Something Old, Something New

After my post about Plath last week, I continued to think about her and I as I was working my way back through Ariel, I came across this poem:

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The Child’s Bath, Mary Cassatt 1893

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Too its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows are safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Over the past twelve months (or so) four women I know have had four babies, all of them boys, even though the gender of the child has no bearing on this poem one way or the other. I like the poem because it feels gritty and real. Not the sunshine and rainbows version of motherhood that often comes off, to me at least, as sterile and dishonest. You can love your children and still be frustrated and exhausted by them, or at least I would think that to be the case.

I’ve also been reading two book by Adrian Matejka, The Devil’s Garden & Mixology. I just finished The Devil’s Garden and I was surprised to find that Matejka teaches at Indiana University (just down the road about an hour in Bloomington) and he was a Cave Canem fellow. This last fact is interesting because I greatly admire another Cave Canem fellow, Gary Jackson, and his first book Missing You in Metropolis. I came across Adrian Matejka’s work in the January issue of Poetry and was particularly taken with this poem:

Gymnopedies No. 1

That was the week
     it didn’t stop snowing.

That was the week
     five fingered trees fell

on houses and power lines
broke like somebody waiting

for payday in a snowstorm.
That snow week, my daughter

& I trudged over the broken branches
    fidgeting through snow

    like hungry fingers through
    an empty pocket.

Over the termite-hollowed stump
as squat as a flat tire.

Over the hollow
the fox dives into
when we open the back door at night.

That was the week of snow
   & it glittered like every
   Christmas card we could
   remember while my daughter

poked around for the best place
to stand a snowman. One

with a pinecone nose.
     One with thumb-pressed

eyes to see the whole
picture once things warm up.

I had to look up “Gymnopedies,” which are three piano compositions written by the French composer, Erik Satie. I love the imagery in this poem and the way it closed in the final stanza, so I found two of his books and dove in. Some of my favorite poems from The Devil’s Garden: “Crap Shoot,” The Meaning of Rpms,” ” Her Gardens,” “Pigment,” “Eight Positions Mistaken as Love,” “Understanding Al Green” & “Insect Precipitate.”

I also came across this beautiful poem by Marion McCready, whose first book, Tree Language, is forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing.

Wild Poppies 

And how do you survive? Your long throat,
your red -rag-to-a-bull head?

You rise heavy in the night, stars drinking
from your poppy neck.

Your henna silks serenade me
under the breath of the Pyrenees.

You move like an opera,
open like a sea of anemones.

You are the earth’s first blood,
How the birds love you,

I envy your lipstick dress.
You are as urgent as airmail, animal red,

Ash Wednesday crosses tattooed on your head.
Your butterfly breath

releases your scent, your secrets,
bees blackening your mouth

as your dirty red laundry
all hangs out.

These poems make me want to write. Excellent.

Poppies, Near Argenteuil, Claude Monet 

Rediscovering Sylvia Among the Tulips

In the January 2014 issue of Poetry there is a poem entitled “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” by Sina Queyras I don’t know why the poem hit me so hard. It might be because Plath died at the age of thirty and this March I’ll be thirty-three. It might be because by the time she died she had two children, a book of poems and was embroiled in a tumultuous marriage with Ted Hughes. It might be because as I read Sina Queyras’s beautiful poem I was immediately, shockingly sad. The sadness was heavy. It pressed on my chest as I sat at my desk in my office at school. It pressed so hard that I felt my eyes water for a woman who has been dead for over fifty years. 
I have always found Plath’s story heartbreaking. Partially it is because we will never know the poems she could have written. Also, as a thirty some year old woman who is thinking about starting a family and who is also a poet and a professor, I find myself empathizing with her loneliness and her isolation. It is upsetting that that she couldn’t overcome her illness and I suppose now I find myself identifying with her more as a woman rather than an enigma. She was not just this brilliant, tragic poet. She was, as it turns out, a woman made of blood and bone.

Sylvia Plath with her two children, Nicolas and Frieda, in 1963.
Immediately upon finishing this elegy I went back and read the poem “Tulips.” and was reminded of how gorgeous and devastating that poem truly is. There is such isolation: “There smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks. Even love hurts. What must it be like to live this way? That flowers give you pain and that health is a far away place you know you cannot reach. At the same time, the poem is so beautiful and carefully rendered. So precise in it’s language. That such beauty can come from such pain is hopeful. I just wish it could have kept her alive.
After reading “Tulips,” I wanted to revisit more of Plath’s work, so I pulled out my copy of Ariel. My copy is the restored version which contains a foreword by Plath’s daughter, Frieda. This edition also contains notes and drafts that Plath left behind after her death. I had forgotten, until I opened the book, that it was a gift from a friend. At the time I was given this edition of Ariel, my friend was studying Philosophy and I was studying English at Allegheny College. My friend had a flare for the dramatic and included two quotes at the front of the book: “All, everything that I understand, I only understand because I love” ~Leo Tolstoy & “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life; that word is love.”~Sophocles.

Still life with flowers by Paul Cezanne.

Unfortunately, my friend and I are no longer in contact. I don’t know why. 

And yet as I read his inscription, I am briefly sad about our lost friendship but the sadness is quickly replaced by anger. These quotes have no business in this book. Love couldn’t free Plath. Love fought bravely, but in the end her disease was stronger. This is especially arresting given that Ariel is dedicated to Plath’s two children, Nicholas & Frieda, and Nicholas Hughes committed suicide in 2009. It is difficult because love gave us so many of Plath’s wonderful poems but so did despair. 
I feel like there’s probably a poem in here somewhere. Maybe several poems.