Dying is an art.

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Today is the birthday of Sylvia Plath, born in 1932 and dying of suicide in 1963, aged only 30.  Forever young, forever turgid with what may have been.

The poem below is a description of her relationship with suicide.  The death of her father when she was 8 years old remained with her all her life.  He died of complications following the amputation of his foot from diabetes.  Does the reference to her own right foot reflect this in the poem below?

Her father Otto Plath self diagnosed his illness – incorrectly.  Is this “Herr Doktor”?  This poem and “Daddy” are imbued with German imagery, Nazi imagery, Holocaust Imagery.  Having a German father and an Austrian mother during WW2 clearly carried a weight of guilt for the young Plath.

Her success in suicide was achieved ironically in an oven, gassing herself to death, a parody of the gassing and burning of the Jews in death camps.  Those were the days when we used towns gas, made from coal or naphta, which was poisonous.  These days if you stick your head in a gas oven you will simply get a headache.  Natural gas is not poisonous.

Lady Lazarus is one of Plath’s most analysed poems.  You will find analysis that claims it as a holocaust poem, survivor guilt, a feminist tirade against the patriarchy, a commentary on the vampire like demands of the audience on the artist, the legacy of her fathers early death, the abusive relationship with her husband Ted Hughes, the pressures on women to conform to a societal ideal, and so on.  It is a rich soup of imagery for any critic.

 

Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
bright as a Nazi lampshade,
my right foot

a paperweight,
my face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
the grave cave ate will be
at home on me

and I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
and like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
to annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
shoves in to see

them unwrap me hand and foot——
the big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

these are my hands
my knees.
I may be skin and bone,

nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
to last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

as a seashell.
They had to call and call
and pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

comeback in broad day
to the same place, the same face, the same brute
amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
that knocks me out.
There is a charge

for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
for the hearing of my heart——
it really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
for a word or a touch
or a bit of blood

or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
the pure gold baby

that melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
you poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

a cake of soap,
a wedding ring,
a gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
beware
beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
and I eat men like air.

Happy Birthday Andrew Motion

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UK poet laureate from 1999 to 2009, following in the footsteps of Ted Hughes (husband of Sylvia Plath).  The top choice for that gig was Seamus Heaney, but the Irishman ruled himself out.

Born Oct 26th 1952 Motion had the good fortune to study under W.H Auden in Oxford and to have Philip Larkin as a colleague at Hull.  He followed Malcom Bradbury as professor of creative writing in University of East Anglia.  Now esconced at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA.  A brilliant poet from a stable of brilliant poets.

Andrew Motion shares a birthday with Dublin Poet Trevor Joyce, but we’ll give this page to Andrew on the day England defeated the All Blacks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final in Yokohama.

Diving; by Andrew Motion

The moment I tire
of difficult sand-grains
and giddy pebbles,
I roll with the punch
of a shrivelling wave
and am cosmonaut
out past the fringe
of a basalt ledge
in a moony sea-hall
spun beyond blue.
Faint but definite
heat of the universe

flutters my skin;
quick fish apply
as something to love,
what with their heads
of gong-dented gold;
plankton I push

an easy way through
would be dust or dew
in the world behind
if that mattered at all,
which is no longer true,
with its faces and cries.

Plathitudes

A memoir to Sylvia, who died the year I was born, head in a gas oven.

They don’t make gas like that anymore.

And Ted, who was blamed by the feminists, the fantasists

who knew, but loved her still.

The Blue Flannel Suit; by Ted Hughes

I had let it all grow. I had supposed
It was all OK. Your life
Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.

That first morning,
Before your first class at College, you sat there
Sipping coffee. Now I know, as I did not,
What eyes waited at the back of the class
To check your first professional performance
Against their expectations. What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny.

You waited,
Knowing yourself helpless in the tweezers
Of the life that judges you, and I saw
The flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound
Which was all you had for courage.
I saw that what you gripped, as you sipped,
Were terrors that killed you once already.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.