I randomly opened up to this poem by Elizabeth Alexander while looking for another book at the library this afternoon…I can’t resist posting a piece about one of the first poets who resonated with me (and so many others). Say what you will about Sylvia Plath–she was one powerful lady.
“The female seer will burn upon this pyre”
Sylvia Plath is setting my hair
on rollers made from orange-juice cans.
The hairdo is shaped like a pyre.
My locks are improbably long.
A pyramid of lemons somehow
balances on the rickety table
where we sit, in the rented kitchen
which smells of singed naps and bergamot.
Sylvia Plath is surprisingly adept
at rolling my unruly hair.
She knows to pull it tight.
Her flat, American belly,
her breasts in a twin sweater set,
stack of typed poems on her desk,
envelopes stamped to go by the door,
a freshly baked poppyseed cake,
kitchen safety matches, black-eyed Susans
in a cobalt jelly jar. She speaks a word,
“immolate,” then a single sentence
of prophecy. The hairdo done,
the nursery tidy, the floor swept clean
of burnt hair and bumblebee husks.
Once again, I need to pay homage to some of the poets who first got me into verse circa high school. I still remember the paper I wrote about this poem in 10th grade and how excited I was writing it–how my friend Kristina (who was writing on a different Plath poem) and I stayed up on the phone all night as we edited our papers to make sure they were just so… Perhaps at a certain point we all move on from Plath or at least, from that stunned adolescent admiration of the life she spilled across the page. Or maybe we don’t. Eight years later, this poem still brings me to tears.
Tulips-by Sylvia Plath
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage ----
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free ----
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I hve no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.
Some of you may roll your eyes, but I feel like I can’t really celebrate National Poetry Month without posting something by Sylvia Plath. I first encountered her when I had to write a poetry paper in 10th grade and randomly chose to read her collected anthology; until that point, I had never disliked reading verse, per say, but I never quite connected with the Romantic poets or the basic road-not-taken naturey Robert Frost packet that was typically handed out in middle school.
Sylvia Plath was the first poet who made me feel something, who made me want to read more. There is so much more to her than The Bell Jar or “Daddy,” which seems to be the poem that is always plucked out for scrutiny by high school English teachers. Her journals perhaps are her true masterpiece; raw and beautiful and intricately detailed, her entries illuminate a complex life that was–and is–incredibly misunderstood. But her poems are no small feat either–she wrote hundreds before she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, opening up the gates for both confessional poetry (as Robert Lowell had done for her) and for more verse written by women, as well.
The following is one of my favorite Plath poems, perhaps a bit shorter and more subtle than many of her others, but still equally powerful in its tender imagery of a mother and an infant. Knowing that Plath’s only son, Nicholas, took his own life only two weeks ago at the age of 47 makes this poem a little darker for me. How tragic that his clear, child eye had to cloud over with the years, encountering only the dark, starless depression that his mother once suffered from as well.
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose name you meditate–
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.