Sylvia Plath Says Goodbye Again

It is half five in the morning; I’ve been unable to sleep all night. It is really inexplicable. I’ve had a great night, I went to bed tired-headed and heavy-limbed. And yet, I lay there hour after minute, hour, too hot, my mind active but not anxious.

I came downstairs and left only a small light on and reached for my worn copy of Ariel. I felt like a time-delay mirror of Sylvia herself, reflecting back those cold pre-dawn English mornings. Sylvia was devastated, and I am not.

I started at the beginning: Morning Song. Plath’s tender poem to her newborn baby boy with its sweet rhythms and haunting imagery.

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

I was startled to discover a new facet of this poem. It is subtle, but maybe not subtle enough to be accidental. The third stanza reads:

I am no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand

The word “effacement” snagged my attention. The word means “shortening or thinning of tissue.” It is commonly used in childbirth to describe the cervix shortening, pulling into the uterine cavity in conjunction with the cervix dilating to allow the baby’s head to come out.

The entire poem is infused with motherhood references, and for some reason I only just recognized this one.

Bluntly, without the poetics: she is no more his mother than the cloud that purifies (?) a mirror to reflect its own slow vanishing at the wind’s hand.

That sounds like goodbye. The “wave” of the “wind’s hand” and the ephemeral imagery of wind, mirrors, and effacement all built to a poem that feels like tissue.

The effacement – the birth of her son – was her own vanishing.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe that once her children were born, Sylvia Plath was simply done with life. She was – to use her own word – “completed”. This “effacement” line feels like another twig of proof. The baby was born, and she was already disappearing inside herself, waving goodbye to him and to the world.

Notably the same word “effaced” appears also in “The Rabbit Catcher” and again references childbirth:

snares almost effaced themselves
Zeroes, shutting on nothing

Set close, like birth pangs
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.

I notice that in both poems “effacement” is followed by the sound of crying. It is interesting to see how her mind words, to find these baubles on the forest floor.

Another bauble: “Statues”. In Morning Song, Sylvia writes:

… New statue
In a drafty museum

In Barren Woman, she evokes the same empty museum, but without even statues:

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticos, rotundas…”

In Death & Co., the museum is gone but even the pillars (her children) have vanished:

Frill at the neck.
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Death-gowns.

Do not attempt to tell me the imagery is an accident. These images and ideas mean something important. They are symbols, like her usage of eyes, and the colors red and blue. They’re all part of her rich iconography, and it is one reason her poetry is so powerful. Even fifty years after her death, she speaks in language that is still being decoded and is still irresistible. One needs to be blearily awake during an English dawn, maybe, to see some of the better hidden gems. But they are there.

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel – May 26, 2013 Royal Festival Hall

Ariel-Plath-Faber

The performance was introduced by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. She looked so much like her mother I was caught off guard: wide eyes, that full, generous mouth. Slender and compact in her black dress.

Her voice is also very much like Sylvia’s, English and cool. She spoke confidently about how the Ariel poems had gone through so many edits and iterations, that this “restored” version could not possibly be considered final; it was a work in progress. She also made the point that this was just one snapshot in her mother’s life, that had she lived, she’d have continued to evolve. She strongly defended her father, saying that with “painstaking care”, he had nurtured Sylvia’s artistic legacy, protecting it for her and her brother, Nicholas. She spoke very passionately about her father’s love for Sylvia, and for herself and her brother, and she was able to say that her mother was caught up in a moment of “revenge” when she wrote Ariel.

Forty women poets and actors sat in a huge semi-circle with three podiums in front. Each reader, dressed in a palette of grey, black, and red, would read, then return to their seats, and the next three would arise. This format was excellent. It kept things moving, and it had the feel of a much more intimate gathering than it actually was.

The weakest poem for me was “Cut”, read by Amy McAllister. McAllister read directly off paper in monotone, and without any of the humor that Sylvia wrote the poem. It was quickly forgotten.

Juliet Stevenson’s reading of “Tulips” was very good. I also enjoyed Ariel, read by Amy Morgan. And there was a very special treat: Ruth Fainlight, looking tiny and using a cane to help her walk, read Elm, the poem Sylvia dedicated to her.

There were two highlights for me. The first was Berck-Plage read by the stunning Harriet Walter. She lifted the evening to a whole other level. She was simply magnificent. She is a fine actress – I’d always enjoyed her on screen, particularly in Sense & Sensibility – but in this performance, she showed us precisely what Sylvia was feeling, what she truly meant, as she wrote those words. Every emotion flickered across her pretty, unconventional face. The way she rasped the line, “This is what it means to be complete/ it is horrible”, left me rocked to the core. I was brought to tears.

The second heart-stopping moment happened when the lights dimmed and a photo of Sylvia appeared on the screen above the stage, and her words filled the room. I thought of Frieda in the front row, listening, experiencing this with us. She must have heard this a thousand times, but it is probably still dear to her. As for the audience, we were left stupefied when the lights came back up and the readings resumed.

The Arrival Of The Bee Box, read by Miranda Richardson, actually provoked a small laugh from me. Her line “I have simply ordered a box of maniacs” was funny, perfectly intoned. Stings, read by Siobhan Redmond, was very good.

The last poem, Wintering, read by Deborah Findlay, really brought to light the metamorphosis that Sylvia intended. In fact, the whole collection, read aloud by professional actors and poets, actually made sense to me in a way it never had before, despite my well-documented obsessive research. After Daddy, you get the sense that she’s truly through (“daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”) Now I return to what Frieda emphasized at the introduction. She said the collection was not final, with all questions answered. After the performance, hearing the flow of the poems, I think she’s right. Because in the restored edition, “You’re” and “Fever 103” happen AFTER Daddy. Somehow I had never seen how utterly final “Daddy” is; directly after that poem, You’re and Fever 103 happen, and then she shifts to the bee poems. I can’t help but think those two poems were meant to be directly before Daddy in the final manuscript. Because once Daddy happens, that IS settled. Once Daddy happens, the world is finally neutral again, calm, peaceful. She can “taste the spring”.

The performers took three well-earned bows at the end of the show. I applauded until my hands went numb.

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Sylvia Plath: An Embarrassment of Riches

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Two of the three new Sylvia Plath books arrived today. I’m so freaking excited, I can barely stand myself right now.

Today In Plathian History

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! A secret!
How superior.
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
Brandy finger
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
Watch out!
A stampede, a stampede!

Horns twirling and jungle gutturals!
An exploded bottle of stout,
Slack foam in the lap.
You stumble out,

Dwarf baby,
The knife in your back.
“I feel weak.”
The secret is out.

Sylvia’s Final Symbols

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.

Mystic mentions:

“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:

“Axes
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.

Every Woman Adores A Fascist

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
Ach, du

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

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

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.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
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.

Dying
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
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
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.

Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

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.

Ariel

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!

Sylvia Plath’s House – Google Street View

When I downloaded Google Earth, the first place I searched for was Sylvia Plath’s house, which at one time had been Yeats’ house:

It looks like it probably did when she lived there. It’s frozen in time for me.

What is this, behind this veil?

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:

Julia Stiles To Star In “The Bell Jar”

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.

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