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.
That poem is called Morning Song; I search it for a clue.
It was written after the birth of Plath’s first child, Frieda, in 1960.
And now you try your handful of notes, she writes. I can’t imagine a mother who was not in love being able to write that. Her heart must have been as swollen as any new mother’s. I wonder, did she know what her fate had in store? Or, in new motherhood, did she experience a string of moments that were a reprieve from swimming in so many sad words.
These peculiar, private and taboo subjects, she called them in an interview.
Her second child, Nicholas, was born two years later, in 1962. That same year, Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, left her.
The following year, 1963, just shortly after publishing The Bell Jar (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor, instructing him to call the doctor. Then she committed suicide using a gas oven.
Gentility is a strangle hold, the neatness, the wonderful tidiness…which is more dangerous than it appears on the surface, she said.
She had a one-year-old and a three-year-old in her home at the time. She was 30 years old.
There are few scenarios that are quite as heartbreaking. She said,
“I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except, you know, a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience. That one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut box and sort of a mirror-looking, narcissist experience. I believe it should be relevant and relevant to the bigger things.”
Sylvia was a confessional poet. She made her livelihood writing poems from her grief, her longing, her exquisite depression. Her readers could tear out pages from her books and take them someplace else. Fold and re-fold them, call on them only when necessary.
But, ultimately, Sylvia was unable to remove herself from it.
She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982, after her death.
To hear Sylvia read on of her most famous poems Daddy, click here.
When I consider Sylvia, I can’t help but to wonder if she applied the same exquisite poetry to her suicide. Did she know that morning that she would no longer be alive to tuck her children into bed that night? Did she have her toast and coffee with two creams for breakfast? Did she stare are her reflection in the mirror for longer than on an average day? Did she pick our her clothing with focused intention?
Then I have to stop—I just have to stop.
I can dip my toe in it, at most. She lived in a pool of thoughts like these.
Sylvia Plath would have been 81 last month, on October 27th. Her daughter, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, is now 53. She is a poet and painter. She has published seven children’s books and four poetry collections and has had many exhibitions. She never had any children.
Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes was a fisheries biologist known as an expert in stream salmonid ecology. He committed suicide in 2009, at the age of 47.
He, also, never had any children.
So—why write all this?
Perhaps it is my way of saying, good night, Lady Lazarus.
I want you to know that your words are still nestled in books on our shelves, graffitied into our minds. They leave fossilized imprints when pulled from our hearts. You didn’t just vanish.
You left bits of yourself behind, like the cast-out pieces of a shattered, and re-shattered, mosaic.
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.
(23-29 October 1962)
To here Sylvia read this aloud, go here.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: screenshot of self-portrait by Sylvia Plath