Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Poetry: Coffee in La Jolla

From the work of Jefferey Meyers about Sylvia Plath:

"Ted Hughes has pointed out that Sylvia Plath began her close and sympathetic study of Roethke when isolated at Yaddo in 1959. She plundered him directly at first, but in "Poem for a Birthday" transformed his work into her own distinct style: "She had always responded strongly to "Theodore Roethke's poems, but it was only at Yaddo, in October, that she realized how he could help her. This sequence began as a deliberate Roethke pastiche, a series of exercises which would be light and throwaway to begin with, but might lead to something else the result was a series of pieces, each a monologue of some character in an underground, primitive dream. STONES was the last of them, and only one not obviously influenced by Roethke. It is full of specific details of her experience in a mental hospital."

Plath's Journals confirm Hughes's statement about Roethke's influence. Just before her birthday, on October 27, she adopted Roethke's greenhouse imagery and began to write a sequence of seven poems-on her breakdown, suicide attempt and confinement in a mental institution-which expressed, for the first time, the distinct voice of Ariel: "Ambitious seeds of a long poem made up separate sections: Poem on [her] birthday. To be dwelling on madhouse, nature: Meanings of tools, greenhouses, florists' shops, tunnels, vivid and disjointed. An adventure. Never over. Developing. Rebirth. Despair. Old women. That greenhouse is a mine of subjects. Yesterday: an exercise begun, in grimness, turning into a fine, new thing: first of a series of madhouse poems. October in the toolshed. Roethke's influence, yet mine."

The gardens of Yaddo are familiar to me, as I have mentioned too many times. All of us Saratogians (as if we lived in "Saratogia" and not "Saratoga Springs,") also grew up hearing the story of a Trask child who saw her reflection in one of the ponds and, trying to say "shadow" instead said "Yaddo," hence the name of the beautiful estate. All four young Trasks died in childhood.

This poem is considered to be a turning point in Plath's development as an artist. The formulaic terza rima of her youthful studies has undergone a vigorous refashioning. The Ariel voice sizzled into this world like a lit match; later, as Plath suffers difficulties with Ted compounded by her own psychological anguish, the focused heat of that voice would rise to nuclear intensity.

The Stones

This is the city where men are mended.
I lie on a great anvil.
The flat blue sky-circle

Flew off like the hat of a doll
When I fell out of the light. I entered
The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.

The mother of pestles diminished me.
I became a still pebble.
The stones of the belly were peaceable,

The head-stone quiet, jostled by nothing.
Only the mouth-hole piped out,
Importunate cricket

In a quarry of silences.
The people of the city heard it.
They hunted the stones, taciturn and separate,

The mouth-hole crying their locations.
Drunk as a foetus
I suck at the paps of darkness.

The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens away.
The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry
Open one stone eye.

This is the after-hell: I see the light.
A wind unstoppers the chamber
Of the ear, old worrier.

Water mollifies the flint lip,
And daylight lays its sameness on the wall.
The grafters are cheerful,

Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers.
A current agitates the wires
Volt upon volt. Catgut stitches my fissures.

A workman walks by carrying a pink torso.
The storerooms are full of hearts.
This is the city of spare parts.

My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber.
Here they can doctor heads, or any limb.
On Fridays the little children come

To trade their hooks for hands.
Dead men leave eyes for others.
Love is the uniform of my bald nurse.

Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.
The vase, reconstructed, houses
The elusive rose.

Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.
My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
I shall be good as new.

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