I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?
I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——
Its snaky acids hiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.
I first read Sylvia Plath in high school.
The library wasn’t incredibly well-stocked back in school, but carried one of her books of poems, Ariel. It was a slim little thing, an old edition with bent pages and tatters at the edges that fit between my hands neatly, and it was impossible to put down. The stanzas roared over me and blotted out all other thought, raw and stinging like open wounds, cutting like weapons. And, really, why shouldn’t they hurt to read? They’re suicide notes structured with melodies, each one an examination of Plath’s personal demons, most overtly presented in lines like “I am terrified of this dark thing that sleeps in me…all day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”
I wrote a research paper for English class about Plath and confessional poetry that year, drawing on poems from Ariel - “Elm,” “Wintering,” and “Lady Lazarus,” to name a few. I had to hang onto my copy for a couple months, carrying it around from class to class, and it was such a small book but it felt so heavy. Weight more on the soul than on the hands, I suppose. And I considered stealing the library copy, of hanging onto it just to have it because I liked the poems so much. But in the end I returned it, both out of my compulsion to be a goody two-shoes and because, after awhile, I had to stop carrying around the dark cloud that clung to the pages.
As much as I love Plath’s work for its bluntness and its unflinching truth, it still terrifies me. Her fascination with death, with depression, with “the bottom,” as it’s referred to in “Elm,” assaults the mind like a creeping virus, or at least that’s what it does to me. Because I know the bottom but I fear it terribly, and especially when I was younger, my primary coping method was willful ignorance. Reading Ariel felt like an attack, like that dark thing fluttering behind my ribs was suddenly baring its teeth and threatening to eat me alive. Plath’s work is full of sharp edges and vulnerability and fear, true fear, no matter how much her narrators profess they are not afraid of their demons. The stanzas both yearn for love and reject the concept entirely, cynicism undercutting sentiment. It’s hard to read even on the best of days.
I love Sylvia Plath’s work because I can engage with it, almost too much. She’s a powerful writer, tapping into emotions most people refuse to even think about. But I always feel so strange reading her poems, the death knells she composed for herself. Sometimes it seems wrong to pick apart obvious cries for help as art. But then again, art should be life, and life can be ugly; poems should make us feel something, which the torment in “Elm” certainly can.