Sunday, October 28, 2012


Halloween is my favorite holiday as it’s full of fancy and fantastical costumes (even for adults), treats and scary stuff. 

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, the end of summer.  This date was also the eve of the new year in bother Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits.  The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds.  It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature.  Also, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health and death.

As a Halloween treat, I have two poems for you.


At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us.  They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.
— Susan Mitchell


Death does not speak
to me with meaty breath
although ancient hamburgers
dance through my veins and
the leering buffalo skull
on the wall above my couch
dribbles drool onto my heart.

At fifty, I have learned to see
the Grim Reaper in all his disguises.
I can see him in a can of Budweiser.
I can see him in a shaker of salt.
Tonight, death speaks through spuds.
On my kitchen counter a ten-pound
bag of potatoes is rabid with tendrils.
They smell like a coven of wings.
I’m afraid to go near them.  They’ve
already strangled one of my cats.
Hey, these spuds are not vegetarians.
These are bad-ass rez potatoes.
They’ll sucker punch you
and kick you in the nuts
when you’re not looking.
If they’re not death
I don’t know what is.
— Adrian Louis


Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Fifty years ago, in October 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote well over half the poems which she’d gather into the manuscript of her second volume of poetry, Ariel and Other Poems (which would be found in a black spring binder in her London flat after her suicide three months later).

In that October, Sylvia and her two children were at Court Green, the thatched-roof house, which she and her husband had bought the previous year, in the Devon farming community of North Tawton.  By Autumn 1962, the couple’s marriage was over: he’d deserted her for another woman.  He returned to Court Green on the fourth of October to pack up his belongings (clothes, books and papers) and didn’t depart until the eleventh.

The day after her husband left with his things – to return to London and his lover (which in effect signified the end of her marriage to Ted Hughes), Sylvia Plath sat at the desk in her study and wrote her most famous poem, “Daddy.”

She’d already started to address the subject of her father, when in the week of October 3 to 10, she’d written five bee poems.  (Her father, Otto Plath, had been a renowned entomologist whose study, Bumblebees and Their Ways, had received worldwide acclaim.  He died in November, 1940, a little more than a week after Sylvia turned 8.)  Although, on October 11, before she drove Ted to the train station, she’d written “The Applicant” –  a savagely witty poem in the form of a monologue spoken by a marriage broker to a man applying for a new wife – Sylvia came back to, and reexamined, the lingering topic of her father – this time with intense fury, giving voice to years of accumulated grief.

In “Daddy,” the poem’s narrator speaks to her dead father while directing her rage, at being abandoned and betrayed, squarely at him.  The poet attempts (perhaps for her readers) to mitigate the ferocity of her bitter anger by using cadences akin to the singsong tones of nursery rhymes but, over time, these rhythms march down the poem to echo her accusations.

Though she first had considered her father godlike, in the poem, he quickly turns into a full-fledged Nazi.  By tapping into the most powerful horror of her era, the poet-narrator uses “Nazi” as a potent, and shocking, poetic conceit which turns her torment into qualities attributed to its object, her father.

Further in the poem, the narrator again acknowledges her father’s death (“I was ten when they buried you” – though, in reality Sylvia was eight).  She then says that her suicide attempt, when she was twenty, was intended as a way to “get back, back, back to you.”  [One could argue that the line reads as if she wants to get back (at her father for his death – when he abandoned her); to go back (to when he’d been alive); and to get back to (to her father in death).]

Continuing the poem’s timeline of significant events she connects with her father’s death, and with her failed attempts to rejoin him, the poet links her choice of the man she marries to her lost father:
            And then I knew what to do.
            I made a model of you,…
            And I said I do, I do.

As a double of her father, the husband becomes her tormentor:

            The vampire who said he was you
            And drank my blood for a year,
            Seven years, if you want to know.

[and the reader might infer here that the husband, exactly as the father did, betrays and abandons her.]

Finally, thoroughly fed up, the poet-narrator disposes of her father, his memory and its accompanying pain (and his stand-in, her husband): “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two” and, in the last line, proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG  by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

This Spring a friend of mine asked if I’d write comments on her blog about this early poem of Plath’s, as my friend Oriana knows I admire the musicality in most of Plath’s poems.

Instead of printing the poem from the blog, I went to The Collected Poems (compiled and edited by the late Plath’s husband, poet Ted Hughes, 1981) but could find it neither in the fifty pre-1956 poems Hughes titled “Juvenilia” (I prefer to use “early poems”) nor in the “complete list of poems composed before 1956.”  Odd.

After a little research, I learned that after The Collected Poems came out in England and America (Both editions were the same.), critics praised Plath’s work but many had questions about Hughes’ construction of the book.  In particular, The New York Times Book Review called attention to significant errors in the editing, most notably missing poems, including “Mad Girl’s Love Song” which had been published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1953.

The mystery slightly solved (no word why it was absent), I found a copy online and looked at the poem.

“Mad Girl’s Love Song” is a villanelle.  A perfect villanelle.  The structure is flawless but the musicality is not as strong (though some alliteration and a modest amount of assonance are present) as in other Plath poems.

But “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is an intriguing poem which can be read on many levels.  The themes of love, betrayal and loss (themes which recur and plagued her in her later life and writing) are present here.  What remains a question for interpretation is who, or what, the you is in Plath’s poem.

Knowing the poem was written in Plath’s college years, a reader might assume, after a first reading, that the poem is about a young woman’s desire for a lover, one who ignites her passion.  By the end of the poem, he abandons her.  But the words of the poem carry too much import to be simply that.

Or perhaps the you is a demon-lover: “I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed…”  The mention of God, hell, “seraphim and Satan’s men” and the connection of these to when she shuts her eyes and reality disappears could tie this to a demon-lover, except that God, etc., also disappear.  [I interpret the line “God topples from the sky, hell fires fade” as the concepts of the righteous/the good being rewarded and the bad punished also have disappeared.]  I’m not convinced about the demon-lover.

Another interpretation is the you  is Plath’s dead father (the subject of many of her later poems).  Robert Sully in his excellent online essay, “Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and the Work of Mourning” writes

The death of her father when she was eight years old seems to have left her with a deep psychic wound, a wound that manifested itself in both a profound sorrow and a deep resentment, as if her father had abandoned and betrayed her.

Sully makes a skillful argument for his theory about this poem.

In much of Plath’s early and pre-Ariel poetry, she employs a double voice, at once being straightforwardly subjective (in which her situations may be what they seem) but at the same time inferring, while hiding, a deeper self.  For me, there are two pieces of this deeper self which I believe can be the you of the poem.

While at college, Plath began in earnest to define herself as a writer and to want this literary life to be a career.  During her junior year at Smith College, she applied for a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle for the coming summer, a laborious, several-step contest which required the writing of a criticism and overview of an issue of the magazine before the first culling of applicants and several writing assignments before the final cut for twenty guest-editorship slots.  At the same time, several of Plath’s poems were published in Seventeen and Harper’s purchased three poems (two of them villanelles).  At the end of April, 1953, Sylvia Plath received word that she’d won a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle to live in New York City and work at the magazine for the month of June.

But the social conventions of the 1950s preached repressive constraints.  Young women could have either marriage and a family or a career but not both.  In a telling passage from Plath’s The Bell Jar (the novel, about this time in her life, which she finished writing in 1961), her college-aged heroine explains:

I also remember Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more.  So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

Plath, like many young women in the ‘50s, saw marriage and family as irreconcilable with a career.

I believe this conflict between her desire for a literary career and the rigid gender roles of the times is a central issue of her poetry.  Also one might argue, given Plath’s self-identification as a writer and her highly professional attitude toward magazine publication during this period, that in “Mad Girl’s Love Song” what she dreams about, and for what she has an intense passion, is for her literary vocation (part of her deep self) but often during her junior year, she describes herself as “stupid” or a failure (especially when magazines reject her work) as if her literary skills have abandoned her or were imaginary in the first place.  This desertion is so shattering that it topples God and deadens the world around her.

That Plath saw herself as a failure, as inadequate, leads into the second piece of her deeper, often hidden, self: Plath as the mad girl herself.  As her junior year progressed, with its difficult course load, her application for a guest-editorship and the submissions of her stories and poems for possible publication, Plath descended into one of her worst depressions yet.  She wrote that she wanted to kill herself, felt she was drowning and sensed in her head a “numb, paralyzing cavern…a mimicking nothingness.”  This is the mad girl who says/writes that when [she] shuts [her] eyes…all the world drops dead…” and with it her perception of herself: “I think I made you up inside my head” where there is, according to her letters, solely a “paralyzing cavern [and]…nothingness.”

Sylvia Plath wrote “Mad Girl’s Love Song” sometime before her guest-editorship at Mademoiselle.  It was published in the magazine’s August issue, the same August as her breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953.
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