Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Featured Poem: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

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(Due to copyright issues, I won’t be posting the poem. But click here to view “Morning Song” in its entirety.)

Sylvia Plath is one of the finest poets the world has ever seen. There is this incredible, almost unnerving frankness and viciousness to her works. She had a way of squeezing every drop out of life at every instance and skillfully capturing passing notions and emotions. She’d weave them into beautiful and oftentimes jarring tapestries of poetry and stark reality. For many readers, myself included, her finely penned confessions/poems possess a magnetic pull. We are drawn into her world just as effectively as we are asked to examine ours.

In Morning Song, Plath captures the burgeoning love of a mother for her newborn. The poem, written shortly after her own child’s birth, speaks of how mother and child start off almost as if they were strangers before inevitably developing a connection that binds them for life.

Note how in the poem, she addresses her child as if she were speaking to another adult. There is no cooing, no profuse proclamations of a life-changing love—nothing to intimate the cosmic connection between them, at least at first.

In the first line, she even likens the child to a “fat gold watch.” Although the watch was set into motion by love, the ticking watch can also be seen as a reminder of a person’s mortality.  To be specific, if not the death of the person, the demise of the self. The third stanza reads:

“I am no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.”

Interesting use of the word effacement, which in medical terms refer to the thinning of the cervix in preparation for the child’s delivery. But attach the word ‘self’ to effacement, and what you have is the deliberate act of taking the background, almost as if allowing the self to fade away, much like how condensation dissipates into thin air. Again, a ticking clock and effacement at the wind’s hand.

Take into consideration that from a purely evolutionary perspective—strictly gene’s eye level—the purpose of gene carriers is to ensure the continuation of their respective genetic lines, i.e. man must “go forth and multiply.”

And while, historically speaking, “securing heirs” was a weight carried by both men and women, there’s no arguing that women were left to shoulder the brunt of that weight. Go back less than a century to Plath’s own time and a large section of society still thought that a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children and rear them. Women were already working then, but the concept of ‘family first’ for women wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was an accepted rule.

Now, Sylvia Plath was a woman with grand literary ambitions and while motherhood was something she welcomed completely, when faced with the newness of the situation, it must have given her a bit of a pause. Motherhood was a jump into the uncertain, which carried with it great joy and tremendous challenges.

On the second stanza, she describes the parents’ reaction to the baby’s arrival—

“Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

In a drafty museum your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”

There it is, the pause. A sense of detachment. Strangers meeting for the first time. And yet, towards the end, the poem changes its tune quite drastically to show a mother’s devotion to her child. Plath speaks of waking to listen to her child’s breathing. She talks of how:

“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.”

Those words transform the persona from a watchful observer to a dedicated and loving mother.

Now, in my humble opinion, what makes Morning Song timeless is how it challenges the traditional idea that all women react the same way to motherhood. While ideally, it would be love at first sight between mother and newborn—that their bond is present and sealed after the final push—it’s not an always case. Sometimes it takes a while for that bond to be established. And that’s okay. Sometimes going through that journey of getting to know and arriving to love their children is just a journey some of the best mothers have had to undertake.

Featured Poem: The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by WB Yeats

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The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats (1892)

All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things, is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew, and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

Notes and Analysis:

Back in freshman year in college, about a decade ago, the class was asked to pick a poem from our poetry book and to present our analysis of said work. I picked The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats. Having had little exposure to W.B. Yeats’s works and little access to the World Wide Web, I ended up with a rather rudimentary and straightforward assessment of what I would later discover to be a historically rich piece.

Armed with handwritten notes, acetate film, and a projector, I proceeded to tell the class my limited understanding of the work. I spoke of how the simplicity of the every day becomes an affront to a man in love. The lover speaks of wanting to rebuild the world to suit the perfection of his loved one. The “wrongness” of the commonplace when set beside the luxurious line “re-made like a casket of gold,” implies the wealth of emotion the speaker feels for the addressed. How the mundane quality of everyday things pales in comparison to the depth of his emotions and the beauty of “the rose in the deeps of his heart.”  And while there may be some merit to this surface-level analysis, there are certain themes I feel I’ve missed. Consider this an attempt to correct my earlier report.

W.B. Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin, Ireland. When he was a child, his family moved to London to help further his father’s career as an artist. Much of his youth and early adulthood was then spent in the capital city of England. In fact, Yeats purportedly wrote The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart during his stay in Bedford Park in 1892. Despite the long years spent abroad, Yeats seems to have remained profoundly devoted to his homeland. Closer examination of the abovementioned poem even discloses allusions to life in Ireland—“the cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart/the heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould/Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.”

Could the “you” being portrayed here be something other than a person? Could it, in fact, be the land itself? He speaks of a “hunger to build them anew,” these “unshapely things.” Consider “you” to be Ireland, and the poem takes on a whole new meaning. This makes it altogether possible that the poem isn’t so much about romantic love as it is about nationalistic ideals—the desire to connect with and improve a country that is much beloved though distant. That’s one idea that can be explored.

The other, is that the piece is, in fact, really just a wonderfully written love poem dedicated to Yeats’s long-term love; the English-born feminist, actress, and Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne. Maud figured heavily in Yeats’s writings throughout the span of his infatuation. She is said to have inspired works like “No Second Troy,” “This, This Rude Knocking,” and “A Man Young and Old.” The poet was so enamored with the Irish revolutionary that he proposed marriage to her, no less than five times (in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and once again in 1916). Though by the time of the last proposal, the romance had reportedly long since fizzled out. It must have been an amicable break because that same year, the 52-year-old Yeats also proposed marriage to Maud’s 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. She also turned him down. When seen in this context, the straightforward analysis of yore works.

And here’s a personal observation from my 28-year-old self: how terribly prophetic that Yeats would use “re-made like a casket of gold” in a poem dedicated to Maud—how a grand gesture could in fact signal the end of a grand, long-standing romance, as one reads too much into the word “casket.” But that’s overreaching and over-reading, as a lover of words is wont to do.

The last idea, which is my favorite, is that like all great works from master wordsmiths, The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart is actually a complex combination of these ideas, and more. It’s a love poem written for both a ‘dream lover’ and the ‘dream of a better nation.’ I could also say that it’s an example of how great poetry works—with its ever-shifting meanings borne of the reader’s active imaginings.

The Sylvia Plath Connection: At this point, it’s no great secret that I am a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s works. It was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” which awoke my desire to write for a living. Being also a fan of W.B. Yeats’s writings, imagine my surprise when I found out that the two shared something other than great talent. At the time of Sylvia Plath’s death, she was living in a flat where William Butler Yeats once lived. She had taken it as a sign of greater things.

And that concludes today’s lengthy ramblings.

Featured Poem: The Rival by Sylvia Plath

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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.

Free Verse: Letter to Sylvia – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

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An Open Letter to Sylvia Plath – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

I

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have rifled through the leaves of your memory,

Hunting down words, unearthing

Your anagrams, the loose codes

Of your alliterations, mounting the apex

Of your imagination. Thumbing through

Text, I have expanded my parentheses;

Cut thumbs with metaphors—

Bled disappearing ink: written letters

You’ll never receive. I’ve buried

Each and every note—under

Beds, under stairs, under stars,

I have hallooed the Sandman and sent

My regards. And still,

Your meaning eludes me.

 

II

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have sought for your person

In every sylph of a woman,

Every self of a child.

I have scoured through

Each and every disguise.

Now every intersection is another dimension

Where they say you’ve lived,

Where they say you’ll die. Over

And over again.

I refuse their ill substance,

Their ill-timed lies: yours is a truth that cannot die.

It becomes the valley, the trenches, the sky.

And the tree that knows

Every spectrum of color, every pulse of light.

 

III

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Why must you hide?

I have grown grey traversing

the avenues of your memory,

the grand maze of your mind.

I have chased your shadow

For miles and miles. Seeking your tone

In every conversation that starts with “I…”

Or every phrase that ends with “wither,” or

“pure,” or “white.”

The years thin over time.

I tire of this barren pursuit. Crouched:

I grow cold for your solitary moon—

Your solid weight. Your promised effacement,

The delivery of my child, my fate.

And still I wait. 

 

 

Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage. By Diane Middlebrook

Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook

 

Title: Her Husband

Author: Diane Middlebrook

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

First Published: 2003

Pages: 350 (with the bibliography but sans the index)

I feel somewhat obliged to inform the reader that this isn’t so much a book review as it is a raw reaction to work, which I consider greatly illuminating. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s for years. I have such few passions, but the brightest flame that’s got me alit from the very marrow of my bones is Poetry.

And since that life-changing day in high school when my Creative Writing professor read Mirror in class, since I caught a glimpse of the White Goddess in the echoes of the person and works of Plath, I have looked up to the infamous poetess as a child looks up to its idealized mother. In her works, I’ve found the impossible benchmark to my writing.

What I love about “Her Husband” by Diane Middlebrook is that it shatters this extreme idolatry by, in a way, demythologizing Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. What Middlebrook does is she does away with the blame game, refusing to paint Hughes in any other light than what one can discern from both his and Plath’s memories and writings. Through extracting the very essence of the poets’ works and revealing memories from close friends and relatives, the author explains the nature of Plath’s and Hughes’s relationship. One learns that beyond the obvious erotic and magickal pull between these poets, you have this mutually beneficial writing relationship where one calls and the other answers through poetry and prose.

The book also reveals intimate details about Plath, Hughes, and their relationship. We learn about their quirks, personal interests, fears, insecurities, and even their pet names for each other. I guess those details were the most jarring of all. We always seek to unveil our champions, to get under their skin. Find out what makes them tick. I wonder, is it human nature to cringe at the sight of their humanity too? Perhaps cringe is a strong word, but the intimate baring of Plath and Hughes in this book had me feeling a bit ‘uncomfortable’ for a while. It felt as if I’ve waded in the sea of their memories, an unwelcome visitor scared to be treading such private waters. But what can one expect from a good biography? And this one is one of the best biographies I’ve read, after all.

One of the most surprising ‘reveals’ in the book was how Plath actually liked Wevill the first time they met. Wevill had even gone out of her way to get Plath a small gift after they met. Of course, this only served to make the entire thing even more tragic for Plath. It was particularly heartwrenching to read about the humiliation Plath must’ve felt immediately after the split. On the day Hughes packed up to leave their home, she interrogated him about his relationship with Wevill:

“Where had he been? Why had he tricked her? Did he mean to abandon his children? How much money had he spent? How good was sex with Assia? Unfortunately, he answered her questions—‘fed me the truth with leer after leer,’ she [Plath] told her mother. (p.183)

There were certain points in the book where one wondered how Hughes could stand to hurt Plath that way. Obviously, the attraction between Assia and Ted must have been immense for both to act so recklessly as to ruin their marriages. At times, it was easy to paint Hughes as the ‘bad guy.’ But Middlebrook handles this dilemma (this tendency for immediate bias) deftly. She does this by presenting Hughes’s side by quoting a letter Ted had written for his brother:

“The one factor that nobody but close friends can comprehend is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” Hughes wrote to Gerald. “In many of the most important ways she’s the most gifted and capable and admirable woman I’ve ever met—but, finally, impossible for me to live married to.” (p.180)

Hughes had grown restless, the way he was restless before he met Plath. The man and the woman pulled away from each other as the writers in them continued to draw from their wellspring of shared experiences. Eventually they had to call it quits, though Hughes claims that weeks before Plath’s death, a reconciliation may have been in the works.

We all know about Plath’s final creative burst and her tragic death. But this book also talks about Hughes and how he dealt with both Plath’s and Wevill’s suicides. How, after being forced into the role of the ‘relic husband,’ Hughes finally came to terms with being Plath’s collaborator and conduit even after her death. I think it was this point when he began creating his most ‘honest’ and vulnerable works. I’ve always admired Hughes’s writings, but I’ve felt that his latter works were less cerebral, less swathed in obscurity, but more meaningful—more relatable. And that’s a big thing for me.

All in all, I think this is one of the most skillfully written, revealing, and unflinching biographies about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s a great read if you love Plath, Hughes, or poetry (and its processes) in general.

Rating: A+

Featured Poem: Wanting to Die by Anne Sexton

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Note: In my opinion, this is one of Anne Sexton’s best works. Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s death, this poem resonates with perception. It rationalizes suicide as a form of addiction—an idea agreed upon by Plath and Sexton. Sexton refers to suicide as an ‘unnameable lust.’ She likens suicides to carpenters who never ask ‘why build.’

In the poem, there is an effort to resist death’s calling. But ultimately, the desire for death (as something equated by the persona to happiness) appears strong and relentless. At the end of the poem, Sexton touches upon the most blatant promise of suicide—unfinished business.

Wanting to Die

by Anne Sexton

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.

Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention,

The furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.

They never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,

Have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,

Have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

Warmer than oil or water,

I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle-point.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don’t always die,

But dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet

That even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue!—

That, all by itself, becomes a passion.

Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,

And yet she waits for me, year after year,

To so delicately undo an old wound,

To empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,

Raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,

Leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

Leaving the page of the book carelessly open,

Something unsaid, the phone off the hook

And the love, whatever it was, an infection.

 

Image from: LitStack.com