In the Aftermath of Plath

Just in case I missed telling one person in the far reaches of Idonwannaherit (which is my husband’s country of origin) April is National Poetry month.

And guess what?! I was informed this morning that I have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize Award. I’m thinking OMG! Am I so special they called me early? Turns out it was an April Fool’s joke. Damn you cruel jokester and may the winning of Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes forever be just out of your reach.

With the fool’s business out of the way I’d like to talk about Plath. Not because of her life’s work. In all honesty it is/was her chronic obsession with death that compels me. In reading Lady Lazarus with or without knowing Plath’s history I could have imagined a poet scribbling thoughts that were just that- thoughts. But the [reportedly] last two pieces she wrote and the two small children she left behind. I became strangely fanatical.

photo by Rollie McKenna

photo by Rollie McKenna

I tried hard not to judge her as a person and to focus only on the writing but I fell short. History, rumor and suspicion clouded my judgment.

When I read Nick and the Candlestick I imagined premeditated recklessness beyond her own ending. In Balloons all I could see was her surveying her child at play – a child she would [knowingly?] soon leave motherless.

And in Edge… it would have been eerily sufficient without knowing Sylvia Plath Hughes had made for herself a gas chamber. In doing so she had eliminated the need for an executioner so I became her judge, juror and examiner.

It wasn’t enough for me to obsess over the tragedy I insisted my husband partake of the mind numbing fixation. His first response was, “You know I don’t read poetry. I don’t read anything that doesn’t have live game, a stock symbol or a machining program written on it.” To that I handed him a beer and smiled, “Okay. I’ll read it to you and you tell me what you think.” He agreed. Though once I finished reading Edge aloud he held out his hand and ordered me to give it to him. I graciously obliged.

Here it is in its entirety. Our discussion will follow.

Edge by Sylvia Plath 1963

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,

The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

When he finally looked up I asked, “So what do you think?”

He took a long drink and shrugged, “She obviously wanted to be dead and she’s happy about it.”

“Yes, yes. Go on.” I urged, “What about the scrolls of her toga?”

“Sounds like the Clinton – Lewinsky thing. You know with the stained dress.”
I laughed and he continued. “Here where she says ‘it is over’ means just that – she’s finished.”

“What about the lines ‘each dead child coiled, a white serpent, one at each little pitcher of milk, now empty’ what do you think about that?”

“The Exodus? It sounds like the first Passover and the last plague in Egypt to me.” He looked back at the page in front of him and read, “She has folded them back into her body as petals of a rose close when the garden stiffens and odors bleed from the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.” He shook his head and returned the poem, “Did she plan to kill the kids and take them with her? I guess it doesn’t matter- It was fifty years ago, she was mentally ill and she’s glad she’s dead.”

“What about ‘the moon has nothing to be sad about, staring from her hood of bone. She is used to this sort of thing. Her blacks crackle and drag’ – what are your thoughts on that?” I asked, watching as he became more uncomfortable.

“It sounds like craziness. She was obviously mentally ill. Did you say she stuck her head in an oven?” I nodded. “Was it butane or natural gas?”

“I have no idea. Why would that matter?”

“Well one falls and the other rises – natural gas rises. Did she live in town or in the country? If she lived in town it was probably natural gas.”

“She lived in London, a town residence once occupied by Yeats.”

“Hell, it might have been coal fuel.” He paused as if it took added effort to ask the next question. “Did she kill her kids too?”

“No.” I answered. His face relaxed a bit until I added, “The youngest, a boy named Nicholas hung himself in 2009. The daughter who was less than three years old when it happened went on to become a painter and poet.”

“Dammit! How’s the girl doing?”

“I don’t personally know her but she was still alive the last I heard.”

“Poor thing. Damaged people leave a lot of garbage in their wake. Hopefully she’s not too messed up.” With that he bent and twisted the empty can indicating the discussion was over. I mumbled a thank you delighted I had snagged him into reading a poem yet a little ashamed that I had disturbed him with the past of Sylvia Plath. Next week maybe I will entice him with a new poet, a living poet. I’ll choose something lighter, funnier and maybe drag out the frayed old book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. The kids always enjoyed that one. I will probably [silently] take a closer look at the works of Ted and Frieda Hughes, dissecting their psyches and torturing myself in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath.

12 thoughts on “In the Aftermath of Plath

  1. Pingback: Wallowing in the Words of FARMER | janna hill

  2. Pingback: A Greek-less Tragedy (Ted Hughes) | janna hill

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