Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sylvia Plath Took Her Life, But Saved Mine

When I was a freshman in college, half semester courses called seminars were offered in a variety of interesting, eclectic subjects. The intention was for us to try something new and to find our hidden calling. I chose one on the writings of Sylvia Plath. Three years earlier, I discovered the poem Two Sisters of Persephone online. I love my sister, but I always felt like we were treated really differently. I was aware that it was a big part of my adolescent psyche and I sought out stories that mimicked that (Jacob and Esau was a favorite). A year after that, I read my mom's old copy of The Bell Jar. It felt like Sylvia knew something about me. Like she had given words to something I felt. A year after reading The Bell Jar, I discovered Ted Hughes' poetry and was given a copy of The Birthday Letters. This is a collection of 88 poems that Hughes wrote over 25 years beginning shortly after Plath's suicide. 86 of them are addressed to Plath.

That seminar course was amazing. We re-read The Bell Jar, combed through her Collected Poems and read biographies of Plath. We discussed the significance of her word choice and the recurrent themes in her poems. We talked about the way she used German to describe her father because it was harsh and ugly, but when he died, she said, "I'll never speak to God again." I learned a lot about poetry in that class, but it was also a turning point for me. I was incredibly unhappy that first year. I used to take a lot of late night drives to a park a few miles away and just swing. There was an uphill turn on the road there and I would sometimes think (innocently, I thought) what if I didn't turn? I may have also lit candles and cried in bed, but that sounds so sad, I can barely type it.

In that course, I made a realization: Plath was upset, too. Plath understood me. Her words FIT into my heart in a way that nothing else had yet. But Plath was dead. Of her own doing and before her time. I was not going to be her. I was not going to inspire someone to write raging, woeful, cruel things about me. I was going to write my way out of whatever it was that was pulling me down. And I did. I wrote in my LiveJournal and I wrote by hand. I wrote notebooks full of poems and short stories and thoughts. I fixed myself.

Two Sisters of Persephone by Sylvia Plath

Two girls there are : within the house
One sits; the other, without.
Daylong a duet of shade and light
Plays between these.

In her dark wainscoted room
The first works problems on
A mathematical machine.
Dry ticks mark time

As she calculates each sum.
At this barren enterprise
Rat-shrewd go her squint eyes,
Root-pale her meager frame.

Bronzed as earth, the second lies,
Hearing ticks blown gold
Like pollen on bright air. Lulled
Near a bed of poppies,

She sees how their red silk flare
Of petaled blood
Burns open to the sun's blade.
On that green alter

Freely become sun's bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor's pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter

And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman.


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