Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

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.

Read Full Post »

 

A Country Epitaph

by William Stafford

 

I am the man who plunged

through a river to save his dog;

who failed my parents, though;

who forgot my grief, and sang.

 

Outside your light I stand.

I appeal through careless words,

I appeal by this casual stone:

Was there more I could have done?

 

I appeal to human beings:

 

One day at a time I lived;

I saw more than I told;

I never knew if I claimed

too little or too much. I breathed.

 

There was more I could have done.

 

 

“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a .44

No Les. No more.

 

 

In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.

 

The facts of his life lead to this question:  Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.

 

Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.

 

The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—

 

I appeal through careless words

 

—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.

 

  • I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!

 

  • forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?

 

  • I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.

 

  • One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.

 

 

Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure:  the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.

 

 

I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.

 

 

William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.

 

Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.

 

His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.

 

Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:

 

He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”

 

He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:

 

 “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

only the crossing counts

by C.D. Wright

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off

the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready

for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.

Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

 

Posts in this series (The Cemetery Series, subset of Clear Out the Jam Jars Series) are not supposed to be long, but I really did not understand this poem the first six times I read it, and so I worked my way through it like a detective to find out what the heck it meant, which I ‘m also not supposed to be doing because A poem should not mean/ But be.

 

So sue me, I discovered some things.

 

I started with the words I didn’t know: phthis, lotharian, brumal. Phthsis is an eye no longer working. Lotharian I take to mean belonging to a Lothario, a man with a roving eye. Unfortunately now with a dead-eye.

 

A portrait of the person who died starts to take shape, a ladies man, a person so alive he scattered light, a person who found life had grown dark, the brumal (having to do with winter) wood of men and women banishing the butterflies. A person who wrote poetry, a person who shot pool and skeet, and died suddenly, unexpectedly—by suicide? By gunshot?

 

Ah, got it. The final line (which the first six times sounded like Rhett Butler popped in the poem on his way out of Atlanta)

 

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

now made sense. “only the crossing counts” is about poet Frank Stanford, C.D. Wright’s old lover. That was probably immediately obvious to anyone faintly familiar with C.D. Wright’s life. Just took me longer.

 

Frank Stanford shot himself in a bedroom while Wright was in the front of the house with Stanford’s wife. The death was sudden, it was horrific (and a crazy story, link here for more details). The first line

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life

 

sounds like someone grieving a suicide who’s trying to forget the circumstances of  the suicide. Later she wonders if at some level she always knew it would happen–

 

the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

 

That line just blows me away. This poem blows me away. It’s just so thick. Read it again. Read it six times, seven times. You’ll keep finding more.

 

C.D. Wright passed last year. I’ll reprint her bio from an earlier post.

C.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.

 

Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).

 

Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:

 

As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.

 

She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.

 

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.

 

She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.

 

 

Read Full Post »

poem is next to red roses

poem is next to red roses

[Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome]

by Christina Rossetti

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

Image 2

 

I’m lucky this Mother’s Day weekend to be visiting my mother in Maryland, lucky to celebrate this day with her in person for the first time in twenty years at least.

 

And when one is lucky, one can’t help but think of those who aren’t so lucky. Daughters who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their mothers. And mothers who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their children.

 

I was thinking of those mothers in particular when, on a walk near my mother’s house, I came across this tribute to a young man named Noah Marks who died January 1 this year. I gathered from the assembled objects and notes that he was a lovely young man, talented, a lover of baseball and bow ties, theater and running. I also gathered that his death was a suicide.

 

I thought of his mother, how difficult every day is for her, and how hard this first Mother’s Day without Noah will be. I went back home, printed this poem, and returned to the pedestrian bridge to leave it with the other mementos.

 

To the mother of Noah Marks and to the wonderful mothers I know who have also lost beautiful young sons to suicide, Happy Mother’s Day. This line of Rossetti’s will surely call up sweet memories of your babies:

To my first love, my Mother

That’s a soul-expanding thought for any mother. And also this:

In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

Mothers are mothers forever, whether or not children are around to send flowers or take them to brunch. A mother’s love for her children–past, present, and future love, love that will never end–marks her indelibly. Nothing can ever take away the beauty and blessing of that love. It’s a love to be honored and celebrated.

 

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

Read Full Post »