Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:10 PM 26th November 2022

After Sylvia: Poems And Essays In Celebration Of Sylvia Plath

Observing the plaids and pleats of the contents of Sylvia Plath’s closet at Bonham’s auction sale room, academic Gail Crowther is struck by the potency of these ‘objects of the dead’, invested with an inextricable link to the ‘biography of the owner’. The ‘symbolic continuity’ they confer can only, she notes, be a shadow of that given up by a manuscript or a collection of poems, but they do introduce us to a kind of intimacy with the interior life of the poet.

There is a sense in which Crowther’s illuminating essay on the classy, and expensive, sartorial choices of Plath reveals a truth about our ongoing necromantic fascination with the minutiae of a life whose gaps we sometimes fill with quotidian indicators, as if to find corroboration amongst the tartan skirts. And in After Sylvia, a glittering collection of poetry and prose timed to coincide with what would have been her ninetieth birthday on 27th October, the essay takes an indirect approach to the making of connections in the interest of commemoration. Replicated in a general act of homage whose very eclecticism tells how differently Plath’s words ‘speak’ to each of her readers, Crowther’s own words make concise the individuated voice, as they convey, from an unconventional angle, the almost visceral, often subconscious, impact of the poet on the collective imagination. And it is a testament to the editorial skills of Sarah Corbett and Ian Humphreys that that ‘collective imagination’ should include, here, the creative efforts of writers both known and hitherto unknown.

And in After Sylvia, a glittering collection of poetry and prose timed to coincide with what would have been her ninetieth birthday ...
To disentangle the writer from the child, the mother, the wife is to try to unravel an intractable knot of complexity, wherein the socio-cultural context and circumstances of Plath’s life are also bound. And it is significant that many of the contributors to this eloquent volume eschew direct engagement in favour of a kind of emotional pastiche, a declaration of fellow-feeling, or a finding of simpatico in verisimilitude of experience. The single word ‘compliant’ in Merrie Joy Williams’ fulsome prose-poem Snap gives the game away: If Plath’s re-rehearsals of the patriarchal controls of her early life were vehemently corrective, Williams performs a service to black, female subjection in similarly resolute tones:

Black girls who were someone’s late periods, but showed up on
time for photos, in dresses that their mothers chose, poses their
teachers selected, rows that their gender dictated

Compliance. Heather Clark’s long essay gives a neat, and genuinely instructive synopsis of the American landscape of ‘oppressive weight’ that gave rise to the poet’s formative development in the forties and fifties. Plath’s later composite rejection of this claustrophobic universe, in Ariel, finds a correlative in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, wherein Stephen Dedalus’ exile facilitated the creative process at a necessary distance. Fetching up in an equally stultifying England, Plath is nonetheless delivered of the means of escape, from the kind of ‘suffocating’ mental trauma so memorably rehearsed on the big screen by the actor Julianne Moore. Alongside the refusal to remain silent, Plath to some degree disavows the tenets of structure and order as central to the mechanisms of patriarchal control:

She wanted to shed her overreliance on poetic form, but encoded within
this desire was a more general need to break from similarly “encasing”
feminine rules that encouraged self-censorship and subordination.
These were the rules of a patriarchal society, designed to keep women
from becoming great writers – or indeed great leaders of any kind
. (‘“Prisoner & Jailor, / Perfectly parabled”: The October Poems’ Art of Escape’)

The urgency to break free of constraints is as palpable a conceit in the poems appearing in this anthology as it was evident in Plath’s writings. Divided into sections, each of which invites a theme by association, the many contributions yield an admixture of mood, diversion and suggestion in verse that sometimes runs parallel to a sense conveyed by Plath, and sometimes remains connected only tangentially. Several of the poems here were conceived for quite other reasons and in entirely different circumstances: Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s stark dissection of a deserted apartment building in war-torn Ukraine brings a photographer’s eye to the telling detail when counterpointing the succulent resilience of a spider plant with the proximal immediacy of the ‘soft thud of shelling’ (Welcome to Donetsk). Taylor-Lind is a witness by compulsion, as unwilling to evade the intimation of shellfire as Plath the embattlement of her past.

A life force as powerful as Plath’s own, the poet turns feral in Rosie Garland’s vigorous avowal of the human spirit...
The approach is head-on, the evisceration of nature tortured but vigorously inflamed, and it is fitting that the several pieces which comprise the ‘Nature’ sequence, here, yield suggestions of Plath’s violent life-force. The binary poppy that thrives in chromatic abundance, a shocking symbol strafing the vaults of the dead like ‘Solemn flares / set to scald across the common’, is irrepressible in Daniel Fraser’s reading in Rot, rot, rot. Whilst elsewhere, in Sarah Wimbush’s microscopic observation of clover mites, the Little Red’s’ sanguine impression is lasting, as she scoops them, significantly, off the pages of Wells’ Time Machine: ‘Brushed aside / it is forever blood across the page’. The livid colour, if not the insect, will endure, as refulgent an affirmation as the ‘fierce flames’ amongst which the ‘golden lotus’ of creativity throve, continues to thrive, in the imaginations of those who pay homage to Plath’s memory at her Heptonstall gravestone.

Fire resurges throughout After Sylvia. Victoria Kennefick’s astonishing poem to Brigid of Kildare commends the fragile delicacy of nascence and embryonic nurture into the saint’s protectorate. Kennefick’s protean interplay between fire and water is beautifully rendered, yielding both a promissory note to Brigid’s mandate - she is saint of the art of metalworking and illumination alongside the vulnerable – and an indication, perhaps, of Plath’s own febrile maternal impulse. An extraordinary counterpoint of the forged and the fluid, O Brigid, O Exalted One, Listen to my Plea as I Celebrate You blooms as it deliquesces:

‘Pour me into the stream so I flow,
use me to cool the red-hot
iron of your smithing – all sunlight and fire.
Help me to rise like you though I fall,
to surge through it all –
gush over dry stone. Heal me,
let me keep this seed safe, deliver it’.

The self-lacerations of Sarah Corbett’s Prick realise mental pain in couplets of vicious extended metaphors before drawing a sense of the universal into the particularity of hawthorn bush ‘welts’ by insinuating the ‘flame and the burn’ of the Bikini atomic tests, and an image of Kim Phuk, the peeling Vietnamese child, into the tableau. And to some degree, the exercise is repeated in Jane Commane’s deliciously ambiguous She said I needed to do the work of anger, whose tortured tercets describe countervailing impressions of pain, joy and the act of struggle in natural, and unnatural, figures. The bleeding of brute but teeming landscapes into the architecture of anger and confinement harnesses Plath’s own energy exquisitely:

‘in this fumigated orchard where brimstone blanches the bud
and blows cool on the white-hot core of the star at the centre
of an apple sliced through with one clean cross of the knife’.

The sense of natural abundance, the resistless chlorophylls of growth, are given greater colour in a time of diminution and extinction. The ‘beehive’ of Pascale Petit’s beautiful celebration of the bee in Swarm is clotted like honey, a rich brocade of boundless energy whose ‘pollen-gilded warrior’ is a measure, also, of the narrator’s identity, of the life-force underwriting a capacity for endurance. A life force as powerful as Plath’s own, the poet turns feral in Rosie Garland’s vigorous avowal of the human spirit in Not fallen angel but in a state of falling, where the subject’s figurative potency shakes houses, smelts the power of words into being in a framework of rising and falling metrical hammers:

‘She writes a tunnel to the other kingdom,
nails hooked, claws out the shuttered
eye of darkness’.

For the poet could not afford to be fearful, as Samatar Elmi’s fine Volcanoes suggests. An Empedoclean leap is a precondition of creative latitude, a transfiguring of experience into words, of lava into pumice settling ‘where the ocean turns to land’. That sense of abandonment which, as Devina Shah notes in a diverting essay on the uses of the natural world in Plath’s work, is akin to a desire for oblivion, also confers a ‘kind of freedom’, as it did in the title poem of Ariel (‘Symbol, Canvas and Portal: Nature in the Plathian Universe’).

Many-angled, kaleidoscopic, mesmerising, Plath’s work will invert the telescope of perception at every turn, surprise the reader with unexpected or reinvigorated meaning, yielding colour and possibility in unlikely places. And it is fitting that this wonderful, wide-ranging volume should include Gaia Holmes’ delicate poem of unanticipated discovery, The Underground Garden, which describes a subterranean fruit garden created by a Sicilian immigrant in California in the early twentieth century. Finding a correspondence between the secret underground treasure and the resilience of the creative impulse, Holmes’ narrator reflects on the propensity for darkness which remains a constant:

‘If you were here
we’d talk about
all those beautiful girls
trapped in myths and chilly cellars,
trying to breathe light
through worm holes
and hairline cracks’.

After Sylvia: Poems and Essays in Celebration of Sylvia Plath, Edited by Sarah Corbett & Ian Humphreys, is published by Nine Arches Press.

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