I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath a lot lately. For years she has been one of my favorite poets. A while ago, one of my friends told me that I was reminiscent of her, “in a good way,” she hurried to assure me. I would love it if it were true. Sylvia Plath was a genius, and deserved better than the fate her society chose for her.
This poem of hers caught my attention when I was browsing through her Collected Poems:
If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
Both of you are great light-borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,
And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,
Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,
Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,
And dying to say something unanswerable.
The moon, too, abases her subjects,
But in the daytime she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.
No day is safe from news of you,
Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.
The thing that is so striking about this poem is its ambivalence. It is a critique, but also a surrender. It’s clear enough that the speaker is criticizing her husband/lover. Men have been comparing the women they love to the moon for centuries, but in a brilliant twist, Plath turns this device on its head an instead uses the metaphor to denounce her lover. Yes, the moon is beautiful, but it is also cold, remote and barren. It can sustain no life. It has no fire of it’s own; it is a “light borrower,” drawing its beauty from the sun just as the man in the poem saps energy from the speaker, turning their abode into a tomb.
The construction of the last stanza is interesting. “The moon, too, abases her subjects, But in the daytime she is ridiculous.” If viewed objectively, Plath seems to be saying, her lover is revealed to be petty and callow. To others, but never to himself. I think that is what she means by the “on the other hand;” the moon allows itself to be seen in an unflattering manner; Plath’s lover, imperious and self-important, convinced that his needs supersede those of his “subjects,” lacks the self-awareness and empathy to do anything except for continue to steal the light (the ideas, the emotions) reflected onto him from others. The irony is that he is not as clever as he thinks. He hasn’t come up w/ anything so witty as to be “unanswerable” by Plath.
There’s a good dose of self-loathing in here, too. Notice the use of the feminine pronoun for the moon, and the line “spiteful as a woman.” Plath is trying to insult her man by implying he is not a man at all; has none of the characteristics that we associate (however wrongly) w/ men: courage, honesty, nobility. In doing this, she is denigrating her own sex, and thus herself.
Plath doesn’t hate this man. She resents him, yes, but she’s also resigned to him. There is no talk of leaving the “mausoleum,” even though he’s abroad; no one is forcing her to stay. There’s no question that she will read his letters, not burn them. She knows he will not forget her; she will wait patiently for him to return from his travels, until he arrives to smother her once and for all.
It makes sense. Once we have entangled ourselves w/ somebody, it is v. hard to get away. That’s why movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind resonate; the only way to forget a love is to literally obliterate the memories. Even once we stop loving someone, it is almost impossible to totally sever our connection to him/her, to banish him from our thoughts once and for all. Something will happen, and we catch ourselves wanting to share it w/ the person in question, to return to what we once had, even when we know it’s impossible, even when we remind ourselves of the pain we have already suffered at his/her hands. The Greeks called this akrasia–acting against one’s better judgement. It is tempting to capitulate to the feeling, but we must remember it is a choice, the path of least resistance–which as Plath tells us, leads only to the grave. The rest of us can only stagger on, bearing our wounds as best we can, waiting for them to heal into scars, hoping to find another straggler on life’s long road who has enough strength left to lean on.