Mirrors shine light on Plath’s poetic genius
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