Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Poem(s) o'the Day (Month?): Sylvia Plath, "Morning Song," "Barren Woman"

It's been quite some time since I updated the blog, I realize. I was feeling burned out on a lot of things, including--GASP--Anne Sexton. I just finished Ulysses last night, and had been working on that for nearly ten weeks; had been working on Sexton for six or seven; and I'm simply at an intellectual impasse with my Feminist Methods class. The weather only finally turned last week (now it's rainy again), so I was beginning to feel that I was at an entire-life-standstill. In any case, it feels good to turn a few new leaves--onto a book-a-week in my Modernism class (now that Ulysses is no longer a bag of bricks in my backpack), onto not caring about said impasse-class, and onto Plath, onto Adrienne Rich, Louise Gluck, and hopefully spring as well. Time to get out of this nasty blue funk I've been in for so long.

That said, really nothing new on a more general level. My life is lived almost entirely on the page these days, so the new thing for me right now is rethinking my work on Sexton through the lens of my work on Plath. One of my biggest ongoing concerns with Sexton is to articulate a sort of "ethics of confession," in my loose terming of it--applying schemas like Jessica Benjamin's notion of "mutual recognition" (vis-a-vis intersubjective theory) and Judith Butler's conception of the 'ethical postmodern subject,' etc. This is probably too pretentious for a blog post, sry. So one thing I wonder is this: if I believe Sexton is interested in recognizing the Other--those she addresses in her poems, be they living or dead, base creatures or Christ--in a mutual way, do I believe Plath does the same?

I don't know, to be quite frank. As I immersed myself in Sexton, who seems by all accounts to have been a deeply compassionate and loving, if troubled, person, I found myself slightly repelled by Plath, who often seemed like rather a bitch. But now that I'm back in Plath-camp, I'm again strangely taken in by her tale. They're very different people and poets, though people tend to conflate them; Plath was a myth-maker; Sexton a sort of private storyteller, interested in revealing the underbellies of our darkest moments (sometimes her own, but often not). If you care to learn about the women themselves, I highly recommend Diane Middlebrook's biographies on each--Anne Sexton: A Biography (sort of notorious, because AS's private therapy tapes were released to Middlebrook and used, to the consternation of many), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage. The Sexton one is really the only biography on her, to my knowledge; the Plath is one of many many many, but is almost certainly the best, though it's interested in the marriage between her and Hughes far more than her pre-Hughes life. Any case, here are a couple of poems. I'll probably be avoiding the really famous ones on here ("Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," "Ariel"), simply because I feel like it'll be a bit redundant.

Anyhow, "Morning Song" (part in the open, part after the cut) and "Barren Woman" (behind the cut):


Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.


Barren Woman

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.
In my courtyard a fountain leaps and sinks back into itself,
Nun-hearted and blind to the world. Marble lilies
Exhale their pallor like scent.

I imagine myself with a great public,
Mother of a white Nike and several bald-eyed Apollos.
Instead, the dead injure me with attentions, and nothing can happen.
The moon lays a hand on my forehead,
Blank-faced and mum as a nurse.


I include "Barren Woman" here more because I'm interested in the parallels between the poems than because I think it's one of Plath's best. It's a good poem, yes, but it doesn't quite have the mythical narrative arc many of the Ariel poems feature, nor is it quite as disturbing in its stillness as, say, "The Moon and the Yew Tree" or "Tulips" (other favorites, though the latter is a bit long to post on here). But I'm fascinated that the fear of being childless in the second poem, imaged as being a statue-less museum (its legitimating 'function' stripped, much in the way that the fountain has no water, it only sinks into itself, and the mother-figure has only the dead at her breast--which isn't to say motherhood is paramount for me, but certainly is in the poem), continues into "Morning Song," which is one of Plath's most celebratory poems at the same time that it expresses severe anxieties over the maternal experience. Thus, even with the 'legitimating' child's arrival in "Morning Song," the narrator underscores the emptiness of the museum, the safety that becomes "shadowed" by the naked infant. They're left speechless, in fact, paralyzed "blank as walls" in the presence of this creature, which is somehow both incredibly vulnerable (it has "moth-breath" and a "bald cry"), and almost terrifyingly larger-than-life, possibly fated.

I'm interested in the contrast between the opening and closing sounds of the child, which both seem counterintuitively static and yet necessary. The cry takes "its place among the elements" as if that location is pre-determined, though I suppose the alignment with elements implies that they might collide and shift. The vowels that "rise like balloons" in the end again intimate a sort of terminal development--a balloon can be blown up, it can float away, it can pop, but nevertheless, a balloon once blown up is essentially at its final stage of development. The very image is both celebratory and terrifying--what if the child's language, which is so fascinating to its mother here, rise only to explode, or to escape?

But most importantly, is this a poem that attempts to realize a connection of mutuality between mother and child? Many of Plath's poems solve conflict by violent repudiation--the presence of another is invasive and must be annihilated, or else the speaker/subject will herself be destroyed (thus the cyclical patricide of father/lover figures in "Daddy," the repudiation of the mother in "Medusa," the murderous impulses of "Purdah" and "Lady Lazarus")--but this is a rather rare example where, though the entrance of the infant strikes the speaker dumb, and though she initially repudiates it ("I'm no more your mother than the cloud...", as if she, fearing her own erasure in the relation to her baby, seeks to disavow her connection to it in order to signify her wholeness), the poem shifts when the mother "wake[s] to listen." Even at this point, there's a sense of passivity--the sea moves in her, as if in a conch shell; but then, "cow-heavy" she suddenly responds to the child's need and recognizes the babe's corresponding impulse toward language.

Anyhow, it's a bit of an unanswerable question for me at the moment. As I said, I find it difficult to argue that there's room in Plath's poetry for the Other--which is in itself truly fascinating to me. After all, I just delivered a paper on the abjection of the maternal in her poem "Medusa"--but if I'm seeking out a connection to Sexton's ethics in Plath, I think I may need to return to her from another angle. Nevertheless, I must say I've never given her first collection, The Colossus enough credit. Not confessional, and not blinding in the way I think of Ariel as being, but an incredibly well-crafted book of poems. Her mastery of sound in that book is just awe-inspiring. And of course, currently re-reading Ariel for probably the dozenth time, I'm once again left positively gutted by its incandescence. Plath said she wrote these poems in the radiant 'blue hours' before dawn, and it's hard to imagine a better set up for a world in which the world itself seems "cold and planetary" even as the speaker is constantly burning like a supernova. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep up with this a bit more regularly--and with the blog, outside of poetry. Like I said, been in a funk lately, but I think it's lifting a bit, so hopefully I'll have more use for this blog. Hope all is well with ya'll.

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