There are many who seem to think of the darkness within them, and all around, as being something of comfort that they can live with. Sometimes they embrace the depths of this darkness so much that it is a part of them. It follows them around like a terrifying shadow which then leads to manic depression and strange episodes which prompt others to believe that these people are losing their minds.
Yet it is no real loss of the senses. It is merely a newer window into a form of creative genius that most dare not tap into. For when they do, they do not tame and properly reconcile with their personal demons, this rare chance to finally see the light gives rise to the most disturbing works of literature ever produced.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932-September 11, 1963) was a woman who thrived within her blackened shell. She wrote guided by her dark passenger’s hand and thus questioned much of what was possible to say within the poetic circle. This was not the horror of the supernatural that Poe was in love with but a new kind of terrifying subject had found its way into her world. This was the creation of a swirling vortex of the deep, dramatic and disturbing. Death, cruelty and even a form of anti-Nazism found their way into her writings.
Her images may be of the heart, sometimes of God, but they are in no way pleasant.
Today the WFR team brings to you a poet who is considered by most to be the patron saint of self-dramatization and self-pity.
You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoeIn which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time——
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
It is thus extremely clear from this narrative work that Plath was deeply resentful of her father for being a Nazi supporter. He was, after all, German, named Otto Plath. He was also over two decades older than her mother Aurelia, which might have meant something to Plath herself. Clearly the narrative, which is full of short, abrupt sentences tells us that she is driving her point into us hard, and dramatically to boot.
The word “black” shows up a number of times. It is obviously a show of personal darkness, and the darkness inside her because of her father. She blames him openly for her suicide attempts. She had done many of these during her episodes of depression. By calling herself a “Jew” she is using a word for the term hatred since she hates him, and it makes him hate her as well.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful —
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Poets do not regularly tackle the subject of aging and the agony that comes out of it, but in this short poetic work, Plath once again is giving us an insight into her mind. She tells us in the first line of the poem that she is “exact”. This and a continuing series of sentences and words that tell us about the “four-cornered” nature of the mirror seem to say that she has been feeling restricted and that is thus driving her insane. No artistic person likes to be restricted, or else they feel paralyzed. Plath however clearly says that a mirror is always truthful. She is growing old and that is all the mirror can tell her.
Yet her views do change within the lost time between the two verses. The word “lake” tells us that she now has a broader mirror, which has stretched out, possibly due to seeing the reality of things. Attempting to deny aging, despite what the mirror told her, was something that she might have tried earlier but not anymore. She had come to realize the all-consuming nature of old age.
Plath also writes in the first person, and as the reflective surface itself. What really lies behind the mirror? Authors the world over have attempted to answer this question. But what is clear is that when the mirror is personified we see what Plath herself sees inside her soul when she looks into the mirror.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE BEE-BOX
I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.
The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.
How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!
I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.
I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.
They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.
The box is only temporary.
In our final poem, we have Plath dealing with the concept of death itself. She tells the reader that it is a “wooden box” at first and then we have the image of a coffin. We also have the aural image of thousands of droning, angry bees. Of course nobody would be foolish enough to deal with a box full of bees. A large number, when irritated, can kill you. Therefore bees is a metaphor for death. The box is another means of restraint. Death is kept in restraint until the coup de grace, the final blow when it attacks you and overtakes you completely. Plath is telling us that she has mixed emotions about dying, about whether or not to open the box. She cannot bear to hear the bees inside the wooden box. The same way she contemplates suicide. However she does say that “The box is only temporary.”
Does this indicate that she believes in the afterlife, that death is a temporary phase? One cannot yet be sure but perhaps it is. In any case it is one of her most disturbing poems.