Sunday, November 18, 2007

More GPP Crusade 14

I rediscovered Sylvia Plath on Pilar Pollack's site I had read "The Bell Jar" in my twenties (back in the ice age), and found the poems depressing. Now, due to life experience? I can read them with more understanding and appreciation. Thanks for helping me rediscover Sylvia Plath, Pilar!

The Disquieting Muses
By Sylvia Plath

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father's twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
"Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don't care!"
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother.

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

The fifth verse beginning with the line, "Mother, you sent me to piano lessons" resonates particuliarly with me. After my mother's early death, Gram determined that I should "pick up where your mother left off," meaning that I should become an accomplished pianist, as mommy had been. I am not tone-deaf, but my musical interests lay in singing, rather than in piano playing. I persevered, and finally won the right to quit piano lessons and continue with voice lessons.
In the above poem, Plath seems to resent the fact that her mother was unable to banish the evil Sleeping Beauty-like "fairies", who attended Sylvia Plath from birth to death. Her mother couldn't prevent the hurricane from destroying their house. Most children discover at some point that their parents are not the gods they believed them to be as small children. Most children are not devastated by this discovery. The sensitive, fragile Sylvia Plath evidently did not.
This poem is filled with wonderful images, such as the darning-headed, faceless, evil ladies who appear at Plath's birth and never leave her. They give chills up the backbone. How they must have tormented Sylvia Plath!
There's the wonderful image of the hurricane, which causes the study windows to be "bellied in/Like bubbles about to break" , and the "twinkle dress" which contrasts so perfectly with Plath's "heavy-footed" performance. A performance accomplished "In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed Godmothers".
Rest in peace, Sylvia. Your struggles have resulted in wonderful words which amaze and delight, at the same time as they make one want to hold you and tell you that mothers cannot save us from all the ills of the world, but we can always fall back on the remembrance of their love and unequivacal approval of even our tonedeaf and heavy-footed performances.


michelle ward said...

Kathleen - thanks for sharing your continued thoughts on Muse with the team. Isn't it interesting to re-read something years after and remember our first impression, and then filter it through our experiences gained since then and understand it in a whole different way? Thanks to you (and Pilar) for reminding us about Sylvia.

Barone said...

Thank you for sharing Sylvia's work and your thoughts on the shattering discovery we tend to have as we become women that our mothers may not live up to our untested ideals. Many of the women poets are my muses as well. But the dichotomy of being a mother and still a daughter is one that continues to interest and surprise me through the different stages of my life. Be well...jodi barone

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