Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Poem o'the Day: Sylvia Plath, "The Detective"

A random favorite from Ariel. I'd never noticed it before this read-through, when the image of trains shrieking like 'souls on hooks' hooked me and I read the poem a half-dozen times, trying to figure out how the fuck SP manages to capture these X-ray images of horror and anguish so beautifully. Full poem and comments after the jump.

The Detective
Sylvia Plath

What was she doing when it blew in
Over the seven hills, the red furrow, the blue mountain?
Was she arranging cups? It is important.
Was she at the window, listening?
In that valley the train shrieks echo like souls on hooks.

That is the valley of death, though the cows thrive.
In her garden the lies were shaking out their moist silks
And the eyes of the killer moving sluglike and sidelong,
Unable to face the fingers, those egotists.
The fingers were tamping a woman into a wall,

A body into a pipe, and the smoke rising.
This is the smell of years burning, here in the kitchen,
These are the deceits, tacked up like family photographs,
And this is a man, look at his smile,
The death weapon? No-one is dead.

There is no body in the house at all.
There is the smell of polish, there are plush carpets.
There is the sunlight, playing its blades,
Bored hoodlum in a red room
Where the wireless talks to itself like an elderly relative.

Did it come like an arrow, did it come like a knife?
Which of the poisons is it?
Which of the nerve-curlers, the convulsors? Did it electrify?
This is a case without a body.
The body does not come into it at all.

It is a case of vaporization.
The mouth first, its absence reported
In the second year. It had been insatiable
And in punishment was hung out like brown fruit
To wrinkle and dry.

The breasts next.
These were harder, two white stones.
The milk came yellow, then blue and sweet as water.
There was no absence of lips, there were two children,
But their bones showed, and the moon smiles.

Then the dry wood, the gates,
The brown motherly furrows, the whole estate.
We walk on air, Watson.
There is only the moon, embalmed in phosphorus.
There is only a crow in a tree. Make notes.


(Auto)biographically, I suppose it's easy to classify this poem as one directed towards Ted Hughes's infamous philandering--the references to the deceits like family photographs, the lies in the garden, the detective story, and I'm almost led to wonder about the crow in the final line of the poem. It would seem that SP couldn't have know TH would write a book of poetry, Crow, seven years after her death, but the crow is not an animal that shows up with any frequency in her work. I'd have to pore over some of the middle-era work, but to my knowledge, this is the only crow in all of her two complete volumes, The Colossus and Ariel, so the reference seems more than accidental. Did TH pick it out from here when he worked on the crow sequence? Did SP know about his fascination with the crow as a trickster figure? Either way, it's a figure in this poem that I can't quite locate in the way I want to--maybe she, too, is borrowing the association with trickster figures. The crow in the tree has perhaps allowed all of these deceits and murders to transpire; the directive ("Make notes") is lodged against the crow-as-witness, but the crow of course keeps mum at the end of this poem.

Beyond the biography, though, what I find so fascinating about this poem is that, as in many of the late poems, the domestic becomes the nexus for Gothic rumblings. In 'Lesbos,' there is "Viciousness in the kitchen!"; in 'Purdah,' the chandelier-ed mausoleum-like home is interrupted by the figure of the woman-monster who unlooses the "shriek in the bath / the cloak of holes." Thus, we begin this poem from a landscape vantage point--the hills, mountains, and a train that passes, dragging behind it the damned of the earth (or at least this is the image I see when thinking of a train's sound as shrieking like "souls on hooks"--love that image!)--which zooms in to the microscopic, almost quaint experience of hausfrau-ery. The valley of death is thrown on a scale, and mocked by thriving cows; yet, this death has infected the woman's garden and her home. Everything becomes suddenly sinister; the hanging of laundry is embodied in a lie, personified; the killer is not only "sluglike" but seems in fact to become the slug, that repulsive garden-invader. A wonderfully Poe-like series of images interrupts--the woman 'tamped' (like gunpowder) into a wall, a body shoved into a pipe--but of course, as the detective sardonically laments, "There is no body in the house at all."

Yet methinks the lady doth protest too much. The trick of repeating again and again that there "is no body" and then going on to dissect the bodiless body (the mouth, the breasts, etc.) is not to repress the idea of the missing person, but rather to allow that body to take on larger-than-life proportions. The negative--or "vaporization"--of this particular body seems only to reward it with hypervisibility; and then, I wonder, who truly is the killer in this narrative? The woman whose house has been infected--did she tamp the body into the wall? Is she the pair of tainted breasts? I believe there are two women here; the one at the "window, listening" and the one who has been annihilated. I can't prove this, it's just my hunch--and so the detective story is about a triangular relationship, with two of the actors missing. Holmes and Watson (I'm always thrown off when there are explicit cultural references in Plath) are interrogating the woman seemingly ensnared in her grotesquely picturesque home, but she's the very one diverting them from the real discovery--I don't pin the blame on this woman, but the poem intentionally disorients us. Who has died? Who has lied? Whose are the fingers, "those egotists," that even the killer fears as he moves sidelong through the deceitful garden?

Like any good detective story, this poem keeps us guessing--and the trick of it is that the clues simply don't add up. For me, that's the primary appeal, because it's one of the rare late poems where the murderous impulse does not make a sort of clean break of it. We are left to make notes, but not to discover an outcome. Also, I want to think more about this interest in photographs--I read a great article on photographs in Plath (poetic ones and those taken of Plath) by Anita Helle yesterday. Interested to see how this meta-ekphrastic impulse might play out with a poem like this one...


  1. brilliant analysis, enjoyed reading this! :)

  2. Great analysis! It was interesting to read :)

  3. I still don't understand the significance and the overall meaning of the poem.

  4. This poem also shows her view on chemical pesticides not her personal life. "The milk came yellow, then blue and sweet as water." the health problems chemicals cause and the crow can also represent the death of anything living in that valley that was killed by the chemicals.

  5. I'm almost sure SP wasn't thinking of pesticides. I think that as the role of women in the world is increasing and the role of the man-woman relationship is being revised, the greatest fear for women is that they won't really be there at all in a fully human way, but somehow maintained, as they have all too often been in the past , as a useful convenience for the male.

  6. The overall meaning of the poem, peeled from its semi-biographical incidentals, is simply "where has my life gone?"
    The speaker is here investigating the loss of life--peculiarly different from death, which tends to leave a corpse. So the detective posits 'vaporization' in a kind of desperate humor. It's a poem of middle-age, of bodily changes, of gradual symbolic erosion of self by day to day living. In the end, our detective (THE detective, really--no less than Sherlock Holmes!) asks Watson to "Make notes," which is an invocation of the poem itself. ('Make' instead of 'take' here, so as to echo the classic invocation of the poet as 'Maker.') Watson's notes are the poem itself, the only evidence of spent time--the author's and the reader's alike. Great stuff.

  7. I still do not understand her poem.

  8. Because of my interest in the character “Sherlock Holmes,” I felt that there was a connection to the character what with the mention of a “pipe” and “Watson,” and there was a murder mystery setting, and although her metaphors were interesting and unusual, I didn't understand the deeper meaning of the poem. As with others, I think it something to do with her dark brooding and perhaps relationship with Hughes, but I couldn't quite get a grip on it. Thanks for the analysis.

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