E.M. Forster, “Howards End”

1910

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby) are half-German intellectuals living in London. They meet the Wilcoxes, wealthy capitalists who have made their money in colonial rubber and are less artistic but more common-sensical. Unlike their grander places in town, etc., Ruth Wilcox’s house at Howards End has been handed down from her family, rather than purchased with the new money of the Wilcoxes. She leaves it to Margaret on her deathbed in a moment of pity that she will be kicked out of Wickham Place (another Jane Austen reference!), but the Wilcoxes throw away the paper on which she writes it (like Middlemarch). The narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in inllness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship… to them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” 114.

Margaret becomes close to Henry, however, and marries him, making the children dislike her. The Schlegels try to help the Basts, a poorer couple, and enlist the help of Henry Wilcox to get him a job. Helen sleeps with him out of pity when this fails and disappears the Europe.

Eventually, we discover that Helen is pregnant. She returns home and says she no longer hates Henry and sees why Margaret married him. She wonders why both times she fell in love it was for a night of loneliness and panic afterwards. Margaret confronts Henry Wilcox, having learned that he once had an affair with Leonard’s now-wife and abandoned her in Cyprus. Margaret urges him to see that this is the same as Helen sleeping with Leonard, but he will not admit it. When Leonard comes to talk to Margaret, he discovers Helen there as well. Charles, one of Wilcox’s sons, attacks him with a sword for his behavior, knocking him into a bookshelf, which falls on him and kills him because of his weak heart. Helen and the boy will live at Howards end with Margaret, who is given the house in the will. The novel ends with “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox” reconciled (Margaret shivers to learn she was once bequeathed the house, but insists her husband did nothing wrong) and the others come in from the field which will yield “such a crop of hay as never!”

In bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, who will give it to her illegitimate nephew, product of Helen and Bast, Forster suggests a shifting sense of class and inheritance that nonetheless bind the house as a lasting sign of dignity and tradition in the English novel. The relationship between Helen and Margaret also reminds me of that between Jane and Lizzie Bennet in Austen, Ursula and Gudrun in Lawrence, Molly and Anna in Lessing. The heavy weight of (literary) English history is also what kills Leonard – the sword and the pen, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels of the world united in his downfall.

Howards End parades as a Victorian “novel of manners,” but updates the genre in a number of interesting ways. The omniscient narrator operates more by direct and indirect discourse even than free indirect discourse, and offers Austen-like comparisons of how much different people would enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth, which “will be generally admitted” to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man… Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood, Margaret, who can only see the music…” 38. The fact that the plot does not end in Helen’s marriage, but a new kind of family, is more modern, as is the tragic and strange chance death of Leonard.

It would be interesting to place him in a tradition with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey. Sebastian’s charm leads Charles to the Marchmains, much as Paul involves Helen Schlegel with the Wilcoxes, giving on to Margaret’s fascination with first one, then the other parent. In Fellows’ show, the house (much grander) is more important than all of the American mother’s money used to save it – it confers “history” (what makes this show so strange). Mary and Matthew’s marriage is a sort of twist on the Margaret-Henry Wilcox match.

Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

1968

San Francisco for Didion is “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” xiii. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests… writers are always selling somebody out” xvi. (see her use of facile, 162)

WHERE THE KISSING NEVER STOPS – On Joan Baez’s school with the boy and his violet marble, and the sky the same color as that marble.

7000 ROMAINE, LOS ANGELES – America is neither about money nor power (like Isherwood, she finds Europeans more materialistic), but “personal freedom, mobility, privacy” 71.

MARRYING ABSURD – the facsimile of tradition in Vegas weddings for “children.”

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM – the long title essay on the very young hippies of the Haight in the summer of love, 1967. It begins, “the center was not holding” 84. It’s mostly about dirty kids doing drugs and watching detergent cut grease and talking about ideas they don’t really feel involved in. At the end, Didion meets a five year old on acid licking her lips and muttering.

ON GOING HOME – her daughter, a birthday, her legacy

NOTES FROM A NATIVE DAUGHTER – CA is 5 hours from NY, but it is “somewhere else” 171. It is “where we run out of continent,” and it is losing its history 186.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT – She leaves NY. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in face irrevocable and that it has counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it” 233. She is a Californian again, with the sunshine and jasmine.

Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”

1985

“Is anatomy linguistic destiny? Is womb a metaphorical mouth, a pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors begin.

“From Freud to Lacan to Derrida on the one hand, and from Woolf to Irigaray to Cixous on the other, masculinist and feminist theorists alike have toyed with the idea of a culturally determined body language which translates the articulations of the body into that body of articulated terminology we call language” 515.

“If language is a process of cultural artifiice that both distances and defines nature, then it would seem that its workings might well embody the bodily differences through which each human being first confronts the fundamental sexuality of his or her own nature… as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘Sexual difference – which is at once biological, physiological, and relative to production – is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract: a difference, then, in the relationship to power, language, and meaning” 515-16.

Gilbert and Gubar seek to interrogate this psychologically and historically – through the primacy of the mother in the ‘symbolic contract’ and through a tradition of female writing that belies the idea that the feminine does not appear in common language. “The female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks” 516. A French feminist approach prioritizes the preexistence of a woman’s language that breaks from patriarchy, while an a priori Anglo-American approach has been focused on research into a praxis of linguistics itself. Irigaray and Kristeva picture the female body as open, blank, full of gaps and lacunae that ‘speak louder than words,” and Cixous calls writing an outpouring or disgorging of fluids. These thinkers seek to move beyond the binary of patriarchy – for Cixous, Molly Bloom carries “Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing” 518. By opting for matter over mind, the female body escapes.

However, the “mysteriously multiple fluency” and “antithetical imagining of eloquent silence” is more like the male avant-garde’s fine de siecle concept of women 519. Thus, many feminists “refuse to be Mollified” 519. Is it better to speak illegibly outside history or to join the forces of the enemy? Empiricism is a way out for many American feminists, who examine linguistic structures for how ‘he/man’ usages filter out recognition of female existence; indeed, as if corroborating the French emphasis on blanks, gaps, silences… ‘for females, the only semantic space in English is negative'” 519. Beyond “pronoun envy” are also “lexical asymmetries” of wholeness for man and things like hysteria for women 520. Robin Lakoff proposes that women’s English is collaborative, but weaker than men’s.

Ultimately, the French and American sides of the argument appear quite different, at least in part because French is a more gender-marked and inflected language 520. The authors wonder if the “charisma” of French discourse is a haute-couture of linguistics (“a utopian vision of woman’s language”) beside the “garment district empiricism” of Americans (“a dystopian version of woman’s sentence”) 521. Rather than “a joyously emetic emission from a community based on the commonality of women,” the American approach has stressed that “if a woman learns and uses women’s language, she is necessarily considered less than a real full person,” but if she does not, “she is ostracized as unfeminine” (Lakoff’s double bind) 521.

One issue is the repetition of women as suppressed, as not yet fully present. But even Virginia Woolf, in tracing a weak line up to her own time, 70 years before Gilbert & Gubar are writing, found a tradition beginning in the late 18th century of women’s writing 522. Woolf’s “woman’s sentence” is neither French nor American in its approach – it is more historical than the first and more optimistic than the latter. Woolf used “what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure… to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman’s language but woman’s relation to language” 523. The woman’s sentence is not so much about the grammatical construction of language as it is about overturning the idea that a sentence is final, judgmental, or complete, “by which woman has been kept from feeling that she can be in full command of language” 523. Woolf’s fantasy is of the legal power to sentence being moved to the realm of femininity.

Molly Bloom’s, while held up as example, is still a leaky, chaotic discourse set against the two men’s. James (in The Bostonians) fears the chatter of women will take over male discourse, and Eliot (in “Hysteria”), has “caught” the disease from woman and runs on in a paragraph rather than a poem proper 526. Even in The Waste Land, the female characters are hysterical, and can “connect nothing with nothing,” except for the silent hyacinth girl, and Eliot’s goal seems to be to transcend female language, “justifying Joyce’s claim that The Waste Land ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies'” 526.

The authors point to Emily Dickinson as the foremother of a fantasy of women’s language as sorcery, as well as Wharton, Barnes, Cather, Hurston, H.D. and Stein. Stein “speaks in tongues” in Tender Buttons, “recover[ing] the numinous names of an alternative history” 529. G & G also point to the inscrutable sky-writing of Mrs. Dalloway, where the homeless woman’s song is mystical and Clarissa and Septimus are given a similar language 531. “Woolf emphasizes the fact that both the alienation from language her books describe and the revision of lexicography her books detail are functions of the dispossession of women, as well as of women’s natural resources in the face of this dispossession” 531. This includes Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast’s creaking on in To the Lighthouse as they keep the house from further disintegration 531.

What is the difference between “mother tongue” and “father speech”? The latter is an external possession, like Latin or Greek, and is hierarchically above and more pure the intimate vernacular we gain at birth 533. Perhaps men translating between these two forms of speech also feel belated to their forefathers. Joyce is the prime example, the authors hold, of the transformation of mother tongue into dense, hard father speech. “Oxen of the Sun” plays through a “(male) linguistic ontogeny” that “recapitulates (male) linguistic phylogeny” (the individual’s development scans the biological history of that development) 534-5. “Most male writers are either reacting against or appropriating the verbal fertility of the mother,” since there are truly “no father tongues” 535.

The “swerve” Lacan must make to align language and the Oedipal complex demonstrates the extreme fixation on the necessary abjection of the mother. The child already has language at this point, language fed to him by his mother, but Lacan makes a logical detour to conceal this and subsume language as “fatherly,” as part of individuating from the mother 536. Is the obsession with a patriarchal language actually the result of the fear that it is matriarchal? Thus castration anxiety is more about the anxiety of the knowledge that woman is complete, that she is not castrated, as Susan Lurie argues 537. The symbolic (maternal) contract is “signed” before the social (paternal) contract is constructed 538.

“We must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing autonomy of that mother tongue which is common to both genders” 538.

It would be interesting to compare this to stories and food in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where a female language is also under construction.

“To carry such an empowering intuition one step further… can it be that feminist theorists must look beyond the traditional alphabetizings of history, with its masculinist syntax of subordination, to discover and recover the ways in which, as we have seen here, women have sometimes stealthily and sometimes ecstatically claimed the alphabet to capitalize (on) their own initials and their own initiatives?” 538.

Here, you might think of Mr. Ramsay’s stubborn progress through the alphabet, or even the narrator of Isherwood’s Prater Violet, cataloguing his male lovers. The authors suggest seeking language and readings and writings in the chaos of an “alphabet soup””

“The very possibility that women might achieve such a vision implies that the relationship between anatomy and linguistic destiny, between sexual diference and the symbolic contract, may promise not just female jouissance but feminist puissance. For at last, in spite of feminist doubt and masculinist dread, we can affirm that woman has not been sentenced to transcribe male penmanship; rather, she commands sentences which inscribe her own powerful character” 539.

dir. Lars von Trier, “Antichrist”

2009

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, divided into literary “chapters,” is a horror/art film that meditates on violence, misogyny, sexuality, and the family. In the prologue, the child, Nick, falls through the window and dies in the snow as the parents make love. In Chapter 1, “Grief,” the man, a therapist, begins to treat his own wife, who has been in psychiatric treatment but remains incapacitated by grief. He takes her to the cabin where the family spent time the previous summer and she worked on a dissertation on Gynocide. Here he isolates her “greatest fear,” which seems to be the cabin and the surrounding forest and vegetation. (He sees the dear with the dead fawn hanging out of it.) In Chapter 2, “Pain” (Chaos Reigns), the couple arrive at the cabin. She runs across the bridge fearfully. The husband is covered in ticks one morning and acorns seem to attack the house in the night. (He sees the fox eating its own innards who says, “Chaos reigns”). In Chapter 3, “Despair” (Gynocide), the husband discovers her increasingly frantic notes for her thesis, which reveal that the woman came to “drink the Kool Aid” during her research and buy into misogynist idea that all women are inherently evil. He confronts her about this and she asks him to hit her during sex. He initially refuses, but complies when he finds her masturbating under a tree in the mud of the forest. They make love as eerie hands proliferate and emerge from the tree. He finds the photos of Nick with his shoes on the wrong feet and recalls that the boy’s feet were noted as ‘deformed’ in the autopsy report. The woman attacks him, crushing his testicles and then giving him a hand job until he comes blood. She drills a hole in his leg when he is passed out, attaches a grindstone to it, and throws the wrench under the house. The man drags himself into a foxhole, but a crow, buried alive there, caws and gives him away; it will not die no matter his efforts. He too remains partially buried alive as she goes to get a shovel to beat him. In Chapter 4, “The Three Beggars,” the woman apologizes and weeps when she cannot find the wrench to free the man. She says she does not want to kill him “yet,” but that “someone must die” when “the three beggars” arrive. In what seems like a flashback, we realize she may have seen Nick at the window before he fell and not done anything to prevent it. She begins to masturbate and cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. The deer, fox, and crow appear as a hailstorm arrives (perhaps her doing, as misogynistic texts suggested earlier. The man digs the crow up through the floor and finds the wrench as well. She stabs him with the scissors, but he strangles her and burns her body. The three beggars look on as hundreds of female figures with blurred faces climb the hill on which he stands.

What’s interesting about this film is the way it operates on the viewer as the woman does on the man’s body – it buys into its own needless violence, traps us, and throws away the wrench. Though the husband finds it and escapes, I am not sure the viewer is so lucky. One wonders what the affordances of this violence are, apart from the oddity of watching a woman be a bad mother and torture a man and child. The fact that she does this out of self-hatred makes it significantly less interesting to me, though I suppose you could read it as a comment on hysteria as a socially-produced phenomenon engendered by ideology. However, I think the film wants to frustrate all of our attempts to decode its images – the very symbolism we are handed in the form of “The Three Beggars” is meant to be in the world of her insanity, but it affects him as well, and is our only hope for making sense as viewers. What then? If the only patterns in the film are delusions, what are the payoffs of its violence?   The truth of the film is indeed that “chaos reigns,” but since that’s uttered to us by a CGI fox, it’s more than a little hard to swallow.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a late inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance vein of poetry. She is known for the versatility of her experimental styles and themes.

A STREET IN BRONZEVILLE, 1945

“KITCHENETTE BUILDING”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Think of “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes in connection with the imagery of the dream here.

“THE MOTHER”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.
Remarkable for its early, candid treatment of abortion, if somewhat maudlin.

“A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD”

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face

“GAY CHAPS AT THE BAR”

…and guys I knew in the States, young
officers, return from the front crying and
trembling.  Gay chaps at the bar in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York…
–Lt. William Couch
in the South Pacific

We knew how to order.  Just the dash
Necessary.  The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech.  How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum.  No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death.  We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,

“WE REAL COOL, ” 1960

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem invites a syncopated reading – you can almost hear a snap in the pauses at the end of each enjambed line. It would be interesting to compare this to the lineation of a William Carlos Williams poem.

Sylvia Plath: Poems

I’m reading a number of Plath poems, but rather than explicate them, I’ll reproduce a paper I wrote about Plath in 2010 alongside a list of the poems I’m reviewing.

“ODE FOR TED,” 1956; “WREATH FOR A BRIDAL,” 1956; “VIRGIN IN A TREE,” 1958; “METAPHORS,” 1959; “LOVE LETTER,” 1960

ARIEL, 1965

“MORNING SONG,” “THE RABBIT CATCHER,” “THE OTHER,” “YOU’RE,” “DADDY,” “ARIEL,” “NICK & THE CANDLESTICK,” “LADY LAZARUS”

‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’[1]

– Robert Frost, 1939

Nature plays a seemingly paradoxical role in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as the locus of both the static, alienating landscape and the magnetic, transformative life cycle. The frustrating, ongoing mental estrangement from Nature that characterizes much of Plath’s work is punctuated by transcendent moments of union, in which the female body becomes a creative vessel for the mutative processes of sexuality, (re)birth, and death. In a journal entry from 1958, Plath writes, ‘The surface texture of life can be dead’, but there remain moments when ‘we burn clear of our shackles and stand, burning and speaking like gods’.[2] Like Frost’s ‘piece of ice on a hot stove’, Plath’s poetry channels the dynamism of such experience into language, so that its latent heat may be felt even after the momentary ecstasy of the experience itself has melted away.

For Plath, Nature’s life cycle that can engage both mind and body with the world beyond ‘surface texture’, leading to physical and poetic (re)generation.  Through the kinaesthesia of the life cycle and the transient unity of the female body with Nature that it provides, Plath locates a connection with the genesis of creative writing as well.

Tracing the arc of such epiphanic moments through Plath’s work reveals a distillatory poetics, in which the lingering representation is capable of transcending the fugitive nature of the moment it describes.

When Plath encounters Nature solely through the mind, her detachment from the space renders it two-dimensional, a threatening spectacle from which she is alienated. In ‘A Winter Landscape with Rooks’, the speaker sees the sun gives a ‘scorning’ glance at the ‘landscape of chagrin’, ‘all engraved in ice’.[3] Plath herself termed the poem a ‘psychic landscape’, representative of her projection of feeling onto the natural world.[4] In The Dialectics of Art and Life, Sylvia Lehrer observes that in exploring detachment from Nature, many of Plath’s early landscapes are in fact ‘mindscapes’, inextricably ‘linked with mind rather than body’.[5] Indeed, in poems such as ‘Southern Sunrise’, Plath paints Nature as papery, unsubstantiated scenery; it is composed of ‘storybook villas’ like a ‘leaf-and-flower pen-sketch’.[6] In ‘Spiders’, the speaker watches the performance of ants being ushered

Off-stage and infamously wrapped

Up by a spry black deus

Ex machina.[7]

The intellectualization of nature as a spectacle separate from the self leaves Plath dissociated from natural cycles. In ‘November Graveyard’, the ‘scene stands stubborn’, the trees ‘Hoard last year’s leaves, won’t mourn’, and the poet can only ‘stare, stare’ at the ‘hard-hearted emerald’ of the ‘essential landscape’.[8]

Physically unengaged with Nature, the female body becomes, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, ‘rigidly, tragically circumscribed.’[9] In ‘Virgin in a Tree’, Plath rewrites the arboreal metamorphosis of classical virgins, envisioning it as an act of violence, rather than protection. In this ‘tart fable’, the punningly ‘chased girls’ who run from their own sexuality remain mere characters on the stage of Nature’s static landscape, and are therefore condemned to its threatening subjection. This metamorphosis is anything but dynamic; it permanently rigidifies the female form and wastes its fecundity, as, ‘Untongued, all beauty’s bright juice sours’.[10] Plath ironically employs the language of the very rape the girls attempt to avoid to show how the virgin body is subsumed, rather than regenerated, by a Nature that ‘constricts | White bodies in a wooden girdle’ and ‘sheathe[s] the virgin shape | In a scabbard of wood’.[11]

Plath, however, figures masculinity as sovereign over Nature, and it is through physical unity with man that she initially accesses Nature’s transfiguring powers. In ‘Ode for Ted’, the speaker posits herself as ‘adam’s woman’, and stands amazed at ‘[her] man’s’ effect upon the land:

For his least look, scant acres yield:                                                                         each finger-furrowed field                                                                                                heaves forth stalk, leaf…

[…]

at his hand’s staunch hest, birds build.[12]

Nature enters the female body through unity with maleness, and the poem’s sexual overtones highlight the potential of the fertile womb to engage with Nature as ‘field’ and ‘nest’. Rose points out that ‘if there is a body of [Plath’s] writing’ there is also, ‘no less crucially, a body in her writing’.[13] These physical and poetic bodies run parallel because ‘For Plath, words plunge into the body, and writing is a sexual act’.[14] The transformative moment of congress with Nature that intercourse permits is even clearer in ‘Wreath for a Bridal,’ where earth and sky appear to ‘laud these mated ones’ in the ‘stark act’ of lovemaking, which

…set[s] the land

Sprouting fruit, flowers, children…

[…]

Let flesh be knit…[15]

This exhilaration, however, melts away when male and female are in discord. ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ actually reverses man’s propitious effect on the land, as

…at his tread

Ambushed birds by

Dozens dropped dead in the hedges: o she felt

No love in his eye…[16]

In ‘Rabbit Catcher’, too, the speaker sees the recalcitrant landscape as ‘a place of force’, and she struggles against the ‘wind gagging me with my own blown hair, | Tearing off my voice’.[17] The female body returns to its place as stranger again in ‘Wuthering Heights’, a ‘tilted and disparate’ space where the sky itself ‘leans’ on her.[18] Though Plath chooses to invite Nature into her body, she cannot control it, and must instead be content to ride the brief course of its exhilaration.  

Plath entwines the transformation of physical intimacy with her desire for another natural metamorphosis: pregnancy. In a journal entry from 1959, Plath states that her failed attempts to become pregnant have ‘utterly thwarted’ her marital need ‘to express our love, us, through my body, the doors of my body’.[19] Whereas pregnancy would be life-giving, infertility, she writes, would leave her ‘Dead to [her] woman’s body’.[20] Judith Kroll, in Chapters in a Mythology, holds that in the ordering system of Plath’s poetic expression, ‘biological fertility is the province of the heroine.’[21] ‘Barren Woman’ is one of several poems that describe Plath’s fixation with infertility; in it, the sterile woman’s womb ‘Echo[es] to the least footfall’, and its only flowers are ‘Marble lilies’.[22] This imagery mirrors the poet’s earlier ‘mindscapes’, where the woman remains divorced from Nature.

Such corporeal stasis lies in sharp contrast to the visceral and kinetic transformations that pregnancy eventually brings. In ‘Metaphors’, the speaker is both thrilled and terrified by the temporary new shape of her body. While she embodies the life cycle in being ‘A melon’, ‘a red fruit’, and a ‘cow in calf’, the persona also loses control; in the ‘psychic landscape’ of her own body, she is herself ‘a means, a stage’, for she has ‘Boarded the train there’s no getting off’.[23] The simultaneous fear and thrill of carrying unborn life mirrors the experience of writing as well. In ‘Stillborn’, Plath elaborates on this connection, looking over her failed poems and giving the ‘sad diagnosis’ that, though ‘it wasn’t for any lack of mother-love […] still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start’.[24] Pregnancy, like writing, carries with it both enormous potential and a terrible dread of failure.

A successful delivery, however, is utterly regenerative. As Plath writes in ‘Love Letter’, the female body blooms in pregnancy as it ‘start[s] to bud like a March twig’, and the speaker tells her child that it is ‘Not easy to state the change you made.| If I’m alive now, then I was dead’.[25] If pregnancy links her to creation, it also makes her a Creator in her own right: ‘Now I resemble a sort of god | Floating through the air in my soul-shift’.[26] Linking this (pro)creative power to writing, Plath states elsewhere: ‘writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world’.[27] The image of herself as deity, however, also sets her ‘floating through’ an otherworldly space, likening her own rebirth through childbirth to a resurrection after death.

Religious imagery appears again in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, where the speaker becomes a Madonna, mother to a newborn child who is ‘the baby in the barn’.[28] This spiritual feeling, however, begins to fade once the baby has left her body and she is returned to her ordinary shape. In ‘Nick’, the speaker gazes lovingly on the child and recalls the cleansing effect of his growth within her:

O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,

Your crossed position.

The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.[29]

In contrast, the speaker now feels the emptiness of her womb, where ‘Waxy stalactites’ and ‘Icicles’ constantly reduce themselves, melting ‘Into the terrible well’.[30] Like the formations in the empty cave of her womb, the shape of pregnancy melts away, leaving the speaker a mere woman again. ‘Love Letter’, too, ends with the image of the mother’s body, ‘Pure as a pane of ice’, suggesting both the intense purgation of the experience and its fugitive quality.[31]

In ‘Morning Song’, Plath observes the separation of infant from mother after birth, seeing that ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ and ‘your bald cry | Took its place among the elements’.[32] Gazing at the infant, the persona makes a statement of both profound awe and separation:

I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement…[33]

The image of distillation links birth to writing once again, for the recording of a brief, powerful experience celebrates it even as the moment itself is effaced by time. Plath’s journal also reveals her feeling during the moment of labour that the world itself begins to spin:

I had my eyes squeezed shut and felt this black force blotting out my brain and utterly possessing me… I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me…a 10 day misery of my milk waiting a week…ended the grim parenthesis. Chairs and tables took their places, served once more.[34]

As the moment of parturient transcendence melts and her body resumes its shape, objects, too, resume their places, and stasis replaces motion.

Yet the memory of the female body as vessel remains an important source of power for Plath. In ‘The Other’, the speaker addresses a barren woman who has experienced sexual epiphany with her husband: ‘The stolen horses, the fornications | circle a womb of marble’.[35] To compensate for the theft of intimacy, the persona lords her own fertility over her rival; only she has experienced the transformative exhilaration of birth:  Navel cords, blue-red and lucent, |Shriek from my belly like arrows, and these I ride’.[36] Whereas the speaker engages in the movement of the life cycle, the barren woman is locked in stasis and imagined in utterly inorganic terms. She is ‘old plastic’ or ‘cold glass’, and her menstrual blood is merely ‘an effect, a cosmetic’ within her fruitless body.[37]

Like sex and pregnancy, which both empower and threaten the body, Plath figures the kinetic brush with death as equally regenerative. ‘A Birthday Present’ explores the fantasy of death as purification and rebirth. ‘If it were death,’ she holds,

…there would be a birthday.

And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,

And the universe slide from my side.[38]

In several poems, the revivifying brush with death is closely associated with speed and motility. The poem ‘Stopped Dead’ describes the near-death experience of a car accident in both sexual and procreative terminology: the persona hears the ‘passionate hot metals’ of the automobile ‘writhing and sighing’ and the ‘squeal of brakes’ and wonders, ‘is it a birth cry?’[39] Plath reiterates this sensation in ‘Years’. Instead of ‘great Stasis’, it is wild, reckless, unshackling motion she desires:

What I love is

The piston in motion –

My soul dies before it.

And the hooves of the horses,

Their merciless churn.[40]

The powerful motion of hooves in the near-death experience of ‘Years’ recalls the two equine symbols in ‘The Other’ – the sexual metaphor of the speaker’s ‘stolen horses’ and the ‘naval cords’ that she rides, thus linking sex, birth, and death through related imagery.

The title poem of Plath’s final collection, ‘Ariel’, describes a horseback ride that synthesizes the imagery of the entire life cycle in a single, exhilarating kinaesthesia. The poem begins with ‘Stasis in darkness’, but as the horse gallops forward, the speaker becomes one with the animal, instantly freed into ‘the substanceless blue’ by the ‘Pour of tor and distances’.[41] The poem then races through the realm of the sexual through the yonic imagery of the ‘furrow’ that ‘splits and passes’, the sensation of the speaker’s own ‘Thighs [and] hair’ in motion, and the ‘Black sweet blood mouthfuls’ of exploding berries from the surrounding bushes.[42] As the obligations that bind her to quotidian drudgery disappear, ‘The child’s cry | Melts in the wall’ and this lady ‘Godiva’ experiences an unshackling from the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ of ordinary life.[43] Finally, the speed and recklessness of the ride thrust her towards death, allowing a euphoric sense of rebirth at the poem’s conclusion:

…I

am the arrow,

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.[44]

In hurtling linguistically towards an imagined regeneration, ‘Ariel’ offers an amalgam of the transcendent experiences of  Nature’s cycle that Plath explores throughout her poetic oeuvre.

Though seemingly an act of passivity, in allowing Nature to enter the female body, Plath locates a powerful creativity through the processes of sex, birth, and death. At the end of ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Frost adds that poetry’s ‘most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it.’[45] In wedding the kinesis of the life cycle to a celebration of its very transience, Plath achieves a remarkable poetic dynamism. Though the price of each metamorphosis is the nullification of the former shape, Plath’s poetry embraces the very brevity of transformative experience, the dynamism of liminal space, and the ride upon the back of the melting moment.

WORKS CITED:

Kroll, Judith, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:            Harper & Row Publishers, 1976)

Lehrer, Sylvia, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and            Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,            1985)

Oates, Joyce Carol (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY:            Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)

Plath, Sylvia, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988)

The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and            Faber, 2000)

Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bassnet, Susan, Sylvia Plath (London: Macmillan, 1987)

Gill, Jo, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University            Press, 2006)

Hayman, Ronald, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Gloucestershire: Sutton            Publishing Limited, 2003)

Holbrook, David, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (London: The Athlone Press, 1988)

Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, ‘Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes’, English Studies, vol.            71, No. 6 (December 1990): 509-22

Plath, Sylvia, Letters Home, 8th edn., ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and            Faber, 1999)

Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin            Company, 1989)

Wagner-Martin, Linda (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, 2nd edn. (London:            Routledge, 1997)

 


[1] Robert Frost, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, in Joyce Carol Oates (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), p.178

[2] Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p.306 (abbr. Journals)

[3] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), ll.7-8,11 (abbr. CP)

[4] Plath, Journals, p.205

[5] Sylvia Lehrer, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,1985), p.185

[6] Plath, CP, ll.2,7

[7] Ibid., ll.33-5

[8] Ibid., ll.1-2

[9] Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991) p.116.

[10] Plath, CP, ll.43

[11] Ibid., ll.21-2,7-8

[12] Ibid., ll.1,13-15,18

[13] Rose, p.29

[14] Rose, p.29

[15] Plath, CP, ll.5-6,21-24

[16] Ibid., ll.33-6

[17] Ibid., ll.1-2

[18] Ibid., ll.2,37

[19] Plath, Journals, p.500

[20] Ibid., p.500

[21] Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), p.11

[22] Plath, CP, ll.1,5

[23] Ibid., ll.7,9

[24] Ibid., ll.5,10

[25] Plath, CP, ll.31,1-2

[26] Ibid., ll.34-5

[27] Plath, Journals, p.232

[28] Plath, CP, l.42

[29] Ibid., CP, ll.

[30] Ibid., ll.2,11,39

[31] Plath, CP, l.36

[32] Ibid., ll.1-3

[33] Ibid., CP, ll.7-9

[34] Plath, Journals, 646-8

[35] Plath, CP, ll.21-2

[36] Ibid.,ll.18-19

[37] Ibid., l.8

[38] Ibid.,ll.57,61-4

[39] Ibid., ll.8-9,1-2

[40] Plath, CP,  ll.11-15

[41] Ibid., ll.1,3,5

[42]Ibid., ll.6,7,13,18

[43] Ibid., ll.24-5,20-21

[44] Ibid., ll.27-31

[45] Frost in Oates, p.178.