The Clear Vowels Rise Like Balloons: Happy Birthday, Syl.

And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Morning Song, Sylvia Plath
the-clear-vowels-rise-like-balloons_-happy-birthday-syl
Today would have been Sylvia Plath’s 84th birthday. Happy birthday, Syl.
The novel I’m working on was inspired by some of the last poems she wrote, the Bee Sequence.
Sylvia Plath is my favorite poet. She has been since I was thirteen and it is a rite of passage to fall in love with her confessions as a young woman. Most writers grow out of Plath, or her contemporaries in the confessional poetry moment. Some, however, fall deeper in love with her as time goes on.
Plath’s tragic suicide is the focal point of much scholarship, but as readers and writers we cannot forget that she was not alone in being a “troubled young woman.” I am a troubled young woman, and I am not ashamed of that. Mental illness is everywhere. Each year I grow closer to Sylvia’s age at the time of her death, and every year I reflect on her life’s work, what led her to that place, and what parts of that narrative rest inside of me. I read Sylvia at least once a week, and I have for as long as I can remember. Her suicide does not define her or her work. I see so much of myself in her journals and poems that I read her as though she is a part of me. I read her as a living, breathing, part of myself. She is always tucked under the triangular jut of my right rib cage. She is always beating on, You are, you are, you are.
Today I taught my students about Sylvia. We listened to her read Lady Lazarus. We read Morning Song together. I talked about how her poems surprise me, even on a 15th reading. How the images sit nestled together, a blackberry in the hollow belly of an avocado. Often uncomfortable but familiar.
Plath’s poetry resonates with readers decades after its writing because it is some of most well-crafted writing to come out of the 20th century. While Sylvia Plath wrote confessional poetry based heavily in her experiences, she also sought inspiration from things she read and those she encountered. Regardless of genre, I see all poetry, and in fact, all writing, as confessional.
Many books written on Sylvia Plath were written by men and situate her as the ultimate “manic pixie dream girl.” I HATE this, and though Ryan Adams’ song named after her is beautiful, it, too, takes this position.
My favorite work on Plath, and one that I urge everyone to read following her birthday is Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill. It is a “Portrait in Verse” and a movie tribute to Plath.
In honour of Sylvia, I will leave with a piece I wrote sometime last year, based on the last weeks of her life.

You, Onlyest

Shura:
At night I hear the wolves
howling in Regent’s Park,
it seems appropriate.

Frieda:
She’s having an operation,
you know, and will be back soon,
in time for my daffodils,
thank God you will be there.

Shura:
She was a silent and sad child.

Frieda:
Who was?

Shura:
the more we grow vegetables
and keep bees
the more the whole thing assumes the proportions
of a Greek tragedy
with frozen water pipes

Frieda:
She’s having an operation,
and will be back soon.

Shura:
There was a feral purr in her voice
as if a door had slammed down on her

Frieda:
There’s a bruise on my left bosom
I shrink daily.

Shura:
His mouth is a sand ditch
so violent and animal, he ruptured her.
in bed, he smells like a butcher

Sylvia:
It was like a wake without alcohol
I shrink daily,
ghastly and weak
in this nettle Emporium
my elbows have always been sharp

Assia:
Could you come to visit me on Friday or Saturday in the ghost house?

Sylvia:
I want to hurdle his sensations out of my body
if not out of my mind or blood.
A nightshade that I neither see nor hear.

Susan:
You will rot,
slowly, on Sylvia’s bed
(little fox)

Shura and Frieda:
Mother,
so violent and animal
she is having an operation
and will be back soon
the oven light is turned on
mother
she will be back soon

Assia:
He dreamt that your hair turned white
and that he shot the cat you had in Boston,
but it refused to die.

Shura and Frieda:
Dying. We all do it especially well.

Assia:
I don’t want some bloody woman looking after her.

Sylvia:
Your hands are filled with blood
like uncooked sausages.

Susan:
Your children are all covered in blood.

Shura and Frieda:
He sits
Between our heads at night
with a sandwich in one hand
and a pen in another.
A Big Boulder smashing our
a cold stone house

Frieda:
His little fox
planted bulbs everywhere

Shura:
There was a snowstorm
when she went into labour.

Sylvia:
Things have reached a pitch of mild disaster

Susan:
No wonder, no wonder.

Assia:
Come visit me in the ghost house, please.

Shura and Frieda:
Mother, save the blood for tea.

Assia:
I’ll rub salt in your eyes if you do not be quiet.

Shura and Frieda:
But mama, you cry salt on everything!

Shura:
Mama’s eyes filled
with the sour-sweet sick
air me, like a rag doll
me, like a rag doll
at her breast
the best of her burned and
shrivelled at the edges
like the weekly forest fires
that daddy sent to warm the house

Assia:
I’m falling through my throat,
writing through my esophagus.
You are huge, growing wounds.

 

 

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