Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday Plath; A Day After Her Birthday

Lately I've been considering posting poetry not written by Plath, but others that I regard highy: Dickinson, Millay, Blake, cummings, Yeats, But yesterday would have been her 75th birthday had she not put out milk and cookies for her children in an upstairs room, sealed them off from the gas, and died from the cold asphyxiation of the oven's deadly fumes.

May, one of the best nurse bloggers out there, has expressed a little concern about my Plath obsession, which I readily confess to having. Of course Plath was simply a masterful poet who had developed a compelling and individual voice. I have been championing that for decades. But her story is also just operatic in its intensity and interest.

She was thirty years old when she died in 1962. Had she been of a later generation she probably would have been just another silently struggling member of Prozac Nation. But her kind of depression had few medical treatment options back then; electroconvulsive shock therapy probably didn't help her much.

A Birthday Present

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?

I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking

'Is this the one I am too appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!'

But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.

I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.

I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,

The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies' bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!

It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.

Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed--I do not mind if it is small.

Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,

The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.

I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified

The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,

A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.

I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,

No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.

If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million

Probable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine-----

Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,

Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center

Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.

Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and to numb to use it.

Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.

Sylvia Plath

This poem comes from the notorious Ariel collection, and I imagine that it was written in that manic period during the few months preceeding her death, possibly in October of 1961 around the time of her own birthday.

In 1998 Ted Hughes, Plath's estranged genius husband, published his Birthday Letters. He had maintained public silence regarding Sylvia for decades, but in secret he had been devoting some of his best words to her each year.

Yet another reason for my ongoing fascination.


Zadius Sky said...

I actually enjoyed and read Plath's poems during my time in college. The only poem that hooked me is her "Daddy" poem. It was pretty powerful.

For what it's worth, I don't think you have an obsession, but it is fascination and admiration.

may said...

now, stop flattering me with that "one of the best nurse bloggers out there" description :)

i was not really concerned. i was just curious. i mean, i want to know if there is another reason why you like her works so much, other than her brilliance.

Eli Blake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eli Blake said...

I actually have only read Plath's poems on this blog. (yes, I'm not so well-read. That's what comes from working two jobs and raising kids; **Sigh**)

She is very vivid in her descriptions, however. That could be part of what makes her words powerful.)

It is also true that those who die young, are often remembered much more flatteringly for that fact. Do you realize that if James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy had lived (and yes, Sylvia Plath as well) they'd all be senior citizens today? Now be honest-- is there anybody who still thinks of Dustin Hoffman as the college kid Ann Bancroft tried to seduce in 'the Graduate,' or thinks of Paul Newman as 'Cool Hand Luke?'

It is true that poetry is timeless, but there is still someone who dies before their time that is strangely compelling. I alluded to Van Gogh in your earlier post, and there is little question that Van Gogh's being driven to insanity and eventually killing himself has made his works more valuable.

An irony about Van Gogh is this: French researchers some years back discovered that a number of his relatives suffer from a condition that distorts their vision (in particular at a distance). That explains why Van Gogh would paint a flower pot so that it looked just like a flower pot when he painted the night time sky or a field of blackbirds it looked strangely distorted-- he was painting exactly what he saw. But in the nineteenth century, he was called mad, and worse-- so much so that he was driven mad. But he didn't begin that way. One can only wonder what went on in the mind of someone who was called mad simply because he painted exactly what he saw.

But I'm guessing, from what I've read here that Sylvia Plath would probably understand what he felt like.