Otherhood: Sina Queyras, Sylvia Plath and Negation
I haven’t received my print copy of this month’s issue of Poetryyet, but I have been reading around in the on-line issue. I’m caught by a new poem by Sina Queyras, “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath.” It’s a remarkable poem, not least for its gutsiness in taking on the fraught legacy of Sylvia Plath, responding to the difficulty of her poetic, to what feels like Plath’s inassimilable otherness. Queyras makes a poem out of Plath’s refusal to be remade, out of her recalcitrant inapprehensibility. That refusal for me is also a version – though in a very different idiom – of Paul Celan’s practice of Widerruf (which means something like revocation, cancellation or retraction), which is itself I think a poetic version of Hegelian sublation, Aufhebung: the repeal, the resolution through negation. I’m not prepared, and I may never be, for a careful philosophical interrogation of these concepts, but I am fine about invoking them as tropes, as resonant elements of a poetic toolkit. “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” strikes me – given the come-and-go controversy around negative reviewing in which Queyras has been participating over the last year or so, mostly as a provocateur – as a kind of negative review of Plath’s poetry (and really of one poem in particular, “Tulips” from Ariel), but “negative” in a much more complex and nuanced sense than you might think. The poem, after all, functions at least on first reading as both tribute and celebration, as affirmative. But what it also does, and does very well, is revise Plath – that is, re-see her words – by conversing and debating with her poetry as poetry. It’s not composed, despite the circularity of the title, in anything like the critical meta-language of the review. Rather, it recasts the decidedly patriarchal lineage of the Widerruf (a lineage that might be heard as Oedipal contestation in, for instance, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence) as what Queyras, in her mini sonnet sequence published in this same issue of Poetry, calls “otherhood,” a portmanteau of otherness and motherhood. Queyras takes up and takes on Plath, I want to suggest, not to wrestle her way elegiacally past a predecessor (like Milton on Shakespeare, for instance, or Ashbery on, say, Stevens), but to address Plath’s own challenging relationship to canonization and patriarchy, and to reframe what it means, in Queyras’s terms, to be a “bad / Mother.”
Here is what Freida Hughes says about her own difficult mother in the foreword to the “restored edition” of Ariel, published in 2004:
Since she died my mother has been dissected, analyzed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalized, and in some cases completely fabricated. It comes down to this: her own words her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.
As Plath seems to predict in “Tulips,” written in 1961 but carried forward to posthumous publication in Ariel, Plath sees herself as subject to both vivisection and autopsy, and not only as subject (patient, body, even victim) but also as her own surgeon, wielding a merciless scalpel. Plath, that is, casts herself as both mother and mothered, other and othering. “Nothing, not even death,” says Queyras’s poem, “frees mothers from the cutting board.” Her “Sylvia Plath,” though, is much less visual and much more tactile, more textural, than Plath herself tends to be. In “Tulips,” Plath’s reflexives, the negations, are characteristically optic: “Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.” Plath depicts herself, on a hospital bed with her head sandwiched between two pillows, as the “stupid pupil” of an eye “between two white lids that will not shut.” Queyras’s Plath, by contrast, is sculptural, material, rife with aesthesis, wanting to “feel the tulip’s skin, . . . the soft gravel / Of childhood under cheek,” her words given kinetic dimension, corporeal space and thickness as they are made to writhe “Across the page . . . ass / High as any downward dog and cutlass arms / Lashing any mother who tries to pass.” Echoes of barely suppressed violence seethe and twist through Queyras’s lines, much as they do through Plath’s; notice how the “firm rhyme” here around “ass” – hardly an instance of poetical diction, though Plath was often fond in her late poems of shocking sensibilities, of lashing out at her reader “lightly,” a little – is drawn off-centre, away from the line-ends of any ersatz “hard couplet.” Plath’s offspring, if that’s what these lines are, want to shred neatnesses, prying cracks in their verbal containers.
“Tulips,” from which I’ve been suggesting that Queyras draws much of her raw material for this poem, was written after Plath underwent an appendectomy, following a miscarriage. The red tulips, presumably flowers sent to her in hospital, suggest both vitality and woundedness. Plath refuses remedy, the distant “health” at her poem’s close, choosing instead to worry metaphorically at her incisions, to use poetry to pull at her sutures. Craving the blankness of anesthesia (“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty”), she nonetheless builds and weaves text from her own troubled persistence; poetry consists in the refusal of her self-awareness to let go: “And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes / Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.” Queyras picks up on the irresolution with which Plath’s poem contingently finishes:
The tulips were never warm
My loves, they never smelled of spring,
They never marked the path out of loneliness,
Never led me home, nor to me, nor away
From what spring, or red, or tulips
Could never be.
Performing their hiatus, these lines neither empathize with Plath nor refuse her. Despite the entitlement Plath’s readers’ often feel – our dogged identification with her cultural predicament as a woman caught between domestic codependency and urbane independence, between love and loneliness – this Plath settles for neither home nor escape, but produces, reproduces herself negatively, by refusing either option.
Hers is an idiom of ingrained melancholia, of resolute infelicity. Metaphor – consisting simultaneously of semantic slippage and connective bridgework – emerges from the roiling fractures of that refusal. In “Tulips,” Plath’s metaphors (falling into intemperate simile, for example) suggest both likeness and unlikeness, motherly bond and otherly dehiscence:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
That disavowal, that sublation, is also enacted syntactically in Plath’s comma splices, which suture her open sentences together, like loose stitches, gating without cinching her red salt flow of words. Queyras picks up on this stylistic tic, as the set of run-ons that close her poem, which I have cited above, suggest. But Queyras also distances herself formally from Plath’s poem. The couplets, or perhaps the two-line bunches, that shape Queyras’s poem recall not “Tulips” but “Berck-Plage,” which also uses comma splices to create a sense of spontaneous overflow, of fractal rush. Plath’s texts hover between the immediacy of rough spontaneity (most of the poems in Ariel tend to speak, as manuscripts demonstrate, in a holographic present tense, as if addressing the moments of their own composition) and the considered formal mediations of obsessive revision, of the reflex of craft. The writing self, which in Plath often manifests as a cascade of first-person pronouns, is in Queyras’s text further withheld, suspended in an indeterminate second person for at least the first half of the poem: “If you can’t feel love in life you won’t feel it in death, nor / Will you feel the tulip’s skin . . . .” Any empathic connection to Plath, feeling as if you might feel what she might have felt, reaching imaginatively across the absolute barrier of her death (though “not how you imagine it will,” writes Queyras) to draw her voice, liminally, back into the living frame of your own poem, is also impeded – negated – by the mythopeic work of Plath’s posthumous dissection and monstrous reassembly as an icon of fraught womanhood, of otherhood. She refuses to be caught. “The vivid tulips,” as Plath herself proleptically puts it, “eat my oxygen.” The tropes will always digest their own maker, her vitality. “Let’s be frank,” says Queyras, but candour in a poem about Plath isn’t a matter of re-casting details from her biography, or reshaping lines and fragments from her poetry. Rather, it seems to consist in facing up to the cancellations and refusals that shape her voice and her sense of self, of self-elegy. And self in Plath isn’t something that, Yeats-like, you must remake. Rather, self comes to consist in the work of revision, in the negatives through which those rewritten poems emerged, and, in moments such as those of Queyras’s poem, still emerge.