Two of the three new Sylvia Plath books arrived today. I’m so freaking excited, I can barely stand myself right now.
October 10, 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote “A Secret”. One of the Ariel poems, it somehow seems misplaced to me. To my ear, it doesn’t have the urgency of the other Ariel poems. However, it has her thumbprint on it – her obsession with blue, for instance, is present. And it has to do with a baby – a seemingly dead baby, though perhaps she is being coy about it here, not quite as blatant as her imagery as in “The Edge”, but still present.
The rest of the poem is as strange and fresh as a new flower.
Note the strange punctuation at “Is that lingerie, pet? There is no close quote, and the next line also has an opening quote but no closed quote. That’s unusual for Plath. Not sure what, if anything, it means.
A secret! A secret!
You are blue and huge, a traffic policeman,
Holding up one palm –
A difference between us?
I have one eye, you have two.
The secret is stamped on you,
Faint, undulant watermark.
Will it show in the black detector?
Will it come out
Waver, indelible true
Through the African giraffe in its Edeny greenery,
The Moroccan hippopotamus?
They stare from a square, stiff frill.
They are for export,
One a fool, the other a fool.
A secret… An extra amber
Roosting and cooing, “You, you”
Behind two eyes in which nothing is reflected but monkeys.
A knife that can be taken out
To pare nails,
To lever the dirt.
“It won’t hurt.”
An illegitimate baby –
That big blue head –
How it breathes in the bureau drawer!
“Is that lingerie, pet?
“It smells of salt cod, you had better
Stab a few cloves in an apple
Make a sachet or
Do away with the bastard.
“Do away with it altogether.”
“No, no, it is happy there.”
“But it wants to get out!
Look, look! It is wanting to crawl.”
My god, there goes the stopper!
The cars in the Place de la Concorde
A stampede, a stampede!
Horns twirling and jungle gutturals!
An exploded bottle of stout,
Slack foam in the lap.
You stumble out,
The knife in your back.
“I feel weak.”
The secret is out.
In reading the Ariel poems, I’ve discovered some new “echoes” as I call Sylvia Plath’s repeated imagery. Beginning with Mystic, written on February 1, 1963 – ten days before her suicide – she begins to mention air/smoke, colors (deviating from her usual red/blue), rings, and window/mirrors.
“The air is a mill of hooks.”
“The dead smell of sun on wood cabins”.
“The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats”.
From Kindness, written the same day:
“The blue and red jewels of rings smoke/in the windows, the mirrors”
“… with a cup of tea/wreathed in steam”
The same day, in Words:
After whose stroke the wood rings”
Three days later on February 4, she picks up again with Contusions (with no poems intervening):
“The mirrors are sheeted”.
In Contusion, she also falls back on her sea imagery, mentioning a pearl, a “wash”, “the sea sucks obsessively”, “the whole sea’s pivot”. She will mention water or the sea in the very next poem, Balloons, and Edge, her last two poems – so water literally obsessed her until the very end.
In Balloons, she mentions “invisible air drifts”.
In Edge, her final poem, all the images are new, except for one regarding the sea: “Each dead child coiled, a white serpent”.
The ideas of smoke and air lifting seems to have been particularly strong for her those last few days. I am still trying to unlock the meaning.
I have begun to read Bitter Fame, a biography of Sylvia Plath that has languished unread on my shelves for, I think, five years. I’d resisted it (though I loved owning it) because I understood there were some objectivity problems; the author had received a great deal of help from Ted Hughes’s sister Olwyn, and basically gave Olwyn complete control over the manuscript. I cannot bear to read any criticism of Sylvia Plath from those who dislike her (just like I canna bear to listen to hateful screeds against the Enron executives.)
But the book called to me suddenly one bright afternoon from across the room and I decided, for whatever reason, that I was ready to read it. I found a paragraph in the book that I especially liked:
When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach to see what I thought of it. I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the wall of green when she caught my heels.
I sent Evan, who was traveling, an email with the question: do you hear a rhyme in these words? Is that eee sound an accident? He confirmed my instinct that it was probably no accident.
Even now, I do not think we appreciate the skill and brilliance of Sylvia Plath. There are dimensions within dimensions of every line of every poem. One of those dimensions is her rhyme and rhythm. The eee sound reminded me of her deliberate echo chamber of ooooh sounds in Daddy.
Daddy is a magnificent poem, a total thought, and one of the most heart-stoppingly honest pieces of writing I have ever read. I identify with it on a personal level and a poetic one. I want to write it here from memory:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset
I used to pray to recover you
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars
But the name of the town is common.
My Pollack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen
I began to talk like a Jew
I think I may well be a Jew
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two
I was ten when they buried you
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you
I thought even the bones would do
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue
And then I knew what to do
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do
So daddy, I’m finally through
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know
Daddy, you can lie back now
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you
They are dancing and stamping on you
They always knew it was you
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through
The pattern of this makes me dizzy. It has the crushing, insistent rhythm of train wheels, “Chuffing me off like a Jew… to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” Under that is the ooo, the bright round sound of a baby’s first utterances.
This poem is a heaving, sweating, working poem. She makes explicit every thought. She leaves no room for another word to be said about the man who was her daddy – the train is too loud, you can not hear another thing over it. She has the last word.
Of course, she worked on her father issue her whole life. One of the most stirring early poems to explore the subject is Electra on Azalea Path. Notice the clever echo of her mother’s name, Aurelia Plath, in that title. Sylvia put a lot of those rhyming echoes and double entendres in her work. “Off, off eely tentacle/there is nothing between us” is one that springs to mind, and in The Bell Jar Esther Greenwood visits her father’s grave – an almost identical retelling of Electra on Azalea Path. The first words of Greenwood’s visit begins: “I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave.”
Ouch. I am reminded of Joyce Carol Oates saying she does not trust cleverness with words, including double entendres. JCO, for all her depth and brilliance, is missing out. Is it be because she is uncertain in her ability to use humor for serious subjects? Is it just a dislike of cleverness? One can not claim that Sylvia lacked gravitas and she used these vehicles constantly – a confirmation of her facile and playful mind, not a cop out as Oates seems to think.
Electra on Azalea Path:
The day you died I went into the dirt,
Into the lightless hibernaculum
Where bees, striped black and gold, sleep out the blizzard
Like hieratic stones, and the ground is hard.
It was good for twenty years, that wintering –
As if you never existed, as if I came
God-fathered into the world from my mother’s belly:
Her wide bed wore the stain of divinity.
I had nothing to do with guilt or anything
When I wormed back under my mother’s heart.
Small as a doll in my dress of innocence
I lay dreaming your epic, image by image.
Nobody died or withered on that stage.
Everything took place in a durable whiteness.
The day I woke, I woke on Churchyard Hill.
I found your name, I found your bones and all
Enlisted in a cramped necropolis
your speckled stone skewed by an iron fence.
In this charity ward, this poorhouse, where the dead
Crowd foot to foot, head to head, no flower
Breaks the soil. This is Azalea path.
A field of burdock opens to the south.
Six feet of yellow gravel cover you.
The artificial red sage does not stir
In the basket of plastic evergreens they put
At the headstone next to yours, nor does it rot,
Although the rains dissolve a bloody dye:
The ersatz petals drip, and they drip red.
Another kind of redness bothers me:
The dour slack sail drank my sister’s breath
The flat sea purpled like that evil cloth
My mother unrolled at your last homecoming.
I borrow the silts of an old tragedy.
The truth is, one late October, at my birth-cry
A scorpion stung its head, an ill-starred thing;
My mother dreamed you face down in the sea.
The stony actors poise and pause for breath.
I brought my love to bear, and then you died.
It was the gangrene ate you to the bone
My mother said: you died like any man.
How shall I age into that state of mind?
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide,
My own blue razor rusting at my throat.
O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
Your gate, father — your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
It was my love that did us both to death.
Just now, as I was typing the lines “Another kind of redness bothers me/ The dour slack sail drank my sister’s breath/ The flat sea purpled like that evil cloth”, I saw another echo. The sea is a critical element in Sylvia’s mythology. I have actually begun a large essay about Sylvia’s personal mythology, but briefly, the same way she cast echoes in her poems, she also cast shadows of images, like the outlines of an image right after you shut your eyes. There is always a bit of a reference to something else (how wonderfully manipulative of her, to write each poem strongly enough to stand on its own, but to compel us to read her entire corpus for the full understanding of her mind). So many of her poems reference drowning or water: “The waters off beautiful Nauset”; “I breathe water”; “foam to wheat/a glitter of seas”; “this is the sea, then, this great abeyance”; “the tits on mermaids and two legged dreamgirls”; “the water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea”. Additionally, in her real life she had to put an entire ocean between herself and her mother. And one afternoon in Cape Cod, she and Ted got stuck on a sandbar in a small boat; the event seemed to effect her deeply. It goes on and on, for twenty years – references to the sea, culminating in her father’s frisco head in the “freakish Atlantic”. I think water ultimately described a transition point for her.
Lady Lazarus gives us all the gory details:
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot–
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Notice the sea references? They’re subtle:
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
She was dead and came back to life like Lazarus and the water beings – the seashell and the “sticky pearls” are evidence of her journey. The sea was a dangerous place. One could drown while trying to make it to the other side. Sometimes she made it and sometimes she did not.
I love to think about Sylvia’s mythology and read her biographic details a thousand times. I like to read Ted Hughes’s answer to the Ariel poems in his book, Birthday Letters. I love to smirk when I realize I’ve found another of Sylvia’s playful puzzles, like her poem Metaphors, which is nine lines of nine syllables each, written when she was pregnant. It is a great eureka feeling when I catch a glimpse of that part of her mind. The poems tell me all I need to know about Sylvia Plath. They are infinite; there is always another layer, another dimension to be seen. I think it was her final gift to the world, these complex poems that we can hold on to, desperately, while we try to make it to the other side.
If you’re a Sylvia Plath fan, you do not want to miss this epic post by Sheila about Plath’s beautiful volume, Ariel. Sheila has a way of writing about Plath that knocks me to my knees. Check it out!
The line comes from Sylvia Plath’s poem, The Birthday Present, which is apt today because it is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. Please see Sheila’s epic Sylvia Plath round up of Plath posts; I think you’ll be as delighted as I am.
I have posted a frame grab of the first question I ever asked her about Plath, which was the spark that lit the flame that will burn forever. [Updated to add frame grab]:
It began one of the truly great love affairs of my life. And I’m just so happy to have someone to share my Plath love with.
Thank you, Sheila. And thank you, Sylvia. Love you both.
One of the most affecting, and popular, of Plath’s poems, Daddy, read by Sylvia herself for BBC:
Various sources report that Julia Stiles is producing and starring in an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”. Anyone who knows me knows I have a massive girl-crush on Julia Stiles. But I just can not picture her as Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Plath’s novel.
Still, I will see it if for no other reason than to see someone else’s interpretation of Sylvia’s work.
I think it would be interesting to make a movie of the Ariel poems.
How often do we get an opportunity to pinpoint to the minute when an obsession begins? Not often at all; at least for me they spark and grow over time, and I look back and see a whole swath of time – a week, year, five years – and have no idea how I got so intense.
But this morning I googled “Assia Wevill” and one of the things that came up was this link on Sheila’s blog. And lo! A comment from RTG:
Wow. I can’t imagine that it’s only been four and a half years of being stark-raving mad Sylvia obsessed. And how was there a time when I didn’t know who Assia Wevill was? Crazy.
So thank you, Sheila, for sparking what would become one of the greatest love affairs of my life. You’re a true friend. I’m not sure how I repay that.
And, incidentally, I hereby decree that October 19 is Sylvia Day.
As part of the launch for their book, A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill, authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev serialized excerpts for the UK Telegraph. I own the book but haven’t read it; I simply don’t think I’m ready to learn more about Ted Hughes’ side of the story. And any story about Assia Wevill, his lover, is going to illuminate Hughes. So I’ve avoided it, but for reasons I can’t fathom, today I read this final installment of the series.
It appears that Assia Wevill used to sleep in Sylvia Plath’s bed. The horror of that keeps thundering through my soul as I struggle to make sense of it. That wasn’t her worst transgression, but it seems one of the most intimate – something specifically sexual. I secretly believe that Assia was not just obsessed with Sylvia, she wanted Sylvia. I have no reason to believe either woman had any interest in women, but I think if she couldn’t have had Ted, Assia would have tried to seduce him via Sylvia – basically, a three-way. I believed that long before I read that she slept in Sylvia’s bed. There’s something strange going on there, almost like wearing someone else’s underwear, like you’re absorbing their sexual energy.
In any case, Assia freely picked over Sylvia’s belongings after Sylvia killed herself. She lived in Sylvia’s London flat for a while. She read her journals, she played with her children, and she slept in her bed.
Assia confessed frustration after Sylvia died because Hughes would not commit; he would not join households, and he resisted marriage. He had at least two other women on the side. It must be pointed out that even during this time, he wrote her a letter from Court Green in which he called her his “true wife”, a term I find almost painfully endearing.
I believe Ted Hughes threw himself into every relationship he had, whether or not he was faithful. His personality demanded the constant thrill of love, infatuation and romance. So in this (rare) instance, I do believe he loved Assia, but couldn’t be with her just then because she really was all tied up with Sylvia. She was the reason Sylvia and Ted were divorcing and the excuse Sylvia used to murder herself.
Assia’s suicide, which so closely mocks Sylvia (except Sylvia did not choose to kill her children too) was, I believe, a final admission that she could never replace Sylvia. She knew she was extremely inferior in her poetic pursuits, and she would never replace Sylvia in Ted’s life – though this might have been a misjudgment on her part, expressed in a moment of despair.
When I think of all that Sylvia left behind, I feel despair at the illumination of what is now gone: the mountains of productive work, her children, the beautiful love affair with Ted Hughes, the unspent years of her youth. It is heartbreaking because of the yield.
And Assia’s suicide is heartbreaking for the opposite reason: the darkness she left behind.