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Book Challenges: 50 Books A Year (no. 36)

This slim collection contains poems by the late Sylvia Plath which were written during the last nine months of her life. They are hailed to be the most revealing and enigmatic of her works which document the simultaneous mourning and celebration of the human condition.

It is hard to read a Plath poem without taking her life into consideration. While most poets write with pen and ink, you get a sense that Plath went one step further and wrote from the blood. Plath had a dark gift, a way of tapping into the exquisite pain of human suffering that makes her  impossible to separate from her work. Throughout her short career as poet and writer, it was this often too-personal tie that made publishers uncomfortable. Her savage way of conveying her emotions is evident in ‘Lesbos‘; a bitter letter to Sappho which also doubles as an unashamed portrait of Plath’s domestic despair:

“Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible
migraine…

I should sit off a rock off Cornwall and comb my hair.
I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair.
We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.”

Needless to say the poems in this book are written from a strong feminist lens and span issues of love, parenting, childbirth and death. Upon my first reading, I found it quite difficult to get into Plath’s particular mindset. But having said this, one must remember that she was probably by now in her deepest depressive stages and suicidal to boot, so it’s only natural for me to connect up to a certain point. The first thing I noted was the darkness that seeped from every poem she wrote. As I re-read them and entered into her narrow, desperate world I realised that these were not ‘poems’ but rather the abstract confessionals of a woman on the edge.

“The womb
Rattles its pod, the moon
Discharges itself from the tree with nowhere to go.

My landscape is a hand with no lines,
The roads bunched to a knot,
The knot myself…”
– from Childless Woman

Despair confuses people, and coupled with depression often makes it difficult to see right from wrong. Yet when I analyse Plath’s poems, I realise that despair and depression were her source of sustenance, and this is what makes this collection of poems so special.  Her words are carefully chosen, with a deliberate economy that brings her visions into high-definition. As I finished the last poem ‘Three Women’ (which was intended to be a poem for three voices and later recorded for radio) I saw a sad glimpse of a talent that, if she had lived, would have been one of the greatest modern poets of our times. The piece resonates with the many myriad facets of procreation; the success, loss and abortion of it. It is an echo of womankind through different ages and the other things that ‘mother’ and ‘motherhood’ really give birth to. A masterpiece, and a precursor to the ‘Vagina Monologues‘, here is a small extract:

“I am slow as the world. I am very patient,
Turning through my time, the suns and stars
Regarding me with attention.
The moon’s concern is more personal:
She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.
Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so.
She is simply astonished at fertility”  

I recommend this to anyone with an interest in Sylvia Plath. For first timers, it may be a bit too much, but reading it a few times over will help you to understand what’s going on. Plath tends to write in cryptic code, cracking the code is a bit like adjusting your eyesight to one of those 3D posters from back in the 90’s. Fun, but it needs a bit of effort, and good poetry always demands a bit of effort from its readers.

I give this 3/5 stars.

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