SYLVIA PLATH READS
The Ghost's Leavetaking (1958)
Enter the chilly no-man's land of about
Five o'clock in the morning, the no-color void
Where the waking head rubbishes out the draggled lot
Of sulfurous dreamscapes and obscure lunar conundrums
Which seemed, when dreamed, to mean so profoundly much,
Gets ready to face the ready-made creation
Of chairs and bureaus and sleep-twisted sheets.
This is the kingdom of the fading apparition,
The oracular ghost who dwindles on pin-legs
To a knot of laundry, with a classic bunch of sheets
Upraised, as a hand, emblematic of farewell.
At this joint between two worlds and two entirely
Incompatible modes of time, the raw material
Of our meat-and-potato thoughts assumes the nimbus
Of ambrosial revelation. And so departs.
and bureau are the hieroglyphs
Of some godly utterance wakened heads ignore:
So these posed sheets, before they thin to nothing,
Speak in sign language of a lost otherworld,
A world we lose by merely waking up.
Trailing its telltale tatters only at the outermost
Fringe of mundane vision, this ghost goes
Hand aloft, goodbye, goodbye, not down
Into the rocky gizzard of the earth,
But toward a region where our thick atmosphere
Diminishes, and God knows what is there.
A point of exclamation marks that sky
In ringing orange like a stellar carrot.
Its round period, displaced and green,
Suspends beside it the first point, the starting
of Eden, next the new moon's curve.
Go, ghost of our mother and father, ghost of us,
And ghost of our dreams' children, in those sheets
Which signify our origin and end,
To the cloud-cuckoo land of color wheels
pristine alphabets and cows that moo
And moo as they jump over moons as new
As that crisp cusp towards which you voyage now.
Hail and farewell. Hello, goodbye. O keeper
Of the profane grail, the dreaming skull.
The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last year's leaves, won't mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
To elegiac dryads, and dour grass
Guards the hard-hearted emerald of its grassiness
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. No dead men's cries
Flower forget-me-nots between the stones
Paving this grave ground. Here's honest rot
To unpick the heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein. When one stark skeleton
Bulks real, all saints' tongues fall quiet:
Flies watch no resurrection in the sun.
At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare,
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.
On the Plethora of Dryads (1957)
Hearing a white saint rave
About a quintessential beauty
Visible only to the paragon heart,
I tried my sight on an apple-tree
That for eccentric knob and wart
Had all my love.
Without meat or drink I sat
Starving my fantasy down
To discover that metaphysical Tree which hid
From my worldling look its brilliant vein
Far deeper in gross wood
Than axe could cut.
But before I might blind sense
To see with the spotless soul,
Each particular quirk so ravished me
Every pock and stain bulked more beautiful
Than flesh of any body
Flawed by love's prints.
however I would
To break through that patchwork
Of leaves' bicker and whisk in babel tongues,
Streak and mottle of tawn bark,
No visionary lightnings
Pierced my dense lid.
Instead, a wanton fit
Dragged each dazzled sense apart
Surfeiting eye, ear, taste, touch, smell;
Now, snared by this miraculous art,
I ride earth's burning carrousel
Day in, day out,
And such grit corrupts my eyes
I must watch sluttish dryads twitch
Their multifarious silks in the holy grove
Until no chaste tree but suffers blotch
Under flux of those seductive
Reds, greens, blues.
The Thin People (1957)
(before : The Moon was a Fat Woman Once)
They are always with us, the thin people
Meager of dimension as the gray people
On a movie-screen. They
Are unreal, we say:
It was only in a movie, it was only
In a war making evil headlines when we
Were small that they famished and
Grew so lean and would not round
Out their stalky limbs again though peace
Plumped the bellies of the mice
Under the meanest table.
It was during the long hunger-battle
found their talent to persevere
In thinness, to come, later,
Into our bad dreams, their menace
Not guns, not abuses,
But a thin silence.
Wrapped in flea-ridden donkey skins,
of complaint, forever
Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore
The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn
Scapegoat. But so thin,
So weedy a race could not remain in dreams,
Could not remain outlandish victims
In the contracted country of the head
Any more than the old woman in her mud hut could
from cutting fat meat
Out of the side of the generous moon when it
Set foot nightly in her yard
Until her knife had pared
The moon to a rind of little light.
Now the thin people do not obliterate
Themselves as the dawn
Grayness blues, reddens, and the outline
Of the world comes clear and fills with color.
They persist in the sunlit room: the wallpaper
of cabbage-roses and cornflowers pales
Under their thin-lipped smiles,
Their withering kingship.
How they prop each other up!
We own no wildernesses rich and deep enough
For stronghold against their stiff
Battalions. See, how the tree boles flatten
And lose their good browns
If the thin people simply stand in the forest,
Making the world go thin as a wasp's nest
And grayer; not even moving their bones.
Hardcastle Crags (1957)
(before : Nocturne)
Flintlike, her feet struck
Such a racket of echoes from the steely street,
Tacking in moon-blued crooks from the black
Stone-built town, that she heard the quick air ignite
Its tinder and shake
A firework of echoes from wall
To wall of the dark, dwarfed cottages.
But the echoes died at her back as the walls
Gave way to fields and the incessant seethe of grasses
Riding in the full
Of the moon, manes to the wind,
Tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea
Moves on its root. Though a mist-wraith wound
Up from the fissured valley and hung shoulder-high
Ahead, it fattened
To no family-featured ghost,
Nor did any word body with a name
The blank mood she walked in. Once past
The dream-peopled village, her eyes entertained no dream,
And the sandman's dust
lustre under her footsoles.
The long wind, paring her person down
To a pinch of flame, blew its burdened whistle
In the whorl of her ear, and like a scooped-out pumpkin crown
Her head cupped the babel.
All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart, was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone. Barns
Guarded broods and litters
Behind shut doors; the dairy herds
Knelt in the meadow mute as boulders;
Sheep drowsed stoneward in their tussocks of wool, and birds,
Granite ruffs, their shadows
The guise of leaves. The whole landscape
Loomed absolute as the antique world was
Once, in its earliest sway of lymph and sap,
Unaltered by eyes,
Enough to snuff the quick
Of her small heat out, but before the weight
Of stones and hills of stones could break
Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light
She turned back
Child's Park Stones (1958)
In sunless air, under pines
Green to the point of blackness, some
Founding father set these lobed, warped stones
To loom in the leaf-filtered gloom
Black as the charred knuckle-bones
Of a giant or extinct
Animal, come from another
Age, another planet surely. Flanked
By the orange and fuchsia bonfire
Of azaleas, sacrosanct
These stones guard a dark repose
And keep their shapes intact while sun
Alters shadows of rose and iris---
Long, short, long---in the lit garden
And kindles a day's-end blaze
Colored to dull the pigment
Of the azaleas, yet burnt out
Quick as they. To follow the light's tint
And intensity by midnight
By noon and throughout the brunt
Of various weathers is
To know the still heart of the stones:
Stones that take the whole summer to lose
Their dream of the winter's cold; stones
Warming at core only as
Frost forms. No man's crowbar could
Uproot them: their beards are ever-
Green. Nor do they, once in a hundred
Years, go down to drink the river:
No thirst disturbs a stone's bed.
LADY AND THE EARTHENWARE HEAD (1957)
(before : The Earthenware Head)
Fired in sanguine clay, the model head
Fit nowhere: thumbed out as a classroom exercise
By a casual friend, it stood
Obtrusive in the long bookshelf, stolidly propping
Thick volumes of prose –
Far too unlovely a conversation piece,
Her visitor claimed, for keeping.
And how unlike! In distaste he pointed at it:
Brickdust-complected, eyes under a dense lid
Half-blind, that derisive pout –
Rude image indeed, to ape with such sly treason
Her dear farce: best rid
Hearthstone at once of the outrageous head.
With goodwill she heard his reason,
But she – whether from habit grown overfond
Of the dented caricature, or fearing some truth
In old wives’ tales of a bond
Knitting to each original its coarse copy
(Woe if enemies, in wrath,
Take to sticking pins through wax!)-felt loath
To junk it. Scared, unhappy,
She watched the grim head swell mammoth, demanding a home
Suited to its high station: from a spectral dais
It menaced her in a dream –
Cousin perhaps to that vast stellar head
Housed in stark heavens, whose laws
Ordained now bland, now barbarous influences
Upon her purse, her bead.
No place, it seemed, for the effigy to fare
Free from annoy: if dump-discarded, rough boys
Spying a pate so spare
Glowering sullen and pompous from an ash-heap
Might well seize this prize
And maltreat the hostage head in shocking wise
Afflicting the owner’s sleep –
At the mere thought her head ached. A murky tarn
She considered then, thick-silted, with weeds obscured,
To serve her exacting turn:
But out of the watery aspic, laurelled by fins,
The simulacrum leered,
Lewdly beckoning. Her courage wavered:
She blenched, as one who drowns,
And resolved more ceremoniously to lodge
The mimic-head – in a crotched willow tree green-
Vaulted by foliage:
Let bell-tongued birds descant in blackest feather
On the rendering, grain by grain,
Of that uncouth shape to simple sod again
Through drear and dulcet weather.
Yet, shrined on her shelf, the grisly visage endured,
Despite her wrung hands, her tears, her praying: Vanish!
Steadfast and evil-starred,
It ogled through rock-fault, wind-flaw and fisted wave-
An antique hag-head, too tough for knife to finish,
Refusing to diminish
By one jot its basilisk-look of love.
On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad (1957)
Ravening through the persistent bric-à-brac
Of blunt pencils, rose-sprigged coffee cup,
Postage stamps, stacked books' clamor and yawp,
Neighborhood cockcrow---all nature's prodigal backtalk,
The vaunting mind
Snubs impromptu spiels of wind
And wrestles to impose
Its own order on what is.
'With my fantasy alone,' brags the importunate head,
Arrogant among rook-tongued spaces,
Sheep greens, finned falls, 'I shall compose a crisis
To stun sky black out, drive gibbering mad
Trout, cock, ram,
That bulk so calm
On my jealous stare,
Self-sufficient as they are.'
But no hocus-pocus of green angels
Damasks with dazzle the threadbare eye;
'My trouble, doctor, is: I see a tree,
And that damn scrupulous tree won't practice wiles
To beguile sight:
E.g., by cant of light
Concoct a Daphne;
My tree stays tree.
'However I wrench obstinate bark and trunk
To my sweet will, no luminous shape
Steps out radiant in limb, eye, lip,
To hoodwink the honest earth which pointblank
Spurns such fiction
As nymphs; cold vision
Will have no counterfeit
Palmed off on it.
'No doubt now in dream-propertied fall some moon-eyed,
Star-lucky sleight-of-hand man watches
My jilting lady squander coin, gold leaf stock ditches,
And the opulent air go studded with seed,
While this beggared brain
Hatches no fortune,
But from leaf, from grass,
Thieves what it has.'
Green Rock, Winthrop Bay (1958)
No lame excuses can gloss over
Barge-tar clotted at the tide-line, the wrecked pier.
I should have known better.
Fifteen years between me and the bay
Profited memory, but did away with the old scenery
And patched this shoddy
Makeshift of a view to quit
My promise of an idyll. The blue's worn out:
It's a niggard estate,
Inimical now. The great green rock
We gave good use as ship and house is black
With tarry muck
And periwinkles, shrunk to common
Size. The cries of scavenging gulls sound thin
In the traffic of planes
From Logan Airport opposite.
Gulls circle gray under shadow of a steelier flight.
Loss cancels profit.
Unless you do this tawdry harbor
A service and ignore it, I go a liar
Gilding what's eyesore,
Or must take loophole and blame time
For the rock's dwarfed lump, for the drabbled scum,
For a churlish welcome.
On the Decline of Oracles (1957)
My father kept a vaulted conch
By two bronze bookends of ships in sail,
And as I listened its cold teeth seethed
With voices of that ambiguous sea
Old Böcklin missed, who held a shell
To hear the sea he could not hear.
What the seashell spoke to his inner ear
He knew, but no peasants know.
My father died, and when he died
He willed his books and shell away.
The books burned up, sea took the shell,
But I, I keep the voices he
Set in my ear, and in my eye
The sight of those blue, unseen waves
For which the ghost of Böcklin grieves.
The peasants feast and multiply.
Eclipsing the spitted ox I see
Neither brazen swan nor burning star,
Heraldry of a starker age,
But three men entering the yard,
And those men coming up the stair.
Profitless, their gossiping images
Invade the cloistral eye like pages
From a gross comic strip, and toward
The happening of this happening
The earth turns now. In half an hour
I shall go down the shabby stair and meet,
Coming up, those three. Worth
Less than present, past---this future.
Worthless such vision to eyes gone dull
That once descried Troy's towers fall,
Saw evil break out of the north.
The Goring (1956)
Arena dust rusted by four bulls' blood to a dull redness,
The afternoon at a bad end under the crowd's truculence,
The ritual death each time botched among dropped capes, ill-judged stabs,
The strongest will seemed a will toward ceremony. Obese, dark-
Faced in his rich yellows, tassels, pompons, braid, the picador
Rode out against the fifth bull to brace his pike and slowly bear
Down deep into the bent bull-neck. Cumbrous routine, not artwork.
Instinct for art began with the bull's horn lofting in the mob's
Hush a lumped man-shape. The whole act formal, fluent as a dance.
Blood faultlessly broached redeemed the sullied air, the earth's grossness.
It is a chilly god, a god of shades,
Rises to the glass from his black fathoms.
At the window, those unborn, those undone
Assemble with the frail paleness of moths,
An envious phosphorescence in their wings.
Vermilions, bronzes, colors of the sun
In the coal fire will not wholly console them.
Imagine their deep hunger, deep as the dark
For the blood-heat that would ruddle or reclaim.
The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.
The old god dribbles, in return, his words.
The old god, too, writes aureate poetry
In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes,
Fair chronicler of every foul declension.
Age, and ages of prose, have uncoiled
His talking whirlwind, abated his excessive temper
When words, like locusts, drummed the darkening air
And left the cobs to rattle, bitten clean.
Skies once wearing a blue, divine hauteur
Ravel above us, mistily descend,
Thickening with motes, to a marriage with the mire.
He hymns the rotten queen with saffron hair
Who has saltier aphrodisiacs
Than virgins' tears. That bawdy queen of death,
Her wormy couriers are at his bones.
Still he hymns juice of her, hot nectarine.
I see him, horny-skinned and tough, construe
What flinty pebbles the ploughblade upturns
As ponderable tokens of her love.
He, godly, doddering, spells
No succinct Gabriel from the letters here
But floridly, his amorous nostalgias.
The Beggars (1956)
(before : The Beggars of Benidorm Market)
Nightfall, cold eye---neither disheartens
These goatish tragedians who
Hawk misfortune like figs and chickens
And, plaintiff against each day, decry
Nature's partial, haphazard thumb.
Under white wall and Moorish window
Grief's honest grimace, debased by time,
Caricatures itself and thrives
On the coins of pity. At random
A beggar stops among eggs and loaves,
Props a leg-stump upon a crutch,
Jiggles his tin cup at the goodwives.
By lack and loss these beggars encroach
On spirits tenderer than theirs,
Suffering-toughened beyond the fetch
Of finest conscience.
The bay's sheer, extravagant blue,
White house and almond grove. The beggars
Outlast their evilest star, wryly
And with a perfidious verve
Baffle the dark, the pitying eye.
For Leonard Baskin
To his house the bodiless
Come to barter endlessly
Vision, wisdom, for bodies
Palpable as his, and weighty.
Hands moving move priestlier
Than priest's hands, invoke no vain
Images of light and air
But sure stations in bronze, wood, stone.
Obdurate, in dense-grained wood,
A bald angel blocks and shapes
The flimsy light; arms folded
Watches his cumbrous world eclipse
Inane worlds of wind and cloud.
Bronze dead dominate the floor,
Dwarfing us. Our bodies flicker
Toward extinction in those eyes
Which, without him, were beggared
Of place, time, and their bodies.
Emulous spirits make discord,
Try entry, enter nightmares
Until his chisel bequeaths
Them life livelier than ours,
A solider repose than death's.