ImageSylvia Plath would have been eighty on October 27, 2012. Would she have mellowed? Would she have become, like so many, a teaching poet, after all? Would she have exhausted what she called “the blood-jet of poetry” by 50?

This edition of my Indiana poets’ blog turns to a poem that imagines alternative futures for Plath. Catherine Bowman, a poet who teaches at Indiana University, has closely studied artifacts in the Plath collection of the Lilly Library, an archive that includes not only drafts of some of Plath’s poems but also an early passport, her childhood paper dolls, and her meticulously prepared lectures, all handwritten, from the year she taught at her alma mater, Smith College. It even contains locks and braids of Plath’s hair.

The intimacy of this archive prompted Bowman to “celebrate, investigate and improvise on” the poet’s life in The Plath Cabinet. Bowman’s method is to bring together materials, published and not, from different periods in Plath’s life to create alternative histories. An example is “Last Wishes, 1963.” Given that Plath committed suicide in February, 1963, the title, read alone, sounds like a will and testament. But the poem, inspired by Plath’s letters and journals, reveals instead the ferocity of Plath’s passions and interests, her immersion in life:

Last Wishes, 1963

Someday she would like a pony
for Frieda. To rebuild the cottage,
to have a live-in nanny and lead
a freer life. She will try to go
to Ireland to purge herself
of this awful experience.
She wants blue to be her
new color, wants midnight,
not aqua. She wants to apply
for a Guggenheim, use her birthday check
on a rose-quartz tweed suit. She wants

some of those hair grips. Copper
or wood, a curved oval,
with a pike through the back,
for braids or a crown.
She hopes Frieda and Nick
learn horseback riding very young.
She longs for a second-hand piano,
she has a great yearning to practice
the piano again—she wants to learn
riding, straight riding, no jumping
or hopping or skipping—

she would like nothing
better than to hit it lucky,
to take a London flat. She wants
to learn to milk the TT-tested
Irish cows. She’ll have a salon in London,
get her brain back and practice
to write herself out of this hole.
I know just what I want
and I want to do it. She wants time
to breathe, the sun and sea,
to recover her flesh. (28-29)

Some readers perceive Plath’s poetry as nothing more than an anguished cri de coeur. But a look at the journals and letters reveals aspects of the poet that the Ariel poems do not: the writer who cultivated her craft by experimenting with traditional forms and mimicking other poets; the ambitious striver, who carefully plotted each publication and sought coveted literary prizes; and the woman, teeming with energy, who trellised roses, kept bees and braided rugs.

These other Plaths particularly interest Catherine Bowman, herself a poet known for an inventive adaptation of forms.

 

This poem appears in Catherine Bowman’s The Plath Cabinet (New York: Four Way Books, 2009). Bowman is also speaking this week at the Sylvia Plath Symposium at Indiana University: http://sylviaplathsymposium2012.indiana.edu/

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