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Archive for September, 2020

My alter ego, unmasked

Every dog has his day and so with every elf.

 

Welcome. You have landed in the department of self-promotion. You may leave at any time.

 

I’m thrilled to have a piece published in Lithub chronicling my ten years as Poem Elf. Thanks to any of you who read it. More importantly, thanks to all for your readership of this blog! Your support is one of the things that keeps me going.

 

(Dubious side benefit to reading the essay:  if you scroll down far enough, you’ll find out what I look like. Actually I can save you the trouble. What I look like is ten years older than when I started this project.)

 

How I Found Small Joys in My Life as a Poem Elf

 

Next week I get back to business with a death series. Never have been a fan of autumn.

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poem is on mirror, above pillow

 

Mirror

by Sylvia Plath

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful ‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

 

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

 

Hate to say it, but the first stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” reminds me of a grade school creative writing assignment. You know the kind—“Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object like a sock or a globe.” I hate to say it because who am I to criticize a poem by the great and venerable Plath, even one of her lesser ones. This reluctance to show disrespect also stems from a personal history of undervaluing Plath’s work for reasons unflattering to myself. More on that later.

 

Still, even if I won’t sing the glories of this poem, I’ve found its punch and power. Some of it’s going to sit with me for a long while.

 

There’s a clever structure at work here. “Mirror” is a poem about a mirror in which two stanzas mirror each other. Both are nine lines each, and both present a psychological portrait of a character. The first stanza brings us to the inner life of the mirror, the second to the woman obsessed with the mirror. The mirror knows exactly what she or he is, seems self-contained and proud. The woman comes off as hysterical, crying, throwing up her hands.

 

One meditates. One agitates. One is truthful, the other enamored of liars—the candles and moonlight that present her in a softer light. The mirror focuses on what it sees, the woman on how she is seen. The woman has the formula for self-worth backwards, as mirror images always do.

 

The last lines burn. I won’t ever search out new wrinkles in the mirror without thinking of these images—

 

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

Plath herself was only 28, fresh-faced and beautiful, when she wrote the poem. She couldn’t have seen anything remotely close to a terrible fish in the mirror. But being young and beautiful, she well understood the role that youth and beauty have in a woman’s sense of her own value.

 

I left the poem in a boutique dressing room where I felt disgust at how a certain pair of pants fit my behind. Silly to let that terrible fish share the mirror with me.

 

*

 

One night in my mid-twenties, my book group was discussing Plath’s only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar.  My friend had read it in a woman’s studies class in college and was enamored of Plath as a feminist hero. I spent the evening arguing, in my bombastic and irritating way, that Plath was not a victim of patriarchy but of mental illness. This is not the story, I said, of someone who felt hemmed in by rigid gender roles, this is the story of someone who suffered from serious depression. I resented at almost a personal level the hagiography of a person I saw as a victim of biology and not of societal expectations. Of the latter I was dismissive.

 

That night I slept at my mother-in-law’s house, my husband and my father-in-law being out of town. As I lay in bed, the windowpanes rattled and rattled and I became convinced that Sylvia Plath was trying to get in the room to take revenge for my comments. l was frightened. I went to my mother-in-law’s room, woke her, and said, “I know this sounds silly, but Sylvia Plath’s ghost is haunting me. Can I sleep with you?” To her great and abiding credit, the dear woman acted not the least surprised. “Sure,” she said, pulling down the covers on the other side of the bed. I slept soundly and in the morning she didn’t mention it.

 

My fright, it seems to me now, was just leftover guilt at steamrolling over the other book club members’ opinions and not giving Plath her full due. Yes, she suffered from clinical depression, but in a different environment, less constraining for an ambitious young woman like herself, she might have survived without resorting to suicide. Whatever combination of chemistry and environment that brought on her depression, the fact is that she suffered. She suffered terribly. For me, researching the details of her biography was as penance for false judgment.

 

 

*

 

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a German entomologist and his graduate student Aurelia Schober. Plath was the oldest of two. Her father died when she was eight.

 

Plath was an excellent student with a genius level IQ. While at Smith College she was chosen to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. The experience was disillusioning. Clinical depression set in, and at age twenty-one she made her first suicide attempt. She crawled under her mother’s house with a bottle of sleeping pills, and was found two days later. She was sent to a private hospital, treated with electric and insulin shock therapy, recovered, and returned to school.

 

Plath graduated from Smith with highest honors and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There she met and married poet Ted Hughes. She returned to Smith to teach, and finding that teaching made writing difficult, took a job as a receptionist while taking a writing seminar with poet Robert Lowell at night. Lowell and Anne Sexton (who took the seminar with her) encouraged her to write in the more confessional vein for which she is famous.

 

She moved back to London, had two children, a miscarriage in between. She wrote to her mother that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. Hughes seems to have been a hunky, charismatic fellow but obviously no prince. After discovering he was having an affair with their tenant, Plath moved into a flat with the two children, ages two and under one. This was a period of great creativity for her but also deep depression. London had one of the coldest winters on record, the pipes in the apartment froze, the telephone didn’t work, and the kids were often sick.

 

That February she committed suicide at age 30, famously sticking her head in an oven while her children slept in the room next door. I remember at book club judging her harshly for putting her children at risk this way. Turns out she carefully taped the doors to seal the kids off from the gas, and killed herself at 4:30 a.m., a few hours before the nanny would arrive.

 

Her daughter Frieda is an artist, and her son Nicholas, a fisheries biologist. He  committed suicide by hanging in middle-age. Theirs was a difficult life. After their mother’s death, the woman their father had an affair with moved in to care for them, and six years later committed suicide in the same fashion, killing her own daughter as well.

 

My heart aches for such suffering.

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poem is on center line

Dan’s Bugs

by Jim Harrison

I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig

that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,

lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.

There was guilt about the moth who died

when she showered with me, possibly a female.

They communicate through wing vibrations.

I was careful when sticking a letter

in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,

not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.

Out here in the country many insects invade our lives

and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.

On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken

I stopped from 70 mph to pick up

a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,

as we do in our implacable geologic time.

As a longtime Jim Harrison fan, I can’t read this poem without an image of the poet, grizzled and drunk, winking at me for the tenderness on display, but I was surprised to find another northern Michigan man springing up, a man I encountered long ago in a plain little church one Sunday. He lumbered up to the lectern to sing and I thought, geez they must be really hard up for a cantor. He had a face like a pork butt and the hands of a butcher, but my goodness his voice was honey. He filled the church with some of the most beautiful church singing I’ve ever heard.

That same incongruity is at work in “Dan’s Bugs.” Weather-beaten, chain-smoking Harrison, prolific killer of animals and fish, stops on the highway to tenderly pick up the smallest of roadkill, a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

This poem is everything I love about my fellow humans, how surprising people can be with their beauty hidden under donkey skins, their talents wrapped in coarse coverings, their kindness under gruff exteriors. The poem is also everything I love about Harrison, his humor, his morbidity, his wry take on the human condition, his sweet heart.

Did I mention I love this guy?

*

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

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