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

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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.

50 Years of The Bell Jar

393138_329889077123675_1260583387_nFifty years ago today, Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel, The Bell Jar, was published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was not until 1973 that the book saw the light of day in the US (her mother had attempted to block it from US shores).

Sylvia killed herself less than one month later.

Sylvia’s novel is difficult for me because it lacks the immediacy of her poetry. But taking it on its own terms, it is a terrifying look at madness. The listlessness. The boredom. The braying, nagging feeling of disappointment as if the question had been asked: this is all there is? It was answered in Sylvia’s book, which posited that there was no real reason for all that anxiety and sadness. Most madness memoirs today focus on depression or drug addiction or sexual abuse. But Plath’s – or Easter Greenwood’s?- problem was none of those things. It was simply that it was damn hard to be a girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

She desperately wanted to write novels, and I think if she’d lived, she would have done just that. But her poetry is so much more vivid, more alive, more emotional. It is worth noting that the message and imagery of The Bell Jar is identical to the poetry. But somehow, the condensed form put the thoughts under pressure, and made them explode in your face.

The Bell Jar became a feminist manifesto for the reason described above – it was hard to be a girl, and want sex and be scared of it, and to know that if anyone found out you were having it, it would be the end of you. The men had none of these struggles. The Bell Jar was an attempt to describe the repercussions of that oppression, and to document the madness that was galloping after her, and would soon overtake her.

Christopher Hitchens On Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

To an extraordinary degree, modern suicide-writing takes its point of departure from the death of Sylvia Plath. When I myself first read The Bell Jar, the phrase of hers that most arrested me was the one with which she described her father’s hometown. Otto Plath had originated in Grabow, a dull spot in what used to be called “the Polish corridor.” His angst-infected daughter had described this place as “some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.” Her poem “Daddy” must be the strictest verdict passed by a daughter on a male parent since the last reunion of the House of Atreus, with its especially unsettling opinion that, as a result of paternal ill-use: “Every woman loves a fascist… the boot in the face.”*

[…] I myself don’t think, striking though the image may be, that an entire “hamlet” can be manic-depressive. However, I can forgive la Plath her possibly subconscious metaphor because most of what I know about manic depression I first learned from Hamlet.

*The feminist school has often looked in a manner of marked disapproval at her husband, Ted Hughes. I find it difficult to imagine him actually maltreating Sylvia physically, but there’s no doubt that he could be quite stupendously wanting in sensitivity. I once went for some drinks with him at the apartment of my friend and editor Ben Sonnenberg, who was by then almost completely immobilized by multiple sclerosis. Hughes droned on for an agonizingly long time about the powers of a faith-healer in the (perhaps somewhat manic-depressive) Devonshire hamlet where he lived. This shaman, it seemed, was beyond praise for his ability with crippled people. On and on went the encomium. I could not meet Ben’s eye but from his wheelchair he eventually asked with commendable lightness: “How is he with sufferers from MS?” “Oh, not bad at all,” replied Hughes, before blithely resuming with an account of how this quack could cure disabled farm-animals as well.

Excerpted from Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens.

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!

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.

Sylvia Plath’s Bed

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.

Sylvia Plath’s New Poems

I’ve recently bought Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems. I have had the poems themselves in other books, but I wanted this version, which collects everything from her juvenilia through the great Ariel poems. This book was edited by Ted Hughes, with a rich appendix of notations. The downside is that the Ariel poems are in Hughes’ chosen order, not Sylvia’s. Thus “they taste the spring” happens in the middle of the series, which jolted me. I very strongly prefer her order of poems.

Interestingly there were several poems or fragments which never made it into any manuscript. Ted Hughes writes:

She had made a somewhat earlier (but undated) attempt to break through to the substance of this poem. [He is referring to”Fever 103″]. After several pages of what looks like feverish exploration of the theme, her earlier controls took over and reduced the confusion to the following, which she left in manuscript, unfinalized:

Four o’clock and the fever soaks from me like honey
O ignorant heart!
All night I have heard

The meaningless cry of babies. Such a sea
Broods in the newsprint!
Fish-grease, fish-bones, refuse of atrocities

Bleached and finished, I surface
Among the blanched, boiled instruments, the virginal curtains.
Here is a white sky. Here is the beauty

Of cool mouths and hands opening as natural as roses.
My glass of water refracts the morning.
My baby is sleeping

This is fascinating because, as a writer, I love to see how things evolve. The “fish-grease, fish-bones, atrocities of refuse” became:

Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch

You can hear it in the cadence.

And “all night I have heard” became:

Darling, all night
I have been flickering off, on, off, on

The mention of “virginal” curtains and roses became:

Am a pure acetylene
Virgin
Attended by roses

This one was a forerunner to the beautiful “Elm” which strikes me as an incredibly dignified and noble poem. This was her first attempt at that iconic poem:


She is not easy, she is not peaceful,
She pulses like a heart on my hill.
The moon snags in her intricate nervous system.
I am excited, seeing it there.
It’s like something she has caught for me.

The night is a blue pool; she is very still.
At the center she is still, very still with wisdom.
The moon is let go, like a dead thing.
Now she herself is darkening.
Into a dark world I can not see at all.

First, that line “the night is a dark pool” sounds a lot like the early cadence of The Moon and the Yew Tree:

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.”

“A premature crystallization,” Ted Hughes calls this attempt at her early “Elm”.

As a writer, this is precious. To see the evolution of her cramped thoughts to the booming, thundering authority of the final Elm:

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root;
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was you madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it.
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

All night I shall gallup thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.

Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, the big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin white, like arsenic.

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand,a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radience scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

I let her go. I let her go
Diminshed and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrevables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?–

Its snaky acids kiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

Good lord in heaven. If that doesn’t knock you back on your heels, blinking, searching for equilibrium. She got that from the polite little scrap above.

Stings is another whose ancient drafts survive. But before I explore that, I noticed something in the final version.

This is a phrase from the final version of Stings, written October 6, 1962

I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair

That sounds a lot like the final lines of Lady Lazarus, written later that month, October 23-26, 1962:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

They both mention eating. They both mention hair. And dust and ash are very similar. So it’s possible to see that she was cannibalizing ideas and imagery across all her poems. (This makes me feel less guilty for stealing a phrase from another of my books for my work in progress.) She does this numerous times. In her first version of Stings, written August 2, 1962, is the line” It has set them zinging”. Earlier, on February 19, 1961, she wrote a poem for her daughter, Morning Song. It begins:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch

The “set them” and “set you” sounds very similar and very deliberate to me.

Then there is another image borrowed from a poem written for her son on October 29, 1962; the last lines read:

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

Compare that to this earlier fragment:

It has set them zinging
On envious strings, and you are the center.

This is the first version of Stings:

What honey summons these animalcules?
What fear? It has set them zinging
On envious strings, and you are the center.
They are assailing your brain like numerals,
They contort your hair

Beneath the flat handkerchief you wear instead of a hat.
They are making a cat’s cradle, they are suicidal.
Their death-pegs stud your gloves, it is no use running.
The black veils mold to your lips:
They are fools.

After, they swagger and weave, under no banner.
After, they crawl
Dispatched, into trenches of grass.
Ossifying like junked statues —
Gelded and wingless. Not heroes. Not heroes.

The published and final version is:

Bare-handed, I hand the combs.
The man in white smiles, bare-handed,
Our cheesecloth gauntlets neat and sweet,
The throats of our wrists brave lilies.
He and I

Have a thousand clean cells between us,
Eight combs of yellow cups,
And the hive itself a teacup,
White with pink flowers on it,
With excessive love I enameled it

Thinking ‘Sweetness, sweetness.’
Brood cells gray as the fossils of shells
Terrify me, they seem so old.
What am I buying, wormy mahogany?
Is there any queen at all in it?

If there is, she is old,
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush —-
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column

Of winged, unmiraculous women,
Honey-drudgers.
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.

And seen my strangeness evaporate,
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?

It is almost over.
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening, in spring, like an industrious virgin

To scour the creaming crests
As the moon, for its ivory powders, scours the sea.
A third person is watching.
He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or with me.
Now he is gone

In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.
Here is his slipper, here is another,
And here the square of white linen
He wore instead of a hat.
He was sweet,

The sweat of his efforts a rain
Tugging the world to fruit.
The bees found him out,
Molding onto his lips like lies,
Complicating his features.

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.
Is she dead, is she sleeping?
Where has she been,
With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?

Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her —-
The mausoleum, the wax house.

As I find new drafts, new notations, my knowledge and love of Sylvia Plath grows ever deeper. At times I think I’m just like her.. with those awkward first drafts, the cramped phrasing… but she leaves me and everyone behind when she bursts out with those dazzling, world-changing poems. There is no-one like her, and never will be.

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