A lot of the time you have a writer advising another writer to put their frustrations on paper. Pain? Write about it! Anger? What are you waiting for?! Love, hatred, elation…is it overwhelming? No one to talk to? No one willing to help? Let the paper bleed! Attack the keyboard!
The gift is a survival tool, the first breath after too many seconds of strangulation, a long, deep, cry, fits of laughter and rage, a mirror, a ladder, an altar, a door…
In trying to wrap our minds around who we are as writers, and what most of us share in common, a good friend and myself concluded that it must be that our destinies are lined with so much drama; sorrows, pains, tragedies, betrayals, our own hindering selves, and a lot I have been unable to mention, that we are given this gift because we sure as hell would need it. It will be the key, the answer, the navigator, the compass, the way out, the way in. It will be as essential as oxygen.
And then we went on to admit how dangerous a gift it is – it can as well be the noose, the razor, the bottle of pills, the loaded gun…the end.
The birth of confessional poetry created an ‘opportunity’ for writers to express their very personal thoughts, fears, loves, joys, darkness…like waving a banner and screaming ‘hey, look here, I am human…I have a life too! Hey, hey…look at me!’
“It has been described as poetry “of the personal,” focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo matter such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation to broader social themes.”
Its birth in itself is Catharsis defined.
Some weeks ago I was taken back to one of my ‘obsessions’ – Sylvia Plath. We were talking about how a lot of the time the writer becomes the prophet or the seer, evidence being in what is written long before they happen or are executed either concerning themselves personally or others.
Plath died at age 30 from gas poisoning. A lot of people have written about her, her poems, her state of mind, and especially how she died – suicide. After reading about her generally and her works, I agreed with Plath’s friend, Al Alvarez who claimed that her ‘suicide’
“was an unanswered cry for help.”
I put suicide in inverted commas because I am of a different opinion, or have been of it, ever since I paid closer attention to her life, and her poem, Lady Lazarus.
Perhaps I am being biased? But I feel strongly, that her ‘cry for help’ went unanswered because nobody was really paying very close attention to the content of her poems. “Ohhh yeah, another confessional poem, yeah she is depressed, oh she just came out of a mental facility, yeah she is suicidal.” BECAUSE, THAT WAS THE AVAILABLE BOXES THEY COULD FIT HER IN – DEPRESSED, SUICIDAL. But I read and reread and reread and thought,
“No, this woman did not set out to commit suicide.”
Well, yes, she sealed off her kids in their room with wet towels and rags, turned the gas on and stuck her head in the oven but wait, let us look at Lady Lazarus. Even before we look at the content of the poem, pause to contemplate on the title. Lazarus…Lazarus…Lazarus. I believe it is an allusion we all readily get.
Now to the poem;
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot–
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr god, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
- “One year in every ten I manage it” “I am only thirty and like the cat I have nine times to die.” “This is Number Three”
If this poem is believed to be confessional, truly, then she was being clear…very clear. The first time she nearly died, it was an accident. The second time, I agree she was suicidal for she says “The second time I meant to last it out and not come back at all.” But she was literally brought back to life, and she realized how it made her feel to go all the way there and back; the game had changed. Something happened to her after the second experience. The first time she was not aware of it, the second time she was. Now it was no longer suicide…Death had become something she took on, to explore, to experiment with, to tango with, and to cheat. One year in every ten…she said…she managed it. And then she went on to say “I have nine times to die…” ‘Ha, and I’m only thirty! This is just decade number three! I have six more decades after this to ‘manage’ it again, and again!’ Why was she like that? What was it about that experience of dying that intrigued her so? She made it clear again…
- “It’s the theatrical comeback in broad day” “To the same place, the same face, the same brute amused shout: ‘A miracle!’” “So, so, Herr Doktor. So, Herr Enemy. I am your opus, I am your valuable, The pure gold baby”
Theatrical comeback! Who was it that said “all the world is a stage”? The drama of it…coming to and blowing everybody’s mind! That exclamation; ‘A miracle!’ by the very people who really did not care about her…they marveled at her, if even for a brief moment, she had become their opus…valuable…pure gold baby, and it was a thrilling performance! She had plans to stage it…once in every ten years. There were those who speculated that Plath hadn’t meant to kill herself because
“That morning, she asked her downstairs neighbor, a Mr. Thomas, what time he would be leaving. She also left a note reading “Call Dr. Horder,” including the doctor’s phone number. Therefore, it is argued Plath turned on the gas at a time when Mr. Thomas would have been able to see the note.”
“According to Mr. Goodchild, a police officer attached to the coroner’s office … [Plath] had thrust her head far into the gas oven… [and] had really meant to die.”
This is why I do not see the doctor’s observation as reason to box her death as suicide ;
- “Dying is an art, like everything else.” “I do it exceptionally well.” “I do it so it feels like hell.” “I do it so it feels real.”
She wasn’t about to lay down on the floor somewhere so her performance looks unreal, come on, what happened to ‘suspension of disbelief’ in theater arts? It was a serious matter, this art she had discovered and she did it exceptionally well, so it felt like it, felt exactly like it…hell…real! The doctor was supposed to be called…and he was supposed to be there for the ‘comeback’ part! Someone forgot his lines and players in the backstage refused to improvise!
It must have been hard, to be a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, a poet…of a style that was still new, that was still finding ground and acceptance – she was an artist, more than what people chose to see, and yet people refused to look deep into her. She must have been eager for acknowledgement; see her dreams take shape. Maybe other writers like myself will understand how complex it is to want to make it with your art, and yet not for fame, but for an audience…because you have something to say…will they listen? Wait, will they even hear you? Death…defying it…and the aftermath of this defiance, was where Plath found a rush…a high identical to that she knew she’d feel were she recognized as the artist she was…it was to be her lifelong manuscript… “The art of Dying”
- “Ash, ash–You poke and stir.” “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—“ “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair”
The other title of the lifelong manuscript would probably have been ‘The Phoenix’. The total annihilation and the mystical, magical comeback, from nothing….ash…ash…nothing there…but she rises, burning hotter (red hair) than before; a flame that will burn fiercer and fiercer till she is ash again only to rise!
It really doesn’t change much, whether it was a suicide or a failed performance/experiment…she died…young. But I guess this, for me, is to point out how much we fail to see as readers of confessional art…the messages in there, the cry here, the secret there. I could sum this whole review up into a single line;
“There is a struggling being behind all these…notice her…notice him.”