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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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On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .

poem is on bench under orange sign 

Women and Horses

by Maxine Kumin

 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

-Theodor Adorno

 

After Auschwitz:  after ten of my father’s kin—

the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.

After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.

After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world

let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,

can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.

 

If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!

Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.

Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.

Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies

crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.

Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.

 

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables.

Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest.

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,

we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.

Let us see life again nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel

as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

 

—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—

 

Wartime Sunday

by Anne Porter

 

In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris

 

From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities

I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.

The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,

No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,

So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,

Great webs of stillness over the East River.

 

On our way home, passing the locked-up shops

We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps

Guitars and radios and dusty furs

And there among them a pawned christening-dress

White as a waterfall.

 

When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.

 

To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes:  the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.

 

Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)

 

Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness:  old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall  in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.

 

The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.

 

As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:

 

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems:  To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.

 

I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.

Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and  lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished. 

She died in 2014 at age 88.

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 *  *  *

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered. Watch this video to get an idea. (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

Portrait of Anne by Fairfield Porter

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

 

 

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poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

 

Among Women

 

by Marie Ponsot

 

What women wander?

Not many. All. A few.

Most would, now & then,

& no wonder.

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother

Bought from every peddler

Less for the ribbons and lace

Than for their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

She looked fragile but had

High blood, runner’s ankles,

Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her

Grand children, her once

Wild once young man.

Women wander

As best they can.

 

 

 

IMG_0308

 

 

In the opening lines of “Among Women,” poet Marie Ponsot poses the question, What women wander?  and replies by letting her thoughts wander and changing her opinion. She settles on this answer, a dry assessment of women’s lives:

 

Most would, now & then

& no wonder.

 

There’s a lot of experience behind that simple no wonder. Makes me laugh.

 

What is wandering anyway?  Wandering is not settling in one place, not having a destination or perhaps not even a plan.  Wandering is a willful disregard of boundaries.  And wandering is difficult if you’re “rooted,” like the grandmother is to her garden and her family.

 

I’ve fallen in love with this poem. Apologies to Roberta Flack and to everyone who hates the song, but it’s killing me softly.  It speaks to a neglected piece of my soul, a wild little part tucked away under layers of obligations, routines and attachments.  I recognize myself, as a mother and a writer, in these lines:

 

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

 

Devoted mothers aren’t supposed to fantasize about bolting, but how irresistible is Ponsot’s description of the gypsy life:

 

. . . their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

The aphoristic last lines in the poem

 

Women wander

As best they can

 

pull together the experience of women across geographical lines and throughout history, from reclusive Emily Dickinson to globetrotting Gertrude Bell to Poem Elf as a young mother surrounded by piles of books and small children tugging on her sleeve asking for a snack which she promised to get as soon as she finished one more chapter.

 

That was long ago.  But that drive is still there, even as I age and settle more and more into habit.

 

I get tired of evolutionary biologists and their ideas of what women want or wanted.  It’s all nesting and bonding and attracting and keeping the male for the benefit of his resources and protection. Likewise, I’m depressed by the brand of feminism that insists monogamy has been forced on women by patriarchal systems and that those who prioritize traditional female values—relationships, motherhood, the domestic arts—are unwitting products of centuries of gender bias.

 

“Among Women” allows for both arguments.  Our wild wandering spirit is as much a part of us as our bonds to those we love and care for.

 

The grandmother in the poem lives out the push and pull of gypsy spirit and family life.  What a full portrait of her Ponsot has drawn in so few strokes.  With her runner’s ankles, the grandmother is a tiny goat of a woman, someone who might dart away at any moment. She’s lived through pain and difficulty—she endures, endures, Ponsot writes.  Not wanting her progeny to experience what she has, she warns her granddaughter, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

Spoken like an enlightened Budhhist, someone who believes that the origin of suffering is attachment.  The grandmother’s warning, bleak and hard though it may be, speaks also of a soul made for adventure.  The impression her warning made on the young poet is emphasized by its stark placement between the two stanzas.

 

I left the poem outside Trader Joe’s.  Trader Joe’s is a grocery store dressed up like a trading post.  There’s a world map as you walk in, and scattered through the store are hints of huts and a castaway island.  It suggests travel and adventure, the adventure being the purchase of unfamiliar foods.  Shopping at this modern-day peddler can be a small gesture of wandering, and for some, the most wandering they will do.

 

Marie Ponsot by joshuagmizrahiMarie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

Illustration by Adrienne Segur by vidalia_11

illustration from Golden Book of Fairy Tales

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

 

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The last thing we need is one more national themed day or month that no one cares about or notices.  But after reading the New York Times magazine this past Sunday, I’m going to suggest a new one.  As I noted last week, April 26 is “Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  The following day should be designated “Smuggle a Poem in Your Pocket Day” in honor of poets who risk their lives to write.

 

Sunday’s Times features “’Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me,’” a profile of an Afghani women’s literary collective.  That the article was published during National Poetry Month suggests an irony too bitter to savor:  while the Academy of American Poets tries to charm, challenge and otherwise cajole Americans into reading poetry, women in Afghanistan face grave danger for writing it.

The Silhouette of The Hijab by firoze shakir photographerno1

 

Women in rural, Taliban-controlled areas must compose poetry in their heads– putting poems to paper could lead to beatings—and “publish” by calling in their work to a hotline.  Poems are then transcribed and shared with other women poets.  One young poet was beaten by her brothers when she was overheard reciting her poems on the telephone.  She later set herself on fire and died.

 

Sad and angry as the article left me, some of the poems made me smile.  I’ll share two I especially enjoyed.

 

The first is a biting four-line poem addressed to the Taliban.  The poet is all of fifteen years old:

 

You won’t allow me to go to school.

I won’t become a doctor.

Remember this:

One day you will be sick.

 

The second is from a 22 year-old woman whose father married her to an old man when she was a young teen:

 

Making love to an old man is like

Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.

 

Take that, you old goat.

 

 

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To write my last post I had to look up the cast of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  I came across an amusing bit from the script.  Terry Thomas, playing his usual upper-crust Englishman equal parts outraged and dastardly, serves up this rant on an American obsession:

 

“As far as I can see, American men have been totally emasculated — they’re like slaves! They die like flies from coronary thrombosis while their women sit under hairdryers eating chocolates and arranging for every second Tuesday to be some sort of Mother’s Day! And this infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all my time in this godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment. I’ll wager you anything you like that if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.”

 

CN00028698 by annaparrucchiera

no bon bons

It’s dated but familiar.  The idea of American men slaving to keep their castrating wives happy under hair dryers nibbling away on chocolates wasn’t true even in 1963, but the misogyny of Thomas’ character is still a ”dominant theme in American culture,” as anyone who watched Superbowl commercials will attest.  Thomas’ scenario has echoes in the Teleflora ad in which someone named Adriana Lima lasciviously explains Valentine’s Day to men: “Give and you shall receive.”  And the Dannon lady who head-butts her partner to get the most yogurt is a younger and prettier version of Thomas’s nemesis, Ethel Merman.  Screeching her way towards the buried treasure, Merman repeatedly thrashes the men in the movie with her hefty pocketbook.

 

Few would dispute Thomas’ characterization of our national bosom obsession, but some might—politely—point out that the English have a reputation for a juvenile preoccupation with buttocks.

 

Jeez, look at me, sucking out all the humor.  I don’t mean to.  Dated or not, his speech makes me laugh. Say prepostorous preoccupation with bosoms with an English accent.  All that spit and all those bilabial plosives!  Funny!  Bosom is a great big fun word.

 

In defense of my adolescent sense of humor:  growing up we prayed the Stations of the Cross in our living room every night during Lent.  This was a solemn activity, often a dreaded one, at least until we got to the 13th station, Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross.  We took turns reading and if the 13th station landed on you, rather like hot potato, you would be required to say a very embarrassing phrase out loud.   Usually the reader would start giggling and be unable to complete the reading and then everyone else would start sniggering.  After three or four attempts to say it without laughing, we gave up and my mother took over.  “And pressed Him to her BOSOM,” she would say firmly, trying to sound unamused, which was about the funniest part of all.

 

Forevermore, “bosom” is my word of choice for describing mammaries, even though my kids cringe when I say it.  “Boob” is just too coarse and  “breast” has too many associations with cancer for a bosom-less gal like me.

 

One last bosom story:  I fondly remember my husband’s uncle reminiscing about his wife in a party dress when she was a college student:  She had a lovely bosom, he sighed.

 

Aren’t they all.

 

 

 

 

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