Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Plath: the Plathiest of Them All



Elm

For Ruth Fainlight

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.

Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches? -

Its snaky acids hiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

Sylvia Plath

19 April 1962


Like Plath, Ruth Fainlight was an American poet living in England and married to a successful writer; Allan Sillitoe, who wrote one of my favorite short stories: "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."



Fainlight got to hear Plath read this poem to her personally at their last meeting, when they also compared and contrasted their new-born baby boys.

Fainlight wrote in an essay:

And there was the one long weekend (how could we know it would be our last meeting?), about a month after David was born and a few weeks before leaving for Tangier, when we made the eight-hour drive—those pre-motorway days—down the old coach road west to Devon, to inspect the new house and each other's babies. The house had all the necessary etceteras of the ideal poetic country retreat, and Sylvia had already begun painting hearts and flowers on the backs of wooden chairs and cupboard doors, which gave it a slightly more New rather than an Old England feel. There is a two and a half month difference in age between the boys, and to my inexperienced eyes, Nicky appeared alarmingly advanced. Sylvia and I sat in her workroom one afternoon, nursing them while she read me her latest poems—one of which was "Elm."

Plath did not include this poem in her original Ariel manuscript. It was added along with some other late poems by Ted, and it had already been magazine published in The New Yorker.

This is my favorite Plath poem.

3 comments:

Eli Blake said...

Interesting and beautiful poetry, though I find the comparison of the moon to a mastectomy to be a bit troubling. But maybe that is what the point is.

wunelle said...

It's almost a foreign language to me; my mind is too literal, except in music (where I refuse to connect the tangible and the abstract).

I love having someone make the introduction.

Ruth said...

How interesting, I had a drawer stuffing story, the one you write but don't show anyone about finding the tiny baby's head on my shoulder vaguely dangerous, growing into a horror story. this brings that back.