Saturday, February 11, 2023

feathery turnings

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

-Elm, Sylvia Plath

Every February 11th for the past two decades at least, the same thing happens. At some point I suddenly realize that it's the anniversary of Plath's suicide, and every year, I am surprised that indeed another year has passed without her in the world that could have still had her in it had things worked out differently. Books that could have been written. Awards and accolades that could have been won (which she craved), More and better loves, more words, more paintings. Just more. While she may not have lived to be in her early 90s at this point, she would have had many more years in the world that would have loved and demanded her work.

Or I like to think it would of, but it's also wrapped up in the complication that one of the reasons that Plath is so famous and so loved is that she did not live past 30. I always try to list the poets that were Plath's contemporaries that had long careers--Mary Oliver, and Adrienne Rich. Or Linda Pastan, also born in 1932,  for example, whose recent passing was mourned by a number of poets I know who appreciated her work greatly.  They all did well. Went on to write more, love more, become mentors for younger poets, and thrive as teachers and writers. But outside of literary-specific world, they're not quite the household name that Plath is among the normies  Part of it might have been the success of The Bell Jar, and her fame as a prose writer, but even that is complicated by her very famous death and the book's related subject matter. 

I've no doubt we'd still be reading Plath if she'd lived, though I suspect the sad girl cult, of which I am a member, sometimes wouldn't have made her a patron goddess (along with Taylor Swift and Tori Because I learned everything I knew of the lit world from reading Plath's work and journals and letters when I was 19, she is still something at the heart of my own writing, even as my poems have changed and developed over more than two decades. It took me a little longer to fully appreciate the craft and skill of Ariel, which I grew to become enamored with (so much so that I wrote centos drawn from it with honey machine.) What happens on the other side of depression when you climb out of it and dust yourself off? Would her work have been as furious and full of blood if she'd calmly reached middle age? We'll never know.

But then, I sometimes realize that for all my obsession with Plath, I have in fact lived long past 30. My own work, which even now pales in comparison to the brilliance of hers, the intensity of hers, has had more time to develop (maybe I'll get there when I'm 80). That even in the darkest period of my life --smaller bouts of depression like the one 25 years ago, either acute or slow burn--I was not suicidal. Bad brain-wiring anxiety-prone, yes, which sometimes led to depression, but not to the depths of Plath by any means. Also, with Plath specifically on my mind through my 20s and 30s, I was careful to never allow men and their nonsense fuck up the whole of my life. To make the kinds of choices that I knew would keep the abysses and whirlpools at bay as much as anyone can.

I know so many poets similarly obsessed with her work, because she's obviously amazing, but it also has always for many of us felt like a warning. A glimpse. Like a therefore but for the grace of god go I. Like if our darks had been darker or our reds meaner, we might not all be that different.  As someone who has more than a share of seasonal affective disorder, I also know even something like snow and early dark (also loneliness and crying children and being sick)  can tip an already shaky boat. So these are the things I think about every February, though now I've learned to look not at the snow and the dark, but at the lengthening of the days that stretch ahead through March.  At flowers and serotonin-boosting comforts like grilled cheese and chocolate and tea.  But then I also realize that while Sylvia didn't quite make it to shore, her last collection, written as the boat bashed into the rocks and finally broke apart, DID and maybe it's just the lifeboat the rest of us needed to make it safely to our destinations.

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