Sylvia Plath

Death and Life in Middlesbrough

To Middlesbrough, for my workshop on Poetry and Memorial, occasioned by Julian Stair’s extraordinary exhibition at mima, Quietus: the vessel, death and the human body. I have been a long-time admirer of Julian’s beautiful urns and sarcophagi, and my poem ‘The Firing’ was based on his work (here it is, along with some other poems from the book Fetch, on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site:

It was a glorious day, and the sun beamed brightly into the education room, where we spent the afternoon reading poems and talking about that most taboo and difficult of subjects: death. We started with some thoughts on the title of the show, and the meaning of ‘quietus’, a word we’ve lost in modern grammar, but charged with multiple meanings: a release, a calming, and perhaps more accurately for Julian’s show, a place between life and death. The word comes from the Latin quietus est = ‘he is discharged’, as from a debt. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126, all the meanings of the word come together in the final line:

Sonnet 126

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
( )
( )

We pondered the ‘missing’ couplet. Is this a deliberate silence, to echo the silence of passing? The 12th line feels like an ending, a closure, but Shakespeare is too great a master of the sonnet not to be hinting as more by the absence of lines 13 and 14.

We moved from Shakespeare, to Sir Thomas Browne (readers of Invective will already know of my love for his essay ‘Urne-Buriall’) to Sylvia Plath’s haunting and strange ‘Edge’, the final poem she wrote before taking her life. In it, she talks about the dead woman as ‘perfected’, and compares her to a classical statue:


The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Does the last line refer to the blackness of night, and by extension, the total blackness of death? Some critics think that ‘blacks’ could be mourning clothes, a stiff taffeta gown, as donned by a Victorian widow, another kind of costume the woman might wear (like the toga). Others think that ‘blacks’ are a reference to stage curtains, perhaps a pun on ‘it’s curtains for her’ but also evoking death as an act of theatre (which takes us back to ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’, the poet’s audience, her witnesses to the attempts she made on her life).

We read ‘Child Burial’ by Paula Meehan, a painful and terrible elegy about the loss of a child. And ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson, where death is a suitor, a kindly gentleman caller willing to pick you up in his carriage and take a you on leisurely drive out to the cemetery. And then we had a break for lunch and a walk around the galleries.

Although poems are normally two-dimensional objects, there is always the hand and heart of the poet behind them, and so I can’t help but picture the author, at his or her desk, in the act of writing the poem. I always think of Plath’s desperate last days during that cold London winter when I read ‘Edge’, and it makes the poem even more unbearable. There is something about Julian’s pieces that are at once personal and public, like poems. They often take on human forms – as Julian points out, the terms for the parts of pots are taken directly from the body:

The concept of anthropomorphism is central to the identity of pottery. We use bodily terms such as neck, shoulder, hip and foot to describe the constituent parts of a pot. And the very nature of the vessel as a container, a holder of things, is analogous to the idea of the body as a physical container for the soul or spirit.

The Reliquary for a Common Man is a single jar of bone china. To say it contains the ashes of Julian’s uncle, Les Cox, does not describe it fully – some of his ash was used in the fabric of the jar itself. Perhaps the best way to think of this jar is as an ‘auto-icon’, a memorial that contains physical remains of the subject. Most reliquaries contain bones or other fragments of saints, so this is not a new idea, but somehow one which has become alien to us at the beginning of the 21st century. The room where the jar is displayed contains two screens, one showing home movies from the 50s and 60s, the other a series of still photographs which trace Les from childhood to old age. A recording of his voice plays into the darkened gallery. The effect should have been ghostly, but actually, I felt Les’s presence very strongly, his living presence – and I have never been susceptible to spiritualism or stories from beyond the grave. I was in the room with him, not only his image and his voice, but also some small physical fact of him, absorbed into the jar. Isn’t it true we become something else when we die – the shape and scale of us no longer exists. Maybe this is what Plath was striving for in ‘Edge’ – to take a different shape, to make herself into something else.

The other piece that especially moved me was the Columbarium – a word I’ve always loved, which comes from the Latin for ‘dove’, because the shape and compartments resembled a dovecote, but also makes me thing of the dove of peace, the holy spirit rising beyond the body. Julian’s Columbarium consists of 130 pots which create a tower, to suggest a community, the way we all come together democratically in death.

We came together again after lunch to share our poems, which were all extraordinary statements on the process of remembering and honouring. The whole experience was, surprisingly, joyful and life-affirming.

Julian’s show continues at mima until 11th November:

The poetics of space

Tagged along this weekend on one of Paul Carey-Kent’s art walks – which are always exhaustive and exhausting (but in a good way) – on this occasion around some of the West End galleries. Paul’s encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary art and his personal Baedeker of London galleries ensure that his walks are full of surprises; there are always new artists to discover and secret galleries, often hole-in-the-wall locations without a sign or a window to the street, like the speakeasies of old.

I especially want to talk about two shows we visited which are currently on at Hauser & Wirth’s two London outposts, and which focus (very differently) on space. As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of Gaston Bachelard, whose theories of how to consider space in poetry, how to “read” a room, both emotionally and contextually, have influenced my ideas of how a poem should occupy the space of the page. I am currently working on a sequence of ‘concrete’ poems to accompany a new sequence of woodcuts by Linda Karshan; it’s the first time I have consciously tried to work the poem into a predetermined shape (which has been dictated by the size and scale of the woodcuts) so this issue is very much in my mind at the moment.

Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures occupy the whole of H&W’s Piccadilly site. I should mention that the building is one of my favourite art spaces in London because it was once the headquarters for a bank, and so it retains the ornate wood panelling, the elaborate plaster ceilings, and in the basement, the actual vault. It follows Bachelard’s theory that certain spaces retain their past, a “geometry of echoes”, as he puts it. There is something austere and old-fashioned about the space that effects the work that is shown there. When you walk through the door of the gallery, you are immediately confronted by a series of tall structures: styrofoam blocks covered with colourful fabrics, which give the impression of square flags, teetering on wooden stilts sunk into blobs of concrete. Strange totemic towers, which are formal (and therefore match the formality of their setting) yet appear to be constructed from junk (Barlow is famous for recycling her materials, using bits of other sculptures she has scrapped to make new ones). They look like objects which might have had some function or meaning, now lost in the passage of time. I found these structures moving; perhaps because they appear handmade, a bit precarious, as if they might topple any minute. I felt small surrounded by them; they crowded me, it was hard to navigate around them. Barlow talks about ‘sensations of physicality’, an effort to capture the urban experience ‘like something wild or feral.’ And all contained in that slightly stuffy , officious space. The other piece that really made an impression on me was in the (scary) basement, a grouping of plywood and cement hoops, like a crowd huddled in the doorway. Barlow’s sculptures are like three-dimensional versions of Prunella Clough’s paintings (full of the detritus of urban life). There is something poignant and intimate about all of us (city dwellers, that is) squeezed together into these man-made spaces.

Down the road at Hauser & Wirth’s Saville Row site, a huge pristine cube of a space, were Roni Horn’s new sculptures, ten discs of “solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces on all sides (fire-polished top)”. The media is a poem in itself. They are beautiful, inscrutable structures, like rounded blocks of ice, cold and perfect, apart from the scarred sides, which show the viewer the cast of their making. They are isolated, distanced from each other in the enormous empty room. Their glassy tops are pools, circles of nothing, still and impassive. Bending over one to find myself reflected in its surface, I was reminded of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mirror’:

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 …

But there is another literary association attached to the work which had us puzzled. Although the piece is untitled, its ‘subtitle’ is an excerpt from a letter (which may be from Anne?) relating the story of a “nasty-looking” comb that belonged to Emily Brontë. The comb accidently fell into the fire the moment Emily died and was retrieved by Charlotte: “There it is to this day, a bit burnt. One of the most horrible things I ever saw”. So how does this emotional, dramatic account relate to these cool, controlled sculptures? I’m still puzzled, but what strikes me is how those glass discs are ‘sealed’, solid, as if they are preserving something inside that we can’t see (only the reflection of ourselves on the surface). So maybe both the letter and the sculptures themselves tell us something about the act of preservation. I’m still trying to work through it.

One thing I do know is that both Barlow and Horn have a deep connection to poetry. Barlow is married to the poet Fabian Peake (their daughter Clover is also a poet). Horn is a fan of Dickinson and Stevens; both poets have been referenced in her work. A connection between them, and back, once again, to Bachelard.

Paul Carey-Kent's blog:

Hauser and Wirth:

Death becomes her

In her 1995 book Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, Germaine Greer states:

Too many of the most conspicuous figures in women’s poetry of the twentieth century not only destroyed themselves in a variety of ways but are valued for poetry that documents that process.

And then she lists a roll call of poets from Plath to Sexton to Jonker to Tsvetaeva whose poetry could be described (as Greer puts it) as ‘elaborated suicide notes’. With Plath, the poetry and the desire for death are inextricably linked, so that dying becomes 'an art’ which the poet must practice again and again (she was successful in her third suicide attempt) until she achieves perfection.

These are the first four stanzas of her final poem, Edge:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Is it the case that we are more attracted to Plath’s suicide and endless speculation over the reasons for it than we are to her poetry? Are we in love with the elegant, black and white photos of Anne Sexton, chain smoking, arms stacked with bangles, because we know her fate? And where are the male poets in this list? True, there’s Berryman and Weldon Kees (assuming he did jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, as his body was never found), but there appears to be a higher percentage of women if you start counting. And although you could argue that both Berryman and Kees wrote of the turmoil in their lives, it’s not obsessive and singular, as it was with Plath and Sexton. Their desire for death was their subject.

Is Greer correct when she suggests that in a literary world run by a male establishment that a woman poet had to 'make an exhibition of herself and ultimately to come to grief’? Is Plath saying to be great, to be placed in the pantheon of poets, you must be dead first? Certainly in her lifetime it was Hughes’s career which blossomed; in her death, she became a phenomenon. But not necessarily for her poetry …

Greer argues that today’s women poets will be largely forgotten 'because they fail to flay themselves alive.’ I think in our generation of poets, quite a few of us (both men and women) will be forgotten; as Anthony Thwaite so charmingly put it, 'we are too many’. Part of the reason is that our profession is not as highly regarded in Britain and America as it is in other regions of the world. Also, it is increasingly difficult to find a readership in the wake of so many celebrity biographies (which are often public self-flagellation), and during these tough times for publishing.

But I do take Greer’s point that it is more difficult to be noticed as a woman generally, unless you are wearing a dress made out of meat or describing yourself as a 'mama grizzly’ …

The image accompanying this post is from the current show of Josephine King’s paintings at Riflemaker: