Saturday, December 12, 2009

Colored Arrows: A Tribute to Sylvia Plath and Jenna Dur

Reading and teaching Sylvia Plath has been an unexpected treat, like warm cookies on a rainy day, like a found twenty crumbled in a pocket. Sure, I had read the anthologized poems in college, knew the whole head-in-the-oven suicide. But there was so much I didn't know, like the brilliant balance of darkness and playfulness in "The Bell Jar," like Plath's deep reverence for villanelles.

Plath's autobiographical novel captures the stale stage upon which women were supposed to perform in the 1950s. The heroine, Esther Greenwood, is pressured to learn short-hand and get married, but she would rather write and read. Her desire for men is less about the physique--- "The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed"---but about "discarding" a virginity that weighs "like a millstone" around her neck. Even at the ripe age of twenty, she challenges the gender specific sacredness of virginity. The novel is full of these sharp moments of cultural critique as Esther is seduced by suicide and slips further into a debilitating mental illness. When Esther's mother advises that she put her institutionalization behind her, like a "bad dream," she reflects on the absurdity of such dishonesty, recalling her painful memories, noting that "They were my landscape."

Plath finally succeeded in killing herself (a wish that her body, with its insistent heartbeat, trumped for years) when she was thirty. She'd already published a novel, grieved a failed marriage, and given birth to two kids. Now that I am thirty, I take stock of my own landscape---I can't deny the jagged mountains of regret and the sea of shame. But, thankfully, in sharper relief: a meadow vibrant with wildflowers, a trail of curiosity winding through June-green forest.

I realize that I need to be grateful that I'm a blogger with a few (minor) publication credits to my name, still giddy about my romantically budding relationship, still dreaming about kids. Is it a blessing that I haven't "succeeded" as Plath had? Perhaps. Then again, I surely can identify with her intense need for validation, her fear and self doubt. But it is this sentiment, from "The Bell Jar," that made me sit up, grab for my pen, and decorate the margins with exclamation points:

"I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."

Inspired by Plath's use of form as a way of grounding and ordering her fierce dreamy words, I wrote my own villanelle about my arch nemesis. And then one about liquid rainbows running bright through moonscapes. And then one about the writing craft. And then one for my youngest sister, Jenna, who turns eighteen years old today. The thirteen years and hundreds of miles that separate us are dwarfed by the ancient, sturdy bridge of reading and writing where we meet above that swift moving river of time. Here's to Jenna, and the budding of her own landscape:

Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears
A wordsmith, a phoenix, a bohemian doll
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

The last to be born in the kingdom of tears
Shivers warmed by curiosity's shawl
Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears

Like cave-cradled crystals, insight so clear
Humbled since birth, an ego grown small
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

Safe is she who can see through her fears
Calmly answering panic's call
Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears

She slices lies with the sharpest of sheers
For peace to build, the Empire must fall
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

A childlike madcappery she engineers
Join her party, she's open to all
Keep blooming, blooming as each birthday nears
Hard to believe you've breathed eighteen years

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