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Home » Diann Blakely » Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Contemporary Women’s Poetry

Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Contemporary Women’s Poetry

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In a climate which places a premium on women’s strength, women’s potentialities, women’s capacity for fully enjoying both love and work, how can a woman who never married, who rarely left her family home, and who, in her later years, dressed solely in white as if to symbolize her virginity of soul through her clothing, serve as any model at all for women in the twenty-first century? “We think back through our mothers, if we are women,” wrote Virginia Woolf. This may be true, broadly speaking, but getting down to particulars, few self-respecting women poets of the last generation or so, it would seem, would want to claim any artistic descent from Emily Dickinson. Her subject matter is often banal—robins and bees abound, particularly in the early poems—and then there is the very appearance of the poems themselves to consider. They seem so small, so modest, their lines made up of only a few words, punctuated only by dashes, the poems themselves rarely made up of more than a dozen lines—all this would appear as a poetic declaration of demureness, a modesty of intent, or even a fear of taking up too much room on the page. Her poems have none of the sprawling masculine gesticulations of Whitman, or Pound, or the later William Carlos Williams—Dickinson’s poems by contrast seem a polite sort of leg-crossing, their ankles tucked neatly together.

But appearances, as we know, are often deceiving. We have learned to look at Emily Dickinson as both a woman and a poet in new ways, thanks to recent studies, many of which have been written, perhaps not surprisingly, by female critics and biographers: Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Lyndall Gordon, Helen McNeil, Virginia Jackson, Susan Howe, Alicia Ostriker, and the late Adrienne Rich—the last three being poets themselves—to name a few. The best and most meaningful readings of Dickinson, however, have come from women writing not essays or scholarly work but poems that in some way touch on, or have themselves been touched by, the themes, the preoccupations, and the obsessions of the woman once thought to be our quintessential “poetess,” “the Belle of Amherst.”

A careful and informed reading of Dickinson quickly reveals that she never was the demure figure our popular mythology has made her out to be. She wrote powerfully, even frighteningly, of her life as a woman in the nineteenth century, of the restrictions—domestic, religious, sexual, artistic—it placed upon her, and yet, with defiance and a sense of triumph, of the choices and refusals she could make within her own sphere, as is the case with Sylvia Plath, Dickinson’s most obvious and primary lineal descendant, despite the absence of her New England foremother in most of her extra-poetic writing.

Certain aspects, of course, of both poets’ rebellion against social and religious norms, as well as their search for a realm in which they could achieve spiritual and artistic autonomy, are very much part of their Puritan inheritance. Allen Tate,1 among others, has placed Dickinson firmly within its theological and intellectual mainstream, which emphasized personal responsibility, salvation by grace, austerity of liturgical form, transcendence of physical reality through both discipline and, for the elect, the guiding “inner light” about which Jonathan Edwards wrote; and, though the Puritans’ abuse of this last is well-known, the right of a worshipper to communicate with God in his—or her—own way. Perhaps the most fascinating take on Dickinson in the past four decades, Howe’s My Emily Dickinson views her both in the context of 19th century New England and contemporary feminism, and her study can certainly be seen as applicable to the more definitively God-rejecting Plath (see “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Mary’s Song,” and “Brasilia,” for starters).

Despite the humor and whimsy that distinguish her earlier poems, Dickinson restates several Puritan tenets in a work written in 1860:

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—

I keep it, staying at Home—

With a Bobolink for a Chorister—

And an Orchard, for a Dome—

 

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—

I just wear my Wings—

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton—sings.

 

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting into Heaven, at last—

I’m going, all along.2

 

This much-anthologized piece has many of the qualities associated with the view of Dickinson as the poetry-scribbling “Belle of Amherst.” The tone of the poem is defiant yet sprightly, its “message” is clear-cut and acceptable to perhaps all but the most orthodox of Trinitarians, and the poet’s claims for herself and her small act of apostasy are modest—she “just” wears “Wings,” the sexton of her church is “little”—and, predictably, a bird, in this case a “Bobolink,” is mentioned.

There’s small evidence of the nearly savage irony of which Dickinson was capable, as we see, for example, in “I’m Ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs”3—where the poet ends by choosing “just a Crown,” using the same reductive “just” as in “Some keep the Sabbath,” but with far greater effect. This same furious subversion appears, of course, in future generations, possibly beginning with Plath herself, who famously wrote “I / Have a self to recover, a Queen.”4

Perhaps Dickinson’s most interesting claim to autonomy in this early poem is not in her refusal to attend Sunday morning services, but in the role she assumes—Plath dons the pure white garments of “cheesecloth,” in keeping with herself as one formerly thrust into the role of household “drudge,” which she renounces in “Stings”5—as independent worshipper in her her own version of the Puritan rites. Her “wings” are a substitute for the minister’s traditional surplice, implying both that it is she who presides over this congregation of one and that it is her calling as poet which has given her the right to this authority. Poetry has long been identified with flight, with wings, whether those of angels, birds, or horses, mythological or as real as Plath’s Ariel. Heather McHugh, in “Wicked Riff,” uses a similar trope in a poem that is no less insistent on the individual’s right to “keep the Sabbath” in whatever way he/she chooses than Dickinson’s:

 

Sky cloth hung on a church fence, that’s

the ticket-bolted in blue, struck with a stick,

it’s a mixed lot of luck and a small razzmatazz,

it’s a measure of standards, a medicinal brandy.

The altar boy’s altered, and man, he can jazz.6

 

Both poets view church-going as a “ticket” for most parishioners—a means, as Dickinson writes, of merely “getting to Heaven,” without giving sufficient attention to “Heaven” as it can reveal itself to the earthbound during their lives. Dickinson, Plath in “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” and now McHugh reject the visual and liturgical forms of institutional religion, here with its “sky cloth” and “story lines,” as McHugh calls them, choosing instead to create their own. Dickinson’s backyard orchard serves her as “Dome”; Plath “simply cannot see where there is to get to” via the church and environs outside; McHugh elects “sunny mud” and “stars unencumbered by / wishes at last.” Each poet insists upon a more immediate form of worship, one intensified by the removal of any externally imposed figure or setting—God himself preaches the sermon in Dickinson’s poem, rather than a minister; Plath becomes like God in “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” with “the grasses unloading their griefs on [her] feet”; and all three works take place outdoors, in what, for Dickinson and McHugh, is the redemptive and regenerative realm of nature, rather than in a traditional church building. Even Plath’s far darker view, with its terrifying moon, sees clouds as “flowering / Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.”7

The hymn each poet sings, of course, is very much of her own making, though Plath’s poem’s music is enhanced by bells, “eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection” twice each Sunday, “startl[ing] the sky,” and finishing their peal by “soberly bong[ing] out their names.” McHugh may be jazzier, but she closes with a warning and threat:

 

You can’t sing

in a rut, you can’t love

in absentia. Ask me whatever’s

the trick to this music, like how

push the buttons and

 

when take the breath, I’ll say lady

you can’t take

a course in feeling.

The horse has to fly.

Don’t you beat it to death.8

 

The comparative whimsy and jauntiness of tone in “Wicked Riff,” as in much of McHugh’s other work, owe something to her long and careful reading of Dickinson, which an essay in American Poetry Review, “Interpretive Insecurity and Poetic Truth: Dickinson’s Equivocation,”9 makes clear. McHugh often appears in her own work as linguistic gadfly, teasing us with the same sort of elision and syntactical compression that are often identified with Dickinson. Yet the lightness of touch, the airy and amusing language Dickinson uses in “Some Keep the Sabbath” isn’t what characterizes her best poems; indeed, her own reference to angelic or poetic “wings” in the poem may provide a clue as to the reason for the relative slightness of this work in relation to the rest of the canon, whereas “The Moon and the Yew Tree” stands solidly as a turning point—with its mixtures of diction, its admission of fear and anxiety—from Plath’s early to more mature oeuvre. 10

Dickinson achieves her highest levels when she writes not about “Bobolinks” and “Robins” but insects, flies or gnats buzzing against window panes, as in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I died” or “It would have starved a Gnat.” Or, to put things another way,  Dickinson’s greatest work arises when she concerns herself with the more elemental, less pleasing forces of nature, as can be seen in a comparison between “Some Keep the Sabbath” and “I’m Ceded—I’ve Stopped Being Theirs—,” a later poem that once again adapts ecclesiastical symbols and sacraments for the author’s own purposes. Here, no attempt at winged flight is made, the issues of societal withdrawal and the author’s desire for autonomy are dealt with more directly, and the powers she assumes are exercised within a less fanciful, more solidly earthbound realm:

 

I’m Ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—

The name They dropped upon my face

With water, in the country church

Is finished using, now,

And They can put it with my Dolls,

My childhood, and the string of spools,

I’ve finished threading—too—

 

Baptized, before, without the choice,

But this time, consciously, of Grace—

Unto supremest name—

Called to my Full—the Crescent dropped—

Existence’s whole Arc—filled up,

With one small Diadem.

 

My second Rank—too small the first—

Crowned—Crowing—on my Father’s breast—

A half-unconscious Queen—

But this time—Adequate—Erect—

With will to choose, or to reject,

And I choose, just a Crown—11

 

This is a perhaps more assertive sounding of the same note we hear in “Some keep the Sabbath.” The choice here is also one of withdrawal, yet actively pursued, resulting in Dickinson’s achievement of greater autonomy. Her refusal is unsoftened by the coyness which mars the earlier poem, and “I’m Ceded” ends with powerful images of triumph and royalty instead of the little-girl defiance with which “Some keep the Sabbath” concludes. Like her usurpation of the minister’s role there, the title of “Queen” in “I’m Ceded” is seized, but this time more emphatically, by right of poetic vocation and naked “Will,” yet the differentiation of the female and artistic self, the 1862 poem implies, can be attained only by severance.  What must be relinquished?—love? companionship? family? Like Plath? Not completely. Remember the various drafts of “Stings,” in which she repeatedly crosses out and puts in variants of “deserted nurseries,”12 speaking of her children, which Dickinson didn’t have, only nieces and nephews—upon whom she doted, while maintaining the jealous privacy needed to write her poems.

Dickinson seems determined to pry herself loose from the warm embrace of the family household—or -holds, as her brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children lived next door—from the closely-knit community of Amherst itself, and from the demands—domestic and social—that these overlapping environments placed upon her, again, like Plath. While in “Some keep the Sabbath” Dickinson manipulates the elements of her given setting, drawing from its forms the raw material for her own—“an Orchard, for a Dome”—“I’m Ceded” dramatizes a complete rejection of that setting. The later poem is a declaration of absolute refusal, for it is only through withdrawing from a society that can nourish neither herself nor her art, Dickinson implies, that she can gain psychological and creative self-rule. Plath did the same through packing her Devon house and moving to London in the fall of 1962, after Ted Hughes abandoned her.

But the case is put similarly, though more emphatically, in Plath’s “Tulips,” written before that fateful autumn and during her stay in a British hospital for an emergency appendectomy in 1961. Though she, as an American used to private rooms and Yankee efficiency, entered the hospital somewhat fearfully, she wrote her mother a few days after the operation: “Actually, I feel I’ve been having an amazing holiday! I haven’t been free of the baby one day for a whole year, and I must say I’ve secretly enjoyed having meals in bed, backrubs, and nothing to do but read.”13 In the same vein, she later wrote in her journal:

 

This is the need I have, in my 30th year—to loving fingers of babies and treat myself to myself . . . To purge myself of sour milk, urinous nappies, bits of lint and the loving slovenliness of motherhood.14

 

The speaker in “Tulips” has indeed been “purged” of domestic details and irritations, and she revels in her newly found solitude, the whiteness of the hospital environment, and the utter peacefulness that the change of surrounding and situation has brought her. Plath too has “ceded,” she has stopped being “Theirs” in this poem, but only for the time being—the calm monochrome of the hospital room is soon disrupted by the vivid presence of a bouquet of tulips, a gift presumably sent by a well-wisher within her own social circle, or perhaps even by her husband. One imagines a note from either exhorting Plath to “get well and come home soon,” back to the “sticky loving fingers” and “bits of lint” she wrote of in her journals. The poem’s first stanza:

 

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses

And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.15

 

“I am nobody,” Plath tells us, perhaps echoing Dickinson’s famous “I’m Nobody—Who Are You?” written exactly a hundred years earlier. 16 Plath’s “nobody” savors the relinquishing of her former identity of wife and mother as much as Dickinson did in triumphantly renouncing the “Them” who had baptized her and thus attempted to draw her into their fold, attempted to give her a name of their own making, in her earlier, “half-conscious” years. The self purged of its public face, its past, wants no reminders in either Dickinson’s poem or Plath’s:

 

Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage—

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,

My husband and children smiling out of the family photo;

Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.17

 

The smiles of her family in the photograph are “hooks”; they do violence to this pure, chaste, nun-like self—“I am a nun now, I have never been so pure,” she tells us in stanza four—by reminding her of the physical self, the wife-and-mother self that attended with love and nurturance to their daily wants and needs. The introduction of the hooks and the implicit reminder of the blood they can draw foreshadows our being told, in the fifth stanza, that “the tulips are too red . . . they hurt me.”

 

Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe

Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down, Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,

A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

*

They concentrate my attention, that was happy

Playing and resting without committing itself.18

 

But the tulips are also a reminder that it is only within the space of the poem that “attention,” or what Dickinson might call “complete” consciousness, can so fully exercise its “Will to choose, or to reject.” Plath’s choice is in some sense made for her—the tulips force her attention away from the ascetic, the “unattached,” back to the realm of the physical, though not without some reluctance on her part:

 

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.

The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;

They are opening like a mouth of some great African cat,

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes

Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health.19

 

The tulips, like the earlier “hooks,” are “dangerous,” “their redness” talks to the speaker’s wound, “it corresponds.” But while the appearance of blood can indicate injury, it also presupposes a fully human state of being, an existence that is full-bodied, full- “blooded”; thus it suggests a certain consciousness of the importance of matter as well as spirit on the part of the poet. Plath returns to this existence, to “health,” to wholeness, to the things of home and human love, and although her re-entry into the world of family and domestic obligations is not made completely willingly, she “chooses,” she does not “reject,” and she chooses more than “just a Crown.” Plath relinquishes the purity of the separate and solitary self for the less rarefied promises implied by the word “health,” that well-traveled country of husbands and babies, of teasets and linens and an attention that commits itself fully to the care of all of these, to more than solitary meditations.

While Plath, in the poems of her middle period, such as “Tulips,” develops her themes through fairly straightforward series of metaphors and images, Dickinson throughout her life was perhaps most comfortable expressing herself in riddles—“Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant,” she says in a poem of 1868. And indeed, “I’m Ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs” expresses Dickinson’s rejection of society in favor of being absolute monarch over a much smaller realm—her own soul—through images and metaphors we must puzzle over, through a tightly controlled and elliptical syntax that expresses perfectly the theme of the poem—selection, and consequently, exclusion—but which nonetheless leaves the reader guessing at several points. This isn’t to imply, however, that poems possessing the sensuousness and immediacy of “Tulips” don’t exist within Dickinson’s canon. A poem which treats a theme similar to that of  “I’m Ceded” in very different terms is #254, “It would have starved a Gnat.” This poem emphasizes not so much what is gained by the self-sovereignty that can come from rejection and/or “selection,” but what is given up. The “crow” we hear in “I’m Ceded” is here diminished to the faint buzzing of an insect trapped behind glass:

 

It would have starved a Gnat—

To live so small as l—

And yet I was a living Child—

With Food’s necessity

 

Upon me—like a Claw

I could no more remove

Than I could coax a Leech away—

Or make a Dragon—move—

 

Nor like the Gnat—had I

The privilege to fly

And seek a Dinner for myself—

How mightier He—than I—

 

Nor like Himself—the Art

Upon the Window Pane

To gad my little Being out—

And not begin—again—20

 

Though written in 1862, this poem wasn’t published in standard Dickinson collections until 1945. It’s not the work of a nineteenth-century “poetess,” nor is it the sort of poem we would imagine “the Belle of Amherst” to have composed. Dickinson writes here of a metaphorical self-starvation, or a means of self-extinction more violently dramatized in the action of the gnat. The gnat accomplishes the death of its body through the only method available—one denied to Dickinson, she claims in this poem.

What, then, were the choices she felt she had? If suicide, self-extinction, is a breaking off of communication with the world, “the country of health,” in the most final and drastic way possible, instead Dickinson would carefully select those with whom she made contact in the outside world, as well as the forms she deployed. In all of her poems, as Howe points out, Dickinson’s punctuation resembles Morse code; she compresses syntax and omits entire words, as if to threaten severing, at any moment, even this elliptical sort of verbal connection. “It would have starved a Gnat” makes this warning both through its form and its tropes, describing a strategic refusal of the social realm and its demands by living small as a “gnat,” apart, unnoticed, and thus invulnerable. The metaphor of self-starvation implies also, of course, a sundering with one’s own body,  a refusal to listen to the needs and demands—such as hunger—it communicates to us. Dickinson felt no less keenly than Plath the “hooks” of the physical body, her own or those of others, the “claws” of its hunger—the self-imposed physical and psychological starvation in this poem suck her blood with all the blind and repugnant energy of the leech she mentions in the second stanza.

Such self-denial has its own rewards. It is an exercise of control made by those who feel that other ways of achieving autonomy are closed to them. Classical anorexia develops from this sort of rigid need for control and self-sovereignty, and however late I came to Stanley Plumly’s “What Ceremony of Words” in Song and Argument, and however self-serving it may appear on the surface—meaning that one central aspect of my argument here is that poets often discern more quickly the central urges and urgencies behind the work of others—Plumly’s discussion of “Blackberrying,” “Ariel,” and the later poems, which he describes as “a little starved, anorectic” make the chapter a valuable supplement here, even if I disagree with his thesis. How can “The Munich Mannequins,” for example, be said to have lost some of the control Plumly professes to admire in other poems when the vantage point is so extended beyond the personal? 21 Unless, of course, we overlook the imagery of the Shoah, the “naked,” “bald”—if “fur”-less—corpses of victims piled high in mass graves, thin as store-window “lollies on silver sticks,” their smiles the rictus of death, whereas the Germans themselves are described as “thick,” and “slumbering in their bottomless Stolz.”22

Pamela White Hadas explores the same themes of power and starvation, albeit self-imposed, through the voice of a teenaged girl in “To Make a Dragon Move,” which takes its title from the second stanza of the previously discussed Dickinson poem. Hadas and Louise Glück, who also draws and expands upon this Dickinsonian / Plathian strand, both focus on the characters of female adolescents; we might remember that Dickinson points out in “It would have starved a Gnat” that she is a “living Child.” The child has little power over his or her surroundings, and accordingly, the young girls—metaphoric in Dickinson’s poem, real in Hadas’ and in Glück’s—we see in these works exercise their power of “Will” upon what lies within their own narrow realms—themselves. The powerless intuitively sense that, in their efforts toward autonomy, they will encounter defeat at the hands of those who wield control—parents or other figures of authority—if they operate outwards, through self-assertion. Thus, their energies are turned inward to self-denial and self-deprivation, which, in these poems, receive dramatic expression in the act of self-starvation. The rejection of food, in this context, arises from the need to purge one’s life of all bodily “gross”-ness, all that is fleshly, non-spiritual, non-ideal:

 

I have rules and plenty. Some things I don’t touch.

I’m king of my body now. Who needs a mother—

a food machine, those miles and miles of guts?

Once upon a time, I confess, I was fat—

gross. Gross belly, gross ass, no bones

showing at all. Now I say, “No thank you,” a person

in my own right, and no poor loser. I smile

at her plate of brownies. “Make it disappear,”

 

she used to say, “Join the clean plate club.” I disappear

into my room where I have forbidden her to touch

anything. I was a first grade princess once. I smile

to think how those chubby pinks used to please my mother.

And now that I am, Dear Diary, a sort of magical person,

she can’t see. My rules. Even here I don’t pour out my guts.

Rules. The writing’s slow, but like picking a bone,

satisfying, and it doesn’t make you fat.23

 

As in “I’m Ceded,” the speaker in Hadas’ poem has chosen her own crown. She rules, she tells us, in a kingdom of “plenty,” yet she is also, ironically, ruled in turn, as the last stanza of the poem makes clear, by the very body she wishes to deny—”Bones are my sovereigns now.” “Sovereigns” can also, of course, be a term for coinage; the same bones she has now made visible through whittling away her own physical “gross”-ness have become the money, wealth, and power she has learned to trade on. They have made her “rich,” and they have made her “magic” as well—she has learned an artist’s tricks and techniques in her efforts toward achieving an ideal form for her body. And while she is a sculptress perfecting her own physical contours, she is an artist of words as well, writing her diary in a form no less demanding and restrictive than Dickinson’s own—the sestina. Denial of the body’s needs, choosing to reject one’s own physicality, will bring a life free of impurity, of sexuality, and of hunger, the young girl believes; her relinquishing of this world will bring her one untainted by the demands of the flesh. Perfection is her ideal; the death that can follow untreated anorexia would occur in this context only, as Louise Glück tells us in “Dedication to Hunger,” as “a mere byproduct,” unintentionally.

 

4. The Deviation

It begins quietly

in certain female children:

the fear of death, taking as its form

dedication to hunger,

because a woman’s body

is a grave; it will accept

anything. I remember

lying in bed at night

touching the soft, digressive breasts,

touching, at fifteen,

the interfering flesh

that I would sacrifice

until the time the limbs were free

of blossom and subterfuge: I felt

what I feel, now, aligning these words—

it is the same need to perfect,

of which death is the mere byproduct.24

 

If the need to perfect demands rejection and self-denial, what does it offer in return? The hope that immortality—spiritual or artistic—will be achieved. “Perfection is terrible,” Plath tells us in a late poem; “it cannot have children.”25 It is a state denied to humans, a state of being that is free of physicality and all bodily taint. And although that state has been traditionally intended only for gods, archetypal taboos proved no real hindrance for either Icarus or Prometheus, for man has always felt the desire to become god-like:

 

5. Sacred Objects

Today in the field I saw

the hard, active buds of the dogwood

and wanted, as we say, to capture them,

to make them eternal. That is the premise

of renunciation: the child,

having no self to speak of,

comes to life in denial—

 

I stood apart in that achievement,

in that power to expose

the underlying body, like a god

for whose deed

there is no parallel in the natural world. 26

 

“The natural world,” at least at times, seems to have little to offer any of these poets. The dogwood appears here not as the promise of spring; in capturing physical essence through words, in denying this essence in favor of the demands of art, the demands of the word which falsifies and makes abstract even as it preserves and memorializes, Glück sees both the promise of renunciation and the promise of immortality. Yet the price is unpayable, as the author of a future Pulitzer-winning volume, The Wild Iris, already knew: rejection of “the natural world” that the artist must inhabit and from which she creates her poems is tantamount to artistic and physical death. Even here, in a poem written a dozen years earlier, Glück’s gods may perform deeds that set them apart from that human existence are not invulnerable; and the dogwood, a tree symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion, indicates that the artist, in seeking perfection and thus eternal life through the various forms offered by each vocation, is paradoxically dependent on the sufferings of the human realm for that art’s “blood-jet,” as Plath called it, not to mention the poet’s need for subject matter to which to lend her very human voice. Where else do these poems—Dickinson’s, Plath’s, Hadas’, Glück’s, even the more sanguine McHugh’s—come from, if not from their very ungoddess-like lives?

Perfection, immortality, god-like purity are states which particularly attract the authors of “Tulips,” “To Make a Dragon Move,” and “Dedication to Hunger,” perhaps because Dickinson herself felt their attraction so strongly. She often expressed disgust toward her own physical presence, calling herself “dun,” “freckled,” “spotted,” and writing lovingly, admiringly, by way of contrast, of whiteness, marble, unblemished stone. The body’s impurity is to be despised, and yet—for no less than Walt Whitman, the 19th-century “grandfather” for many poets writing today, Dickinson contains multitudes, and no less than her male contemporary, she contradicts herself—that impurity is sometimes to be gloried in. Her freckles can be transformed into the exotic markings of the “dangerous animals” and/or the “great African cat” that suns itself and lies in wait at the end of Plath’s “Tulips”:27

 

Civilization—Spurns—the Leopard!

Was the Leopard—Bold?

Deserts—never rebuked her Satin—

Ethiop—her Gold—

Tawny—her Customs—

She was Conscious—

Spotted—her Dun Gown—

This was the Leopard’s nature—Signor—

Need—a keeper—frown?

Pity—the Pard—that left her Asia

Memories of Palm—

Cannot be stifled with Narcotic—

Nor suppressed—with Balm— 28

 

The leopard’s “nature” is that of the life-force, Freud’s Eros, self-admiring, at one with its physicality, and, at the deepest level, uncivilized, caring for nothing but its own needs and appetites. Thus, this “nature” must be apologized for, explained to a “Signor,” who acts in this poem as the leopard’s “keeper.” The poem’s tone changes dramatically in the second stanza—the leopard has left Asia, has now been caged, but her instinctual wildness cannot be suppressed or tamed, though it can, of course, be confined, as it apparently has been by the poem’s “keeper.” And who is he? Dickinson’s loving yet sometimes tyrannical father? A lover? Society? Most likely, the “leopard” in Dickinson is ruled by the “keeper” in Dickinson, the side of her personality that did in some way need the restraints and forms of the civilization which nonetheless, she felt at times, kept her caged.

Plath, too, felt the “leopard” and the “keeper,” the fertility goddess and the nun, the madwoman and the “good girl” at constant war within herself. In “Tulips,” the responsible, socialized self seems to rise—or be dragged—into the forefront in the poem’s last stanza; in another poem, from about the same time, the self she calls “yellow and ugly” emerges as dominant. The speaker of “In Plaster” is enclosed in a cast, which she comes to see as an alter ego, as taking on a personality of its own:

 

I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:

This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,

And the white person is certainly the superior one.

She doesn’t need food, she is one of the real saints.

At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality—

She lay in bed with me like a dead body

And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was… 29

 

The two selves are, of course, dependent on each other, but it is “the old yellow one” that supplies the blood, the body, the very life force without which the other could not exist. “Old yellow” can even appreciate, at moments, her own energies and can recognize her capacity for beauty:

 

Without me, she wouldn’t exist, so of course she was grateful.

I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose

Blooms out of a vase of not very valuable porcelain,

And it was I who attracted everybody’s attention,

Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had at first supposed.

I patronized her a little, and she lapped it up—

You could tell almost at once she had a slave mentality.

 

I didn’t mind her waiting on me, and she adored it.

In the morning she woke me quite early, reflecting the sun

From her amazingly white torso, and I couldn’t help but notice her tidiness and her calmness and her patience:

She humored my weakness like the best of nurses,

Holding my bones in place so they would mend properly.

In time our relationship grew more intense. 30

 

The good self, the social self, the “plaster saint” who presents her perfect mask to the world would of course be praised by that world for “her tidiness and her calmness and her patience.” But she is not as self-abnegating or as selflessly nurturing as she might at first appear. In time, the speaker tells us,

 

She stopped fitting me so closely and seemed offish.

I felt her criticizing me in spite of herself,

As if my habits offended her in some way.

She let in the drafts and became more and more absent-minded.

And my skin itched and flaked away in soft pieces

Simply because she looked after me so badly.

Then I saw what the trouble was: she thought she was immortal.

 

She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior,

And I’d been keeping her in the dark, and she was resentful—

Wasting her days waiting on a half-corpse!

And secretly she began to hope I’d die.

Then she could cover my mouth and eyes, cover me entirely,

And wear my painted face the way a mummy-case

Wears the face of a pharaoh, though it’s made of mud and water. 31

 

“Old yellow,” unlike the plaster saint, recognizes her at least temporary dependence upon her alter ego, though she becomes increasingly resentful of its constraints and begins to plot her freedom:

 

I used to think we might make a go of it together—

After all, it was a kind of marriage, being so close.

Now I see it must be one or the other of us.

She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,

But she’ll soon find out that that doesn’t matter a bit.

I’m collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,

And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me. 32

 

The speaker indicates a surprising willingness to reconcile with the self from which she schemes to be liberated at the end of “In Plaster,” a premature nostalgia for its company. She seems tamer and more ingratiating, though finally more powerful, than Dickinson’s leopard, who begins and ends the poem behind the cage’s bars. But in one of Dickinson’s finest though most difficult poems, she is set loose—if only temporarily—and she is as deadly in the last stanza as she is in the first:

 

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

In Corners—till a Day—

The Owner passed—identified—

And carried Me away—

 

And now We roam the Sovereign Woods—

And now We hunt the Doe—

And every time I speak for Him—

The Mountains straight reply—

 

And do I smile, such cordial light

Upon the Valley glow—

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let its pleasure through—

 

And when at Night—Our good Day done—

I guard My Master’s Head—

‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’ s

Deep Pillow—to have shared—

 

To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—

None stir the second time—

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—

Or an emphatic Thumb—

 

Though I than He—may longer live

He longer must—than I—

For I have but the power to kill,

Without—the power to die— 33

 

Dickinson can make mountains speak, she can make fireworks of her own as beautiful and dangerous as those of Vesuvius (in another poem she describes herself as “Vesuvius at Home”), she can strike out in deadly anger with her “Yellow Eye,” which is perhaps an imaginative forebear of Plath’s character. She revels in the power she possesses and in its unleashing, which, as the last stanza ambiguously indicates, is not entirely under her control, yet she also recognizes the destruction she can wreak in this form. The poems of all these women comprehend the power that each has to create and to kill, to shape and destroy, to give life and to deny it altogether; the tension between these two warring sides gives their works the force or image and declaration that they have. Dickinson was certainly not the first woman poet to write of the conflict between the private and the public self, the believer and the apostate, the artist and the domestic woman, the maenad and the nun, and as the works of McHugh, Plath, Hadas, and Glück show, she was not the last. In fact, the course Dickinson set continues in the present tense: Catherine Bowman’s The Plath Cabinet34 focuses on one poet in a refracted memoir while deploying a new and more tightly wound style than that in her earlier books, and it’s no accident that the author of three previous books composed The Plath Cabinet post-divorce (see Notarikon,35 its immediate predecessor) while teaching in Bloomington, Indiana, one of the two largest repositories of Plath’s literary and other holdings in the country—the second being Plath’s own alma mater, Smith College.

If Plath and Hughes “looted” each other’s manuscripts, to quote Heather Clark in The Grief of Influence,36 Bowman might at first seem to be performing similar larceny for her own purposes in The Plath Cabinet, stealing whole phrases, echoically, for individual poems, e.g. “Sylvia’s Mouths,” 37 as an important word in this volume as in Plath’s Collected Poems. Bowman not only seemed to have devoured—metaphorically, of course—every artifact at the Lilly, from Plath’s childhood paper dolls, locks of hair, her passport, photograph albums, and check stubs for monies made from the sale of work, but more important, the result is an internalization of Plath, her poems, and her story. One might say that The Plath Cabinet is a rehaunting 38 of Plath, but the visitation shows Plath predominant through cautious wording in which Bowman speaks directly to the reader: whose honey is the subject of another poem in the collection, but well-digested: no one could have written this book but Bowman, who, in the same poem, establishes her native Texan identity. And not in “sweet” terms, since among the refrains for which Plath is famous is the phrase “Dumb Bitches,” sometimes abbreviated:

 

D. B., engraved with ancient glittering sharks’ teeth on our mistitled upside-down Texas crowns.  And Sylvia Plath, our martyred honey goddess, our Queen D. B. In a town where you could find the Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed across a man’s back, Our Lady of Sylvia emblazoned into our feet and tongues. 39

 

One of Bowman’s greatest achievements is a refinement of the poetic dexterity for which she is already known: from prose poem, as that above, to pantoum, to abcedarian—a form at which she has excelled in previous books—resembles, in miniature, Plath’s move from the expertly composed poems in loose terza rima to unrhymed quatrains and longer stanzas to free verse (usually with an iambic pentameter backbeat) in Ariel itself.

Prose poems themselves provided the starting point for the dramas of seduction and supplication in Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, 40 which began “as a specific & finite  homage to Dickinson’s own triptych.”  The three letters soon changed: broken into lines, broadened to include the voices of other female poets, including Akhmatova’s and Plath’s, as Brock-Broido put things “A Preamble” to the book. 41  Finally, the author became “a lustrum,” signing a poem with her own first initial, an act of stripping away the channellings and projections which first brought her to fame with A Hunger 42. But I wish to close with a more recent poem, “A Meadow,” which hits every note struck thus far in this essay. Again, the first aspect that command’s the reader’s attention is a casually scrupulous adherence to form as close as Dickinson’s own; Brock-Broido’s best work since A Hunger has—arguably—been in “the American sonnet,” which Brock-Broido calls, in a “refraction,” “the odd marriage between hysteria and haiku,” 43 one which says she has no intention of relinquishing. 44 A wise move: she has revolutionized the form not only by deploying off-rhyme—like Dickinson—but also with broken and dropped-down lines, apropos Charles Wright, who has said every line must be a station of the cross. 45

As for “A Meadow,” with “My Life had stood—A Loaded Gun,” this poem’s referents and allusions are seen most closely when quoted in full:

 

What was it I was hungry about.  Hunger, it is one

Of the several contraption I can turn on the off-button to at will.

 

Yes, yes, of course it is an “Art.”  Of course I will not be here

Long, not the way the percentages are going now.

 

He might have been

Half-beautiful in a certain optic nerve

 

Of light, but legible only at particular

Less snowy distances.  I was fixed on

 

The poplar and the dread.  The night was lung-colored

 

And livid still—he would have my way

With me.  In this district of late

 

Last light, indicated by the hour of

The beauty of his neck, his face Arabian in contour

 

Like a Percheron grazing in his dome of grass,

 

If there is a god, he is not done

Yet, as if continuing to manhandle the still lives of

 

The confederate dead this far north, this time of year, each

Just a ghostly reason now.  There are reasons: One,

 

Soon the wind will blow Pentecostal with the power of group prayer.

 

Two: the right to bear arms.  Three: you did not find my empathy

Supernatural, at the very least.

 

—Have you any ideas that are new?

 

I was fixed on the scythe and the harlequin, on the priggish

Butcher as he cuts the tender loin and

 

When I saw this spectacle, I wanted to live for a moment for

A moment.  However inelegant it was,

 

It was what it might have been to be alive, but tenderly.

 

One thing.  One thing.  One thing:

 

Tell me there is

A meadow, afterward.46

 

To say that “A Meadow” relies heavily on references to Dickinson and Plath, perhaps even Glück, is missing the point. Triggers / “on-off button[s],” hunger, “dying is an art,” body parts, “dangerous animals,” God-lust / “group prayer” or “Pentecostal,” and, of course, that grassy field. But Brock-Broido has made previous voices spectacularly her own, in part through tonality, in part through the flamboyant word choice—most noticeably initially are “Arabian” and “Percheron” in the poem’s center, though these recall Dickinson’s “Ethiop” and Plath’s “dangerous animals” and “great African cat” in “Tulips,” also “African” in “The Arrival of the Bee Box”47 and the Hindu “Purdah”48—and with an artist as skillful as Brock-Broido, it’s no accident that these words, both names for horses, are near rhymes. Indeed, “A Meadow” hinges on the repetition of sound, albeit subtle: to start with the opening lines, we hear two sets, a hum that resembles the Jewish rite of davening—“contraptions,” “been,” “certain,” “fixed on,” “lung,” “continuing,”—and the other full on the artist’s first name, as if to lull us into uneasy sleep—“beautiful,” “legible,” “manhandle” (a funny if horrifying double-entendre), “Pentecostal,” “empathy,” “supernatural” (another poem by Brock-Broido, justly famed by her elaborate titles, is a line taken directly from Dickinson herself, “The Supernatural is Only the Natural, Disclosed”49), “inelegant,” “tenderly,” and, finally, “tenderly.”

Women artists have often been accused of obsessions with the domestic, romantic, religious, and self to the exclusion of a “larger world.” If Plath’s poetry is rife with imagery drawn from “wars, wars, wars,” 49 Dickinson and Brock-Broido both cite that which took place on American soil; and Brock-Broido, with her derisive reference to “confederate dead” takes us all the way back to Tate’s most famous poem and also, for those aware of her biography, serves to darken that final “meadow.” If Glück’s female body is a grave—“it will accept /anything”—the same holds true for a field of grass; thus what at first seems like a note of Whitmanian hope turns on its head when we know of Brock-Broido’s time as a Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, the state tragically  distinguished of having more Civil War cemeteries than any other in the country. Particularly haunting in this context is the Battle of Petersburg, a/k/a/ “The Crater,” in which an engineering disaster on the Union Army’s part did, in fact, turn what had been a meadow, then a battleground, into an open mass live-burial site, with white troops on both sides bayoneting African-American soldiers for fear of reprisal on the Federal side, and . . . revenge? racial hatred? on the Confederates’.

“Wars, wars, wars”50—whether one group of men against another, patriarchal culture against women, or women against their own bodies, what each poet here wants is the “freedom” not to commit suicide or starve, but to wield power over her destiny. The Dickinson/Plath influence may seem less direct with McHugh and Glück as with Hadas, who uses lines from “It would have starved a Gnat” as epigraph for her complex variation on the sestina; or Bowman, considering the very title of her most recent book; or Brock-Broido, who uses both her poetic grandmother’s and mother’s names in the Carole Maso interview; but making a further case seems beside the point. Far more important is that the women poets discussed here felt—or feel—themselves to be operating under many of the same social, religious, and domestic constraints as did their ancestresses, and that poems discussed here embody for our own time conflicts that women, artists or not, continue to experience.

Allen Tate, “Emily Dickinson.” Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968, pp. 281-298.

2 Emily Dickinson, #236. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Dickinson, #353.

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems. New York: Harper and Row, 1981, p. 215.

Plath, CP, pp. 214-215.

6 Heather McHugh, “Wicked Riff.” To The Quick, Wesleyan University Press, p. 8.

7 Plath, CP, pp. 172-173.

McHugh, p. 8.

McHugh, “Interpretative Insecurity and Poetic Truth: Dickinson’s Equivocations.” American Poetry Review, Mar.-Apr., 1988, pp.

49-54.

10 Plath, CP, pp. 172-173.

11 Dickinson, #508.

12 Sylvia Plath, “’Stings’: Original Drafts of the Poem in Facsimile,” with an essay by Susan B. Van Dyne. Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith Rare College Library Rare Book Room, 1982.

13 Sylvia Plath, Letters Home. Ed. Aurelia Plath. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 412.

14 Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. Faber and Faber, 2000, p. 632.

15 Plath, CP, p. p. 160.

16 Dickinson, #260.

17 Plath, CP, p. 160.

18 Plath, CP, p. 161.

19 Plath, CP, p. 162.

20 Dickinson, #444.

21 Stanley Plumly, Argument and Song. Other Press, 2003, p. 139.

22 Plath, CP,  p. 263

23 Pamela White Hadas, “To Make A Dragon Move.” Self-Evidence. Northwestern University Press, p. 89.

24 Louise Glück, “Dedication to Hunger.” Descending Figure. Ecco Press, p. 32.

25 Plath, CP, p. 262.

26 Glück, p. 33.

27 Plath, CP, p. 162.

28 Dickinson, #276.

29 Plath, CP,  p. 158.

30  Plath, CP,  p. 159.

31  Plath, CP,  p. 159.

32 Plath, CP,  p. 160.

33 Dickinson, #764.

34 Catherine Bowman, The Plath Cabinet. Four Way Books, 2009.

35 Bowman, Notarikon. Four Way Books, 2006.

36 Heather Clark, The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. Oxford University Press, 2011.

37 “Sylvia’s Mouths,” TPC, p. 3.

38 Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

39 “Sylvia’s Honey,” TPC, p. 7.

40 Lucie Brock-Broido, The Master Letters. New York: Knopf, 2002.

41 Brock-Broido, TML, viii.

42 Brock-Broido, A Hunger. New York: Knopf, 1998.

43 Brock-Broido, TML, vii and p. 78.

44 Brock-Broido, Maso Interview, BOMB, 1995.

45 Charles Wright, Halflife. University of Michigan Press, p. 5.

46 Brock-Broido, “A Meadow.” Academy of American Poets, 2012.

47 Plath, CP, p. 162.

48 Plath, CP, p. 242.

49 Brock-Broido, TML, p. 78.

50 Plath, CP, p. 222.

51 Plath, CP, p. 222.


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