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.

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