gaping his mouth and letting the cry rip through him as at a distance

First we are told that 'he' utters the cry, but the 'at a distance' underscores that the cry is not ripping through him from the inside out, but from the outside in; he gapes his mouth to let it enter from outside.

It is a strange way of putting it, but poetry is allowed to 'break the rules' so to speak. Your interpretation of the actual physical figure of the line is correct.

Your question about why the cry is suddenly repositioned to be coming from without cuts to the heart of the theme of this poem, I think.

Is Crow dying or being born? Does death come from without the body, a foreign agent, knocking on the door holding a scythe? Or do we die from inside out, like a betrayal? If our body is composed of so many organs, what kind of unity can we be said to have? If you can take a life organ by organ, can you build one up the same way?

I think this poem, including the lines you quote, wants to jolt us into reconsidering birth, death, organs, destruction, creation. Sometimes, we need such strangeness in order to help us read the words with fresh eyes. By figuring eyes as bullets, we are reminded that the eyes are literally balls; they are physical, discrete things. My blood is a liquid; I could drown in it, if I had enough of it.

It occurs to me now that the 'cry' is the least physical weapon in this poem. A cry is only sound, only air. Yet this is the final wound in the poem, the climactic wound.

I doubt I was able to complete your understanding of this line, but I hope I advanced the conversation.

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  • To paraphrase, what you suggest is rephrasing the sentence in question to be "rip through him as [coming from] a distance"?
    – HeyJude
    Jan 21 at 14:14
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I realised that the answer may be simple, and could be rooted in one of the several meanings for distance:

The common usage of distance denotes a relation in space and time, but it can also mean a wide open space, particulary in nature.

Here's the relevant definition in Merriam-Webster:

An expanse; area:
A vast distance of water surrounded the ship.

And in Dictionary.com:

Expanse
A distance of field, woods, and diluted November sky…
— Elizabeth Bowen

So, in simple words, the meaning of the quoted sentence is that Crow himself is an expanse of space, and the cry flies through that space.

Alright, but then how does this meaning relates to its context in the poem?
After all, if Crow is just about to be born, then the poem takes place in a womb-like space, which is pictured with clastrophobic images, where Crow has nowhere to hide from being "flogged", "shot", "drowned" and such other sufferings he bears along the poem.

Nevertheless, we can draw some lines which may color this picture somewhat differently:

First, let's read again the quoted verse - where's Crow's cry coming from? Here it is:

[...] [A] cry which was his roots tearing out
Of the bedrock atom

Those "roots" and "bedrock" do convey a somewhat different picture of Crow's conceiving space.

And second, the meaning of rip through quoted in the question, does indeed carry natural (disaster) contexts of vast areas (e.g. in a sentence like "a hurricane ripped through the Caribbean").

Overvall, we get a layered image of the birth of Crow, a mix of both grotesque and pastoral images (and after all, what's more Nature than a womb?), a theme which is central to Crow's poems.

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"Ripped through" need not be idiomatic, and mean 'ripped through' a building etc.; I think that's probably what's thrown you off.

Rip

move forcefully and rapidly.

we can easily see how a scream or cry can "rip" through someone's body. The problem is that it can't do it 'at a distance', so that's a figure of speech.

So if Crow is about to be born, seems that the figure stands for life, his crying is being compared to life, because 'at a distance' is far too vague to mean anything but

  1. what is happening, the set up, in the poem
  2. something hermetic (the store of meaning we associate with "at a distance" and 'rips').

I can't think of anything better for 2 off the top of my head, if only because things don't literally rip at a distance, as you point out. The cloths of heaven could tear, I suppose, scarecrows, the wind often "rips" things. I dunno


EDIT 'bedrock atom' strikes me as a little beatnik. Maybe he cry is being compared to the bomb.

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    I'm not sure if you answer or just thinking aloud, so to say :) You correctly emphesize what bothers me when you write that "the problem is that it can't do it 'at a distance'" and "things don't literally rip at a distance", but I'm not clear about what is your suggestion to untie the contradictions.
    – HeyJude
    Jan 21 at 14:10
  • that it's a figure of speech, no literal language, with 'at a distance' being the focus of the metaphor, what has to be reinterpreted, as signifying "life" @HeyJude that crow has not yet been born
    – a_person
    Jan 21 at 14:23

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