How a Sylvia Plaththemed lit­er­ary pil­grim­age helped one au­thor find her words again

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - PURSUITS -

One can­not con­fess to un­der­stand or know, let alone write, an­other per­son’s trauma.

Writer Shan­non Webb-Camp­bell dis­cusses the con­tro­versy around her col­lec­tion that was pulled from stores

This past sum­mer, my boyfriend, who is an ar­chi­tect, took me on a trip to Bos­ton to browse through the Cen­tral Pub­lic Bos­ton Li­brary, swim in the At­lantic Ocean and visit Sylvia Plath’s child­hood home. The trip was a means to re­con­nect with what drives po­et­ics af­ter my po­etry book Who Took My Sis­ter? was pulled days af­ter pub­li­ca­tion early in the spring.

At 35, I’m five years older than Plath when she killed her­self on Feb. 11, 1963 in Lon­don, Eng­land, and left be­hind two chil­dren (Frieda, now a 58-yearold poet and pain­ter, and Ni­cholas, a bi­ol­o­gist, who died by sui­cide at 47 years old in 2009) and an ex­ten­sive body of work.

Plath pub­lished The Colos­sus and Other Po­ems (1960), and The Bell Jar, orig­i­nally pub­lished un­der pseu­do­nym Vic­to­ria Lu­cas (1963), and later sev­eral books came out posthu­mously, in­clud­ing: Ariel (1965), Win­ter Trees (1971) and The Col­lected Po­ems (1981).

Like many young fe­male po­ets, I wor­shiped Plath (who was born in Bos­ton on Oct. 27, 1932) and, in a way, I still do. As a teenager, I spent my min­i­mum-wage earn­ings scour­ing used book­stores in Toronto for vin­tage copies of The Bell Jar to make a col­lage for high-school art class. I bought nearly a dozen do­geared pa­per­back copies of The Bell Jar, and tore them apart, and in my own way, rewrote ex­cerpts of Es­ther Green­wood’s tragic tale as a means of work­ing through my own pain. I even drew a por­trait of Plath’s face in blank ink that re­sem­bled my own. At the time, I was de­pressed and reg­u­larly skipped math class for ther­apy.

Nat­u­rally, I wrote hun­dreds of re­ally ter­ri­ble po­ems.

For 20 years, I’ve been read­ing and reread­ing Plath. I’ve read The Unabridged Jour­nals of Sylvia Plath, sev­eral bi­ogra­phies and non-fic­tion books about her life – Pain, Par­ties & Work Sylvia Plath in New York, Sum­mer 1953 by El­iz­a­beth Win­der; Mad Girl’s Love Song, Sylvia Plath And Life Be­fore Ted by Andrew Wil­son; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of the Birthday Let­ters by Erica Wagner, and, most re­cently, Sina Queyras’ stun­ning po­etry col­lec­tion, My Ariel. Queyras asks read­ers to re­call who they were when they first read Ariel, and what has changed in their lives.

When I first read Plath at 15 in my bed­room in the base­ment in Oshawa, a small city east of Toronto, I felt ripped apart by the de­sire to be wild and close to swal­low­ing a bot­tle of painkillers. Nearly two decades later, the de­sire to die still col­lides with a hunger for life.

Plath’s legacy is both her work – her po­ems that give voice to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pain and gen­der – and her sui­cide. My po­etry col­lec­tion also spoke to themes of fe­male pain, women, un­re­solved trauma and the on­go­ing ef­fects of col­o­niza­tion.

Like for many writ­ers, po­etry has helped me soften the dark­est edges, but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily an in­cu­ba­tor with­out its own harm. Plath left a type­writer copy of the man­u­script for Ariel on her desk when she placed a towel un­der the doors of her sleep­ing chil­dren’s bed­rooms and turned on the gas oven in 1963. All that re­mains are her words and the story of her death.

In the poem Ariel, Plath writes, “And now I/ Foam to wheat, a glit­ter of seas./ The child’s cry/ Melts in the wall/ And I/ Am the ar­row,/ The dew that flies/ Sui­ci­dal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the caul­dron of morn­ing.” I feel both the shim­mer and the flame.

As my boyfriend and I slowly moved through the sum­mer heat of Bos­ton, we spoke to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and po­etry, and how places and spa­ces cre­ate lan­guage and pock­ets of thought. As an ar­chi­tect, he finds in­spi­ra­tion in build­ings, churches and li­braries – the var­i­ous liv­ing forms of ar­chi­tec­ture that sur­round our daily lives. As a writer, I am mar­ried to the po­et­ics, the in­vis­i­ble and un­know­able de­tails that ex­ist some­where be­tween the past, present and other realms. Where he is di­rected by form, func­tion and plan­ning, I am guided by the emo­tional and of­ten in­tan­gi­ble. Both are wit­nesses to hu­man­ity, though I lack the sen­si­bil­ity and knowl­edge it takes to cre­ate build­ings, so in­stead, I write po­ems.

As we stood out­side Plath’s child­hood home in Ja­maica Plain, where she lived un­til she was 4, he saw New Eng­land ar­chi­tec­ture with a re­spectable yard. I en­vi­sioned the woman’s life long be­fore she was mar­ried to Ted Hughes, as a poet prior to moth­er­hood and ev­ery­thing that came af­ter. What sur­prised us both was that there wasn’t a plaque or any sort of phys­i­cal marker stat­ing Plath had lived there. It could have been any house in any city.

From Bos­ton, where she was born, to Bri­tain, where she spent her fi­nal days, both places hold pieces of Plath’s nar­ra­tive. In Ariel, Plath’s daugh­ter Freida Hughes writes a fore­word about the blue plaques is­sued by English Her­itage de­signed to hon­our the con­tri­bu­tion of a per­son’s work on the lives of oth­ers, a pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion of where they worked and lived. English Her­itage was led to believe Plath had done all her best work in this home, which Hughes writes, she had been in “for only eight weeks, writ­ten thir­teen po­ems, nursed two sick chil­dren, been ill her­self, fur­nished and dec­o­rated the flat, and killed her­self.”

Hughes dis­agreed with English Her­itage – she didn’t want her mother’s life to be com­mem­o­rated where she was a sin­gle mother and was un­pro­duc­tive and mis­er­able. English Her­itage fi­nally con­fessed that their ra­tio­nale be­hind putting up a plaque there was be­cause that’s where Plath had died. Now, there is a plaque on the wall of 3 Chal­cot Square where Hughes’s mother and fa­ther first lived in Lon­don for nearly two years and Plath wrote The Bell Jar, pub­lished The Colos­sus and gave birth to her daugh­ter.

Out­side Plath’s un­marked child­hood home, I re­flected about what led me to her doorstep – the po­etry, the crit­i­cism and the au­dac­ity it takes to write. Above all else, Plath’s life and work il­lus­trates this con­vic­tion.

When my pub­lisher, Book*hug, pulled my book Who Took My Sis­ter? for not prop­erly fol­low­ing In­dige­nous pro­to­col, I looked much like English Her­itage and clearly didn’t take into con­sid­er­a­tion the frame­work of the book un­til a sis­ter of a woman I wrote about in one of the po­ems ex­plained. It’s not how a fam­ily, es­pe­cially a sis­ter, would want her sib­ling to be re­mem­bered. Much like Plath, the specifics of a woman’s death aren’t the specifics of her life.

While po­etry has long been a form of el­egy, it does not hon­our a per­son’s life to cre­ate an­other grave­stone. The last thing I ever wanted to do was cre­ate more harm, yet can now rec­og­nize the po­et­ics did not be­long to me – they weren’t mine to write. One can­not con­fess to un­der­stand or know, let alone write, an­other per­son’s trauma. To align your­self with trauma be­yond your own lived ex­pe­ri­ence is prob­lem­atic and per­haps even dan­ger­ous. Hon­our comes from a liv­ing place. Plath wrote con­fes­sional po­etry about her life that speaks to gen­er­a­tions of women – and ar­guably reo- ri­ented and ad­vanced an art form, which il­lus­trates that the only way for­ward is to change, evolve and move on. At the time, Plath was deeply crit­i­cized. Her po­etic fame was af­ter death, as her tal­ent was eclipsed by Ted Hughes. Yet, in a way, we are able to imag­ine and cre­ate a larger nar­ra­tive of the mean­ing of her life, work and con­tri­bu­tion to lit­er­a­ture – though we still can­not sep­a­rate Plath from her sui­cide, as it is laced through­out her works.

This brings me back to be­ing in Bos­ton and how I yearned for this mo­ment for 20 years. To stand in Plath’s shadow, to hon­our the fact that she was a hu­man be­ing, as well as a poet, with a child­hood and a heart­beat. She had a vi­sion, and per­haps at the time didn’t even un­der­stand what her own work could mean in the face of it all, but she kept writ­ing un­til she couldn’t stand liv­ing any­more.

It was at Plath’s house at 24 Prince St., while pay­ing my po­etic re­spects, that I knew I had to re­turn to my po­ems and re­visit the book. The work was un­fin­ished, and my pub­lish­ers and I took full eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and ac­count­abil­ity, and apol­o­gized to the fam­i­lies and read­ers harmed. We owned the mis­take and made amends. As part of the po­etic process, I worked with ed­i­tor Lee Mar­a­cle (who also wrote an in­tro­duc­tion) on the re­vi­sion, re­moved the prob­lem­atic po­ems and re­vised the en­tire text. The new book, I Am A Body of Land, is very dif­fer­ent from its for­mer self.

Over the past six months, I’ve come to re-ex­am­ine the role of po­etry in my life. Much like the teenager who wrote in or­der to let the pain go, I am now a poet who re­mains in the cross­over some­where be­tween the two, recit­ing Plath’s lines: “Where do the black trees go/ that drink here? Their shad­ows must cover Canada … This is the si­lence of as­tounded souls.”

As I look back to the pho­to­graph my part­ner took of me hold­ing a copy of Ariel’s Gift (I picked up at Brat­tle Book Shop) out­side of Plath’s child­hood home, I can see traces of how one woman’s po­etic legacy con­tin­ues to map my life and work. Po­etry is merely an at­tempt to dis­till mean­ing, to name si­lences and at­tempt to speak the un­speak­able. Po­etry con­tin­ues to en­cour­age us to change, evolve and move on. Above all else, po­etry as­tounds.

Book*hug will be re­leas­ing Shan­non Webb-Camp­bell’s po­etry book I Am a Body of Land this fall.


A trip to Bos­ton, the birth­place of poet Sylvia Plath, helped Shan­non Webb-Camp­bell re­con­nect with her work.

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