Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Off Balance

We are in the middle of a strange, unsettling summer: only mid-June, and except for two 100-degree days, the temperatures have remained cool. For the past week, the highs have been in the 60s. The tomatoes and pepper plants show slow progress. Mornings, we put on sweatshirts and pants, rather than the usual shorts and T-shirts. One or two days, it was so chilly I decided not to go out and weed; I have been baking bread and cookies, making oven dinners. The warmth comforts as much as the food I put on the table. Almost suspicious, we move slowly, on our guard, unsure what will come next.

There are two other reasons this summer's getting to me. In my late 40s, I remain active, running, biking, gardening, hiking. But for the past few weeks, a mysterious pain has hobbled me. It feels like my Achilles' tendon, but my heel is also tender; I limp around during the day, take my ibuprofen, ice it, and grit my teeth when I go out for a run. It usually hurts only in spurts, and what I read suggests it IS a tendon injury, but I hesitate to go to the doctor. I'd rather treat it on my own, doing what I know a doctor would suggest anyway. My hips ache at night, too, so I sleep restlessly, wake up stiff, and feel older than I like to admit. My body threatens to force a new identity on me--someone with injuries and conditions too persistent to work out. I resist that threat as much as anything; I don't want to change the way I've kept myself in shape for the past 17 years.

This summer, I am also reading a lot, something that should energize me, prepare me for a full load of classes in the Fall. It is, in a way. I have sent out a lot of work lately, and my mind spins with ideas for new poems. But I put off writing those poems for now. My study this summer is Sylvia Plath. Years ago, I read two biographies in the same summer, both of which sympathized with her and vilified Ted Hughes for his treatment of her. This time, I am exploring the other perspective, reading Anne Stevenson's sanctioned biography, a book by Janet Malcolm that assesses the other books about Plath, and the Ariel poems themselves. I also have Stevenson's poems on my list, as well as Hughes', and a few other leads I've taken from the reading.

To say I find this study oppressive may be overstating it. Plath's work has never moved me, except for its impressive technical control--sounds, rhythms, syllables. She gets everything to work for her to make a strange music I often admire without really enjoying, as in these lines from the opening of "Fever 103 ◦":

The tongues of hell

Are dull, dull as the triple

Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus

Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable

Of licking clean

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.

The tinder cries.

The indelible smell

Of a snuffed candle!

But her life--well, that unnerves me. That's why I keep returning to versions of it. I am in general interested in the way perspective works: the person speaking reveals only one side of things; first-person narrators are enticing because they sound so truthful, when in fact they all (as we all do) leave out others' perspectives, favoring--unconsciously?--their own. So it is reading versions of Plath's life. Stevenson makes on the surface an airtight case against Sylvia and completely excuses Hughes, whose affair with Assia Wevill was the putative catalyst to her suicide. On the other hand, Paul Alexander paints a picture of Sylvia as victim and Hughes as menacing partner, even suggesting that since he hypnotized his wife to help her writing, he may have placed the idea of suicide in her head.

The facts are not clear. They will probably never be clear, since relationships between married people are fraught with emotional mazes it is impossible to navigate. In this case, both parties are dead; Hughes remained stoically silent about the whole series of events, even when Assia, whom he married, killed herself and their child several years after Plath, in the same manner. Surely he suffered; his critics spit venom, his personal life could never be separated from the Plath myth. Might not his willingness to tell his side of the story have made his life easier? Yet, who is capable of telling the absolute truth about his or her own life? Does one even know the absolute truth?

I don't, and that's what unnerves me about all this reading. Besides the fact that Plath killed herself in the year I was born, 1963, I have never worried that we have much in common. My inner life, chaotic as it may be, has never made me want to kill myself. My poems do not resemble hers, except when I read a lot of her work in a single period and strains of her tense, commanding voice seep in. But reading intensely has made me see, or created, some similarities. I am familiar with Plath's sense of an "intense, menacing yet unidentified threat" in life. Like her, I often feel divided, maintaining a clarity and calm on the surface while wrestling with things underneath, a muscular drama that goes on all day and in my dreams at night. Also like her, I often feel out of synch with the world; as Stevenson notes: "what [Plath] seems to want is a remedy for her inability to accept a form of truth most adult human beings have to learn: that they are not unique. . ." I have few women friends; those I've had have walked away from the friendship, leaving me to wonder what I've done. Like Plath, I can often diagnose the cause of emotional distress (as she does in her journals) but remain unable to communicate that insight to anyone else or learn to react differently. That conundrum is one of the reasons I stopped keeping a journal years ago.

I don't want to make too much of these perceived commonalities, but they are making a lot of my inner life. Last night I slept restlessly, seeing vague image after vague image from my night's reading of the Plath biography. I dreamed of the Ariel poems, too, though the images are unclear, and I think I dreamed I was writing in that vein. When I wake up, I feel tired, as if the day's reading (which I consider necessary) were too much. And my initial sense of mission in undertaking this project has waned. My first excitement was over the connection I perceived between one of my poetic projects, a series of Eve persona poems, and Plath's mythical quest/persona. I had a vision of my own poems, what expansion they needed, what other poems placed alongside them could form a collection. My first intuition : Plath was the key that could make my own work better. I wanted to achieve what Stevenson says about the Ariel poems: "the consistency of the imagery is preserved right up until the end, when the merest mention of the resonant symbols of Plath's mythology sets the whole construct ringing like the most finely balanced of bells."

I still want that; I consider those words to be the highest praise a poet could achieve--no mention of bravery or confession or trouble overcome--nothing personal, in other words--but praise for the way the work itself is put together. That's why I write--to make something. To make something that makes a recognizable, humming sound. To make poems that call out responses from readers.

Yet, I don't write. Not yet. My heel and my hips and this sad coolness invade my mind. Right now they are winning the battle. My weakness prepares me for brain work, for study. Perhaps the physical woes are outward signs of my inner turmoil, as I try to gain insight into Plath's life and work while avoiding the torment of perceived similarities. I don't want to assume her life or psyche, but I feel pulled in that direction. Right now, I can't run from it.

How can one not feel pulled? She suffered. In comparison, others have suffered more, but that is not the point. I am not consciously a Plath defender, but last night when my husband innocently asked, "Wasn't she partly to blame for her husband's affair?" I rushed to her defense. "Don't blame the victim," I retorted. We are all victims of each other's difficulties. Trying to understand that dynamic, to learn something to make my own interactions with people honest and productive seems like a good--but lifelong and exhausting--undertaking.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tough, Part 2

My older sister, Theresa--Terri, as we call her--was a tough act to follow. Only fifteen months older than me, she nonetheless had every advantage except one. From the time I could toddle around, I followed her with a strict devotion and an almost overwhelming love and admiration.

However, the stories that flood my memory when I recall my childhood center around her teasing me. There is more than that, but I think now that some of her advantage was won because I was an easy target for jokes. Being sensitive put me at a disadvantage in my family, especially when it came to animals. We all loved our dogs, naturally: Patches, Sammy, Bowser and Shep, my grandma's farm dogs. But we had a series of family pets die--as they all do--and to this day my family laughs at my sadness in spite of themselves.

Perhaps laughing at death seems demented. It wasn't at the death of anything that seemed important to them, though. We had a series of tame hamsters that would run around on the living room floor inside the shape I made by placing my feet up against my sister's feet, our legs straightened into two Vs, attached at their open ends. Sometimes one of them--Tiny, Bubbles, Cookie--ran up the leg of my pajama bottoms, and I held still until it ran out again. As all these creatures do, they died in a matter of a year, sometimes months. It always made me cry, beg to take the barely breathing animal to the vet's. I wanted proper funerals, and no one would participate with me. Once, in a scene I will never forget, one of the hamsters was very sick--I think the one that had broken its leg when the cage door closed on it--and rather than wait for it to die, my father dug a hole in the backyard and killed it with a shovel before filling in the hole with dirt. I watched, horrified, its eyes closing and its tiny feet retracting with every downward thrust. My family didn't laugh at me outright for my sensitivity, but they teased me about caring so much about a HAMSTER. They were all indifferent; these pets were really mine.

Later, we had a fishtank--to me, the most boring of things--and inevitably some of the fish got sick. Maybe we didn't clean it enough, or change the filter. I'm not sure, as I recall it now, how we knew they were sick. But one night after dinner, my mother scooped the infected animals (they had tail rot and something called ick) out of the tank. Naive, curious, I followed her to the bathroom as she mumbled something about "taking care of this." Even though I watched her dump the Cool Whip container of fish into the toilet, I still didn't understand. Until she flushed and I watched them swirl away, their fins whipping in the current. When I cried that time, they all teased me mercilessly. For months, they made flushing gestures to torment me, or brought it up in larger family gatherings so that I would cry in front of our relatives.

That was all 40 years ago. It may sound ridiculous, but I still cringe when I think of it. I realize I was a middle child, often claiming to be left out, claiming that life was unfair. I made more of my position than I need to have made. But the sensitivity was not made up, and I carried it into adulthood, passed some of it onto my children. When the boys and I got our first hamster, Ed, we played with him, as I had played with our pets as a child, and when he died we all mourned. We even saved his body in the freezer for several months so that we could bury him properly in spring, when the ground thawed. Two of my sons had their own hamsters later, Tark and Rocky; when Tark died, my son Nate stumbled outside at ten at night, shoulders shaking from his weeping, and insisted on burying Tark himself, on a slight rise next to the irises. He was thirteen years old. I still think of Tark and Nate every time I mow over that spot. When Rocky died, Elias was so sad that he wouldn't allow me to remove the cage from his bedroom. For months afterwards, I would find him crying quietly in his bed. Neither boy could bear trying again with another one--the grief when their favorites died was too much.

About six years ago, my niece gave me a hamster, hearty and healthy, because she was tired of cleaning its cage. We kept it happily for about a month, then one morning I found Tickles' twisted body under her exercise wheel, one foot trapped between the wires. I didn't want to call my sister; when I did, she laughed, as I knew she would, and predictably it came up at family gatherings: Tickles the Hamster and her "unfortunate death." Snickers. A few guffaws. My exit to the back yard or bathroom to regain my composure.

I have to remind myself that when they laugh at me, they are not laughing at death per se, only at my reaction; they don't think it appropriate to shed tears for insignificant events. Given our history of deaths among relatives, it makes a certain sense to distinguish between a pet and a brother, for instance. I suppose one could reason that if one cried every time a living creature died, one would be a full-time mourner. There is that old idea that life is so sad that if we once start crying, we will never stop.

And yet. I mourned pets to whom I'd become attached. After Ed died, we immediately got another hamster that lived a matter of days. Since we had had no time to get to know him, to see his personality in his habits (Ed used to climb up the side of the cage and make his way across the top, upside down, an acrobat, a performer), we were not really sad, only concerned that he had been sick, invisibly suffering.

I like to think they were not laughing directly at me, only at something they did not understand. Isn't it a human trait, to make fun of that which is strange, different from us?

In sixth grade, I read every book I could find about Helen Keller, then with my friends wrote a play about her life. We each took roles, rehearsed, then performed the play at school, presenting it in different classrooms. Most of the time I played the role of Helen, but as we got comfortable with the script and with each other, we changed roles. Sometimes I was Annie, sometimes Helen's father, the Captain. We were proud of our work, teachers praised us, students enjoyed our performances: me, Nan, Anne, Kim.

Around that time, a series of Helen Keller jokes made the rounds. It was not a new idea; just a variation of blonde jokes or Iowa jokes or any ethnic jokes. Such humor seems base to me, repetitive, not very inventive, aimed at the lowest common denominator. And cruel. How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read the waffle iron.

My sisters tormented me--there is no other word for it--by telling these jokes until I cried. I begged them to stop, tried to explain why Helen was admirable, reminded them how much work I had put into the play. My protests fueled their efforts. I wonder now why my mother didn't put a stop to it.

Perhaps it seemed that I was always crying, reminding them that there was a lot of loss in life, something they should have known, but wished they didn't. Perhaps I was strange to them. Perhaps I broke some code that maintained animals were not "family," that only human death was to be grieved. Perhaps they hated the way tears reminded us of the funerals we had attended. Perhaps they hated me. Perhaps they were just having fun.

Even now, no explanation seems sufficient. I was not as tough as them, so they broke me to prove it.