Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday: Two Plath Lasts



This is the last poem that appeared in the 1966 version of Sylvia Plath's Ariel collection:

Words

Axes

After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes traveling
Off from the center like horses.

The sap
Wells like tears, like the
Water striving
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock

That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road-

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
While
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.


When he published Plath's Collected Poems in 1981, Ted Hughes, her husband at the time of her death, revealed the original order of the Ariel poems that Plath had indicated in the manuscript she'd left on her desk in 1963. He then came under some criticism for having messed about with her intentions. (He also had left out the early Mad Girl's Love Song, the wonderful villanelle found in the back of The Bell Jar. Odd, that.)



The poem order was rectified in 2004 when Ariel: Restored Edition was published.



Plath's daughter Frieda explains a lot about this here. Plath herself wanted the collection to finish with the word "spring." This is the poem with which she planned to end her own version of the manuscript:

Wintering

This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife's extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat's eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant's rancid jam
and the bottles of empty glitters ----
Sir So-and-so's gin.

This is the room I have never been in
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects ----
Black asininity. Decay.
Possession.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees--the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin

To make up for the honey I've taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it. The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,
Black
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women ----
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanis walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.


Sylvia Plath

3 comments:

wunelle said...

It's all quite fabulous.

I read The Bell Jar some years ago, but never spent any time on her poetry (on poetry generally, it must be said). But there's something about what you've put here that's haunting and direct.

I need to pay more attention.

Eli Blake said...

How old was her daughter at the time of her death?

I once knew a girl whose mother had committed suicide by sitting in a car in a closed garage with the engine idling, and the girl I knew was never quite right. She was obsessed with that day and blamed herself for her mother's suicide (though she was only about nine or ten when it happened). I knew her when she was about twenty, and she had already dropped out of high school, had at least three abortions that I know of, had been in and out of jail several times (including for prostitution) and had a serious substance abuse problem with both alcohol (I met her in AA) and a variety of illegal drugs. Even when she was sober she was always hearing voices and believed that the devil was following her. I don't know if she ever turned it around but if she didn't then I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out that she was dead by now.

It sounds like Frieda didn't turn out that way, but a parent killing themselves is an inexplicable tragedy in the life of a child, and one that the child will (almost always wrongly) blame themselves for. Mental illness isn't supposed to be contagious, but I wonder sometimes...

shrimplate said...

Frieda was over 2&1/2, and Nick was 1.