Mir­rors shine light on Plath’s po­etic ge­nius

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turn­ing By El­iz­a­beth Sig­mund and Gail Crowther Fonthill Me­dia, 123pp, $39.99 Fixed Stars Gov­ern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath By Ju­lia Gor­don-Bramer Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity Press, 224pp, $80 Sylvia Plath’s 1957 poem The Lady and the Earthen­ware Head de­scribes its speaker’s dif­fi­cul­ties with the awk­ward gift of a clay model of her head. Loath to “junk it”, she imag­ines it might “leer … lewdly beck­on­ing” if she tries to drown it. She thinks of the “sly nerve” that “knits to each orig­i­nal its coarse copy”. Jacqueline Rose evokes the poem in The Haunt­ing of Sylvia Plath: “The ef­figy haunts the orig­i­nal. It loves and ter­ri­fies the very be­ing it was in­tended to rep­re­sent.” Rose ar­gues that “Sylvia Plath haunts our cul­ture. She is — for many — a shad­owy fig­ure whose pres­ence draws on and com­pels.”

In an­other haunt­ing, Ted Hughes, Plath’s for­mer hus­band, and Bri­tish poet lau­re­ate from 1984 un­til his 1998 death, wrote a po­etic ri­poste, The Earthen­ware Head, first pub­lished in 1980. It re­turns to the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal events from which the drive of Plath’s poem comes, cor­rect­ing its im­pres­sions and den­i­grat­ing the young poet’s th­e­saurus-ran­sack­ing. The in­flu­ence of Hughes and his sis­ter Ol­wyn (who, de­spite re­gard­ing her for­mer sis­ter-in-law as “straight poi­son” and a “mon­ster”, was made her lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor) has shaped the pub­li­ca­tion of Plath’s work, most of which has been post­hu­mous. No doubt the ar­chive with its sly nerve, trou­bling and im­per­ish­able as the earthen­ware head, has haunted the Hughes fam­ily in re­turn.

For a pro­fes­sional writer, as Lynn Z. Bloom puts it, “there are no pri­vate writ­ings”. Plath was well aware of this, de­scrib­ing the vo­ra­cious in­dif­fer­ence of a “peanut-crunch­ing crowd” in her poem Lady Lazarus, and mind­ful of pos­ter­ity like John Keats, who came to feel he was living a “post­hu­mous ex­is­tence”.

Ted Hughes re­garded Plath’s two fi­nal jour­nals from the last months of her life — dur­ing his af­fair with As­sia Wevill and the cou­ple’s sep­a­ra­tion and her writ­ing of the elec­tri­fy­ing Ariel po­ems — as some­thing he did not want their chil­dren to read. Whether both were de­stroyed or, like the draft of her novel Dou­ble Ex­po­sure, dis­ap­peared, th­ese losses from the body of Plath’s work are deep lac­er­a­tions.

Sylvia Plath in Devon seeks to re­pair th­ese in­juries and to bear wit­ness to the year Plath spent in the ram­shackle thatched house Court Green in North Taw­ton, Devon, ini­tially with Hughes. Dur­ing this pe­riod — from Septem­ber 1961 to De­cem­ber 1962, when the poet and her small chil­dren moved to the Lon­don flat that was once Yeats’s and in which she died — Plath wrote most of the Ariel po­ems, fin­ished edit­ing her novel The Bell Jar, and gave birth to Ni­cholas. She be­came friends with El­iz­a­beth Sig­mund (then Comp­ton), whose mem­oir is the spine of this work. Pref­aced with an in­tro­duc­tion by Plath bi­og­ra­pher Peter K. Stein­berg, the first sec­tion of the work con­tains Sig­mund’s own evo­ca­tion of her friend­ship with Plath.

Stein­berg de­scribes Plath as “a con­nec­tive fig­ure”, stress­ing the vi­tal­ity of her writ­ing and its ca­pac­ity to reach peo­ple. She was also a beloved friend, as Sig­mund’s mem­oir ex­em­pli­fies, with its de­scrip­tions of shared birth­day cakes, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism and in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­ests. Af­ter Plath’s death, Sig­mund and her hus­band were care­tak­ers of Court Green. The mem­o­ries Sig­mund de­scribes were forged in this des­o­lat­ing space of in­ti­macy and ab­sence, of know­ing more than the of­fi­cial leg­end, but be­ing caught by ties to the living and the dead. Sig­mund re­mem­bers find­ing Plath’s shoes in the bath­room and, later, be­ing si­lenced at a public lec­ture by Anne Stevenson, one of Plath’s bi­og­ra­phers, whose work be­came in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound with Ol­wyn Hughes’s per­spec­tive.

This mem­oir of­fers a vi­sion of the life Plath would have de­scribed in her de­stroyed jour­nals — meet­ings, do­mes­tic de­tails and plans. It traces and haunts, and is in turn haunted by, events Plath her­self evoked in the lost works and trans­muted into the po­ems’ images. The Ariel po­ems carry a sense of hav­ing fought for their own sur­vival. As He­lene Cixous says of Paul Ce­lan’s work, they are po­ems that speak “of and through dis­as­ter”. Like them, this mem­oir rises “out of the ash” of work de­stroyed.

Many de­tails are charged with poignancy in the light of the poet’s death. Plath’s bees in­spired her Bee Se­quence, which take as­pects of bee­keep­ing and trans­form them into buzzing, mo­bile metaphors for power and re­silience. In the last of th­ese, writ­ten on the verge of the ter­ri­ble 1962-63 win­ter known as the Big Freeze, the speaker asks: “Will the hive sur­vive?” The poem sug­gests that the bees will live to “taste the spring”, while an­other poem, Stings, has its queen-speaker re­cov­er­ing to fly more “ter­ri­ble that she ever was”.

Plath did not sur­vive this win­ter, but her bees, left in the care of her Devon­shire mid­wife Winifred Davies, did, wrapped as they were so pre­ciously.

Sig­mund main­tained close con­tact with Hughes and the chil­dren af­ter Plath’s death, but her pub­li­ca­tion of a 1976 piece about Plath re­sulted in her not see­ing the chil­dren for many years. Be­fore this, Hughes had given her a copy of Dy­lan Thomas’s po­ems, an­no­tated by Plath. One un­der­lined pas­sage was this, from Poem in Oc­to­ber: O may my heart’s truth Still be sung On this high hill in a year’s turn­ing.

Sig­mund’s mem­oir — the later sec­tion writ­ten by aca­demic Gail Crowther — bal­ances the need to sing this truth with the risk of be­ing ac­cused of us­ing oth­ers’ suf­fer­ings to gain no­to­ri­ety. It coun­te­nances the cor­ro­sive ef­fects of “con­jec­ture, gos­sip and sto­ries told long af­ter the event” — the ca­pac­ity of the “peanut- crunch­ing crowd” to haunt and twist a life and work. This mem­oir is a limpid and en­gag­ing work of resti­tu­tion, fill­ing in de­tails th­ese months’ lost jour­nals and novel might have il­lu­mi­nated, as though care­tak­ing Plath’s lost words in her ab­sence.

Ju­lia Gor­don-Bramer’s Fixed Stars Gov­ern a Life is a vi­brant, metic­u­lous and idio­syn­cratic at­tempt at an­other kind of resti­tu­tion. Gor­donBramer, a scholar, poet and pro­fes­sional tarot card reader, traces the im­prints of Plath’s in­ter­est in mys­ti­cism in the Ariel po­ems. Gor­donBramer’s knowl­edge of the tarot prompted her to an­a­lyse Plath’s ar­range­ment of im­agery of tarot, astrology and as­tron­omy, alchemy and mythol­ogy and to ex­am­ine this con­stel­la­tion of mys­ti­cal ref­er­ence through the qa­balah, the an­cient sys­tem that brings to­gether th­ese es­o­teric and oc­cult tra­di­tions. Gor­don-Bramer de­scribes the qa­balah as an “um­brella that shel­ters the fam­ily of re­lated oc­cult sciences”, an im­age sug­ges­tive of the con­tin­ued taboo as­so­ci­ated with some of th­ese philoso­phies.

“Did (Plath) do this con­sciously, or was she just a nat­u­ral mys­tic?” is one of the book’s key ques­tions. Part of the an­swer lies in Plath’s and Hughes’s in­ter­est in writ­ers as­so­ci­ated with the Her­metic Or­der of the Golden Dawn, an or­gan­i­sa­tion in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies ded­i­cated to the study of oc­cult prac­tices (un­re­lated to the con­tem­po­rary neo-fas­cist group of the same name). Ir­ish poet WB Yeats was a mem­ber of the Golden Dawn and par­tic­i­pated in seances, dur­ing one of which he be­lieved him­self vis­ited by a spirit named Leo Africanus, who claimed to be his dae­mon. Yeats’s hon­ey­moon in­volved sev­eral ses­sions a day of vig­or­ous au­to­matic writ­ing by his clair­voy­ant wife in re­sponse to ques­tions he put to the spirit world. TS Eliot and DH Lawrence were in­ter­ested in the move­ment, though nei­ther was a mem­ber.

As their friend and edi­tor Al Al­varez puts it, Hughes en­cour­aged Plath into “a weird mish­mash of astrology, black magic, Jun­gian psy­chol­ogy, Celtic myth and pa­gan su­per­sti­tion”.

Gor­don-Bramer charts Plath’s in­de­pen­dent in­ter­est in es­o­teric sub­ject mat­ter, and struc­tures her book — the first of two vol­umes — as a set of mir­rors, each nec­es­sary to un­der­stand­ing Plath’s ge­nius. She of­fers de­tailed, il­lu­mi­nat­ing read­ings of the first 22 po­ems in Ariel.

This ex­haus­tive study is nicely aligned with Plath’s metic­u­lous craft­ing. The work pro­duces con­vinc­ing, orig­i­nal read­ings. Gor­don-Bramer finds traces of Lear in The Ap­pli­cant and limns al­chem­i­cal res­o­nances in Lady Lazarus. In the meet­ing of mytho­log­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and es­o­teric ref­er­ences, Gor­don-Bramer finds pat­terns and res­o­nances in the po­ems.

The work takes its ti­tle from Plath’s com­pressed ars poet­ica Words. Against th­ese “fixed stars” — like the “sta­sis in dark­ness” with which the poem Ariel opens — Plath plots the end­less mo­bil­ity of words’ echoes, “trav­el­ling off from the cen­tre like horses”, their “in­de­fati­ga­ble hoof­taps” pock­ing the roads of the fu­ture. From the fix­ity of th­ese stars, words move on­wards and out­wards, cen­trifu­gal in their en­er­gies. They travel on, even when they are “dry and rid­er­less”.

Any cen­tripetal read­ing is al­ways at odds with the po­ems’ elu­sive, equine en­ergy. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Gor­don-Bramer’s im­po­si­tion of her scheme of mir­rors seems forced and har­ness­ing, just as Sig­mund and Crowther’s book some­times seems in­tent on an im­pos­si­ble cap­ture. In th­ese mo­ments, there is a sense of Plath be­ing haunted by some read­ings and read­ers. Ul­ti­mately, though, each painstak­ing en­deav­our at­tests to Plath’s in­de­fati­ga­ble haunt­ing, and, more im­por­tant, to the re­splen­dent sur­vival of her work.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath about 1956

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