I have never quite understood my fascination with Sylvia Plath. From my first encounter with The Bell Jar to my in-depth studies of her poetry, I have always had an admiration for her ability to weave a devil-may-care sense of despair between the lines. The type-hammer of her typewriter delicately tapping the ribbon against the page (sometimes an upside-down memorandum sheet), edge-to-edge, until it was full of what swam beneath her skin. What I do know, however, is that as I read The Bell Jar for the first time–my copy’s pages are worn and tanned, the spine wrinkled from age and wear; it has my favorite lines memorized: “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence” (p.15)–I felt ill, physically and mentally dismembered. It was this, this strange sense of anguish or brokenness, that drew me toward Sylvia. Some may think it masochistic–and it may well be masochistic–to willingly subject myself and seek out literature that gives me such an agonizing emotional response (see also The Virgin Suicides).
By the time I flipped open The Bell Jar I had already started writing poetry–lacking form, rudimentary at best–exploring a deep seated anxiety and depression. And because I was an introverted, artistic son of an alcoholic, writing was (and still is) an outlet, my only form of true expression. But for me, my experience with honest, eviscerating words (and with Sylvia) was something I had never known before.”I am no drudge/ Though for years I have eaten dust/ And dried plates with my dense hair// And seen my strangeness evaporate,/ Blue dew from dangerous skin” (Stings). She wrote with a subtle nuance. She quietly expressed her feelings as if they were my own. Because no one truly understands depression unless they have it. It’s like seeing myself in a mirror on the page.
In the novel the protagonist’s life is characterized as a tree, “want[ing] each and every one of [the figs], but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as [she] sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at [her] feet” (p. 62). And in the moment I read that, sitting on the deck in my parents’ backyard at the crest of summer, sipping on black coffee and drinking the sun, I understood her. What a beautiful metaphor for watching life pass by, for wondering which branch to climb before it plummets, for admitting that no matter which road we take there is always something left behind. Maybe that’s what struck me most about The Bell Jar, beyond its lyricism: the pain, the sincerity.
And with The Bell Jar, I fell in love with Sylvia. I craved Sylvia. I wanted to be Sylvia. I rummaged through books on bookstore shelves and flipped through books spilled out on the floors of the cramped rooms and spiral staircase of White Rabbit for Sylvia. I read anthologies filled with poets, and even the confessionals–the likes of Anne Sexton (who I truly adore) and Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass–never stood up to the visceral literary ideal of Sylvia.
It’s quite possible my fascination stems from her suicide, because I’ve contemplated it myself. Sticking my head in a dirty oven, breathing the gas in slow, had never seemed so appealing. But rather than fetishize her death, I’m afraid of it. I can see the pain in her adumbral eyes, hiding behind a smile–the same smile I’ve given too many times to count. I can feel the pain in her illustrious words–words that make academics question her intentions as I scream SHEWASDEPRESSED in my head. “Dying/ is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.// I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real./ I guess you could say I’ve a call” (Lady Lazarus). And like her I question “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Apprehensions). But why does this fascinate me so much?
I imagine it’s because I’ve always felt trapped inside my head, constantly debating myself, constantly chastising myself. When your mind is a prison, you’re always in hell. This is why I’m prescribed drugs–drugs like Lexapro and Xanax that take me from solitary confinement to parolee–and I have an adorable dog named Fenway–yes, after Fenway Park–to help me function in society. But even in the daze of Xanax, I still find myself feeling trapped. Even with my dog lying across my lap, barking, as dogs do, as he chases dream squirrels, I still find myself feeling alone. That’s how I imagine Sylvia: alone.
Maybe all I’ve ever wanted is to sit at the foot of her grave and tell her I love her and that she isn’t alone. Maybe I find peace in knowing I can flip to Love Letter and pretend I was a snake alongside her, “a snake/ masked among black rocks.” Sylvia opened my eyes with black ink, she told me she understood the pain with black ink. But she escaped the black ink and I am still here, typing poems on my computer, unpublished and unrecognized.
My love for Sylvia–a love that led me to write her as a god in a poem of mine, along with many other allusions–will never cease. “And there is a charge, a very large charge/ For a word or a touch/ Or a bit of blood” (Lady Lazarus)