[Image description: A young Sylvia Plath holds a dandelion in a deck chair, smiling, in profile. She wears a white top with a red flower tucked into its neckline.]
Every night, now, I wake at 4 am to nurse the baby. I watch the sky turn blue. I write notes for the book on one hand, hold the baby’s head with the next. At 8, as the big kids ride away from me on the bus, I buckle the baby into his carseat and take him to daycare, and then, for four hours, I write the book.
After lunch, I get the baby down for his nap, and then I listen to Harriet Rosenstein interview Sylvia Plath’s friends. What interviews exist with her family— her mother, Aurelia Plath— exist only on paper, as notes. There is one extant tape in which Rosenstein speaks, right after the interview. It’s late. She’s tired and yawning. You can hear her frustration that she couldn’t record the meeting itself, that she is annoyed at herself for relying on her memory— no matter how young, how vibrant she is, when we leave an encounter with another person, certain things vanish. Sometimes, as I listen, I drift into sleep, exhausted from seven months of new motherhood— and I vanish from consciousness as men and women long dead tell their stories about Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Assia Wevill, three people also long vanished from the earth, who live inside my mind with as much— more?— vibrancy as any person in my own life story. I hear the crackling of matches as cigarettes are lit. I hear Clarissa Roche eating her famously wonderful cooking. Planes overhead drown out Al Alvarez. A subway rumbles by W.S. Merwin’s apartment. And what I notice, more than anything, as I alternately scribble notes or drift to sleep, is that all of these people are playing the same game I am— they work to conjure a woman. Sometimes, they only get a ghost.
As both Jacqueline Rose and Gail Crowther have written, Plath famously haunts our culture through traces of her life and work, but in the last week, I’ve felt… actually haunted, for the first time in my life. (My favorite response to this came from a writer who I love, who also loves Plath— when I told her, she said, “I’m so happy for you,” and she meant it.) I don’t want to say I don’t believe in ghosts, but… I don’t really believe in ghosts. Or else, I’ve never seen one. Once, I felt the distinct presence of something evil in my old bedroom, when I was wearing a vintage cardigan plucked from what a friend claimed was a haunted house, but it went away fairly quickly. Everyone wanted me to throw the cardigan out but it was this really fab coral color with these sweet-ass rhinestone buttons, so like, sorry, no. Go find someone else to haunt. The sweater stays.
I don’t own anything that Sylvia Plath owned, but I do own one of Harriet Rosenstein’s books, a first edition of Winter Trees. Rosenstein is alive, of course— but she is mum on her experience gathering material for her vanished biography of Sylvia Plath. I have spoken to almost all of Plath’s biographers, and they’ve generously given me their time and thoughts— even Anne Stevenson kindly wrote me airmail letters when I was in graduate school, discussing Plath’s interest in Plato, her poetic obsession with purity. But Rosenstein is a vault, and so, in many way, hearing her youthful voice on these tapes— Yes, yes, she’ll tell an interviewee, go on… Or, if someone meanders— I’d like you to return to the subject of how she moved and looked at that time, if you can. Thank you, she says, her soft, almost girlish voice suddenly firm. Or— as, for instance, when Ruth Beuscher alleges an especially odious thing about Sylvia and Aurelia— she suddenly yells: REALLY! And you are right back there, with her, arrested by this story which seems to birth countless other stories, like a litter of kittens, like the litter of kittens Elizabeth Sigmund showed Sylvia when she was in crisis over Ted’s leaving: I never saw anything so small and new and vulnerable, Plath told her friend. They are blind.
What could I do, Sigmund then asks, to help and protect this amazing person?
I am still asking myself that question, as ludicrous as it may sound. We can’t protect the dead. Nor can the dead protect us, although we ask for their protection. I am not religious, but when I can’t sleep, I do one of two things: I repeat the Hail Mary or I repeat “Ariel,” over and over, a meditation— I speak to women long dead, and I speak the words of women long dead. Help me, I may as well say aloud. Help me sleep. Help me write this book. Let me wake in the morning. Let me wake every morning, at least until my children are grown. Let me live. We can’t know what Sylvia was thinking, but we do know she said to her neighbor Trevor Thomas in the last two weeks of her life— I don’t want to die. Thomas was driven slightly mad by his needy American neighbor, but even he, in the end, wondered— how can I help her? Can I call someone, he asked her?
In the last week, a scholar generously mailed me, as they called it, “a box of treasures.” Letters and photographs, some of them unpublished. The ink is smudged on them; there are coffee stains and rust from old paperclips. I opened the envelope enthralled and spent several days combing through each document. Monday night, in bed, I read an account by the long-time secretary of Yaddo, the artists’ colony where Plath and Hughes spent time in the fall of 1959, of being haunted. She had seen a ghost at the foot of her bed, an older man holding a black lamb. To prove she wasn’t dreaming, she wrote, she threw a bedroom slipper. The ghost remained, and so, too, did the slipper. My bedroom lamp was on as I read this, and so, too, was my partner awake next to me, reading, warm and alive, but I suddenly felt it— something had been rent. Whatever limits I had kept firmly in place between that world and my own living one began to fall away. I carefully placed the letters back in their envelope and rolled over, closed my eyes to sleep.
But my sleep was haunted— as I slept, voices repeated questions I had about Sylvia’s life, her last days, what certain poems meant, really meant— questions I have been asking myself for 25 years, and yet, with these tapes, these letters, questions that had brand new answers. Whose voice was I hearing? When the baby woke at 2:30, I gathered him up and changed him, feeling certain someone watched me as I did. Back in my bed I nursed him, but he was still hungry. I went downstairs to fetch a bottle and as I climbed the stairs in the deep dark of 3:00 in the morning, I thought, She is at the top of the stairs, and I thought I saw a woman, tall, willowy, her long hair down. Stop it, I told myself, you are thinking of Alvarez’s image of her in his essay, at Christmastime… And maybe I was. The woman at the top of the stairs vanished, but my sense that I had been strung between two places, one living and one dead, remained. As I tried to go back to sleep with my back to our bedroom door, I couldn’t. The idea of who might enter frightened me too much.
At the same time, another inner voice said— Why not let her in?
I know the bottom, Plath wrote in “Elm,” her great poem from spring 1962. I know it with my great tap root.
Plath’s elm doesn’t fear “the bottom,” even though she knows her reader does. I have been there, she tells us. At various points in my life, reading and writing intensively about Sylvia, I have wondered… will I go there? To the bottom? Will I let her in? She has always felt to be just out of my reach, but also, that I have kept her there deliberately, thrown up that boundary because if I didn’t, so said the culture, I would die too. I used to think I was her, I said to Gail Crowther during our first meeting in a Belfast bar, and sheepishly ducked my head.
Lots of people do, she responded, kindly, smiling.
I know of at least three people who believe Sylvia Plath is speaking through them, Harriet Rosenstein tells Elizabeth Sigmund, in a tone I can only describe as deadly serious, and, as I listen in the bright light of day, on my living room couch, I burst into peals of laughter. But the bright light of day is not the deep dark of night, and by 6 am on Tuesday, I am awake and shook. I text Gail— I feel haunted. I am haunted.
But what I mean, I realize, is I am afraid. I am afraid of telling this story. I am afraid of my close identification with this woman who knew the bottom. I am succumbing to that stupid, ugly, old story— that it is Plath who is dangerous, Plath who we should fear.
Not Ted Hughes.
And Gail tells me, in her lilting accent, in her voice that reminds me that we who love Sylvia Plath are also part of her story; that, rather than rend us apart, she has brought us together in a tapestry of creativity, scholarship, friendship, and love; she says
She can’t hurt you.
She is no ghost at the foot of the bed, the top of the stairs. I have spent my life and my career writing against that. She was a living woman, right up until she died. And when she did, she was turned into a monster, a myth. If a rend has torn between her world and mine, well, then, so be it. I’ll listen for whatever she might tell me with an open heart: all too flawed, all too human.