The Rival by Sylvia Plath
If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,
And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,
Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,
Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,
And dying to say something unanswerable.
The moon, too, abuses her subjects,
But in the daytime, she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.
No day is safe from news of you,
Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.
Note: The Rival is one of the most well-known poems featured in Sylvia Plath’s highly acclaimed posthumous work, Ariel. It was also one of the first poems I’ve read from Plath that really struck a chord with me. While Plath is known for the maelstrom of emotions her work produces, this one in particular encapsulated the universal idea of slow simmering resentment—the kind that’s forged over years of tempering and tolerance. The masterful comparison between the “addressed” and the moon speaks of a waxing and waning of emotions that suggests a long-term attempt to put up with the “addressed.” It also implies the ever-present nature of the subject, for “No day is safe from news of you,| Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.” These words have led to the popular speculation that the poem is about Plath’s mother, Aurelia.
This theory is further strengthened by the lines: “Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,| Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity.” In 1975, about 12 years after Plath’s death, Aurelia Schober Plath agreed to publish the abundance of letters Sylvia had written to her from 1950 to 1963. The collection, Letters Home, had not only given its readers insight into the mind of Sylvia Plath, it also gave them a glimpse of the complex relationship between mother and daughter—something that’s also clearly visible in the poem.
For while the initial wave of meaning that one experiences upon reading The Rival highlights resentment, the lack of action when it comes to severing ties with the subject also speaks volumes about the writer’s frame of mind regarding the “addressed.” Is the passivity in the piece caused by “resignation,” acceptance of “what is,” or does it underscore the dependency that comes with unconditional love? Whatever it implies, what makes The Rival such an enduring piece of literature is how it showcases Plath’s ability to capture the complexity of human emotions and relations.