Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wrist Splints

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers; when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's armchair and confuse his ‘rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity, stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza, epic poems to typhoid: odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.

-Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill

Wrist Splints

ink sting, I flick my pen
nib singed strokes
that flare in icy glyphs
wake frozen phrases
tingling paragraphs
that burn the frigid page
and consume
my frost-bitten wrist

stiff brittle pen
a crumble of words
collapsed nerves
a bundle of ash
I plunge my hand
wrist deep in the wreckage
the eroded sand
that blasts against my skin

broken reservoir
a wash of black silt
bashes letters against
the ragged bed
of ravaged nerves
outcroppings of words
scrape the pen’s flood
of broiling ink

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Last Letter, Last Word

On October 11th the New Statesman printed a previously unpublished poem by Ted Hughes which discusses the last time he saw his then estranged wife Sylvia Plath alive. While poking around on the internet trying to track down the full text of the poem, I read the comments following a news article which discussed the discovery. The angry author of the post snidely commented that the publication of this new poem should prove once and for all that Hughes was a good guy and vindicate him from the soap-box feminists who condemn Hughes for driving Plath to her suicide.

The Hughes poem, entitled “Last Letter,” describes Hughes running to save Plath after receiving a letter from her implying that she might kill herself. On that day she is still alive, and he leaves relieved. The poem then goes on to describe how Hughes feels torn between Plath and his mistress, then explores what Plath’s last hours might have been like. The poem concludes with a description of Ted Hughes sitting down to work before receiving a call that Plath has died.

Though the poem is heartfelt and mournful, it doesn’t excuses Hughes from whatever role he played in Plath’s death. While Plath suffered from depression before meeting Hughes, I don’t think most people would be cheered if their philandering husbands left them to live with their mistress. However, that’s not really the point. What bothers me more about Hughes and the publication of this poem is the degree to which Plath’s life and work are mediated to us through Hughes and his work.

Though it is not chic to say so, I am a fan of Plath’s poetry. As a confessional poet, it makes sense that Plath’s work often gets conflated with her biography. However, I think her work has a lot more to offer than just a morbid, voyeuristic look into her life with Hughes and her suicide. This new Hughes poem again frames Plath as Hughes’ troubled wife, from Hughes’ point of view. Whatever harm Hughes may have done Plath in life, her oeuvre is done a disservice when she is repeatedly cast not as a dedicated writer, but as someone’s suicidal wife. That is not to say that “Last Letter” is not an interesting discovery for Hughes fans and scholars, but once again, it seems like he gets the last word.

by Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rewriting History: Radical Medievalism

Conceptual writers spend a lot of time defending writing that is done through a recontextualization or recombination of source texts. Lyric, neo-Romantic, free-verse poetry has become so prevalent that writers who look to other texts rather than their own internal emotional experiences for inspiration or subject matter often face a barrage of criticism as though they were ruining poetry or cheapening human expression. However, there is nothing certain about the way we write, nor is there any style that is more natural than any other. Contemporary lyric poetry is as constructed as any other form, and there is nothing innate about it. In fact, writing by recombining a series of external source texts is nothing new—it is actually a very, very old strategy of writing, though many readers have difficulty accepting this type of writing no matter when it was composed. Medieval writers such as Chaucer borrowed heavily from a variety of texts in order to complete their own works. John Mandeville probably didn’t even exist, and whoever did write The Book of John Mandeville probably didn’t venture much farther than a bookshelf to write this famous travel narrative. Were the authors of these texts cheating the reader and getting away with spectacular acts of plagiarism, or is there something more to this way of writing? When we read, what is it that we most want to get out of the experience? If the point of reading is to learn about individual emotional experience, than lyric, free-verse, neo-Romanticism might be the answer, but I think we can look for something different in other texts. By cutting, pasting, and recombining texts, writers have the opportunity to express something broader and more inclusive than their own personal perception. This type of writing gives us a different, more panoramic view of the world and of writing itself. By reading more, we can learn more…. so why not bring this process to the page and expand existing texts into new ones? If nothing else, the historical precedent is there. My favourite evidence of the intersection of contemporary experimental poetics and medieval writing is Caroline Bergvall’s Shorter Chaucer Tales, particularly Banned in Poland: ‘The Summer Tale.’ Bergvall also draws our attention to the variations between translations and copies of a text in her poem Via, where she lists the first line of various translations of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the names of the translators and year of publication of each of these texts. In Via we see the slippery nature of reading and translation, not dissimilar from the role medieval scribes played when they made minute or drastic changes to texts as they copied them out by hand. Bergvall’s pieces show, among other things, that a readership is always in the process of reinterpreting and reshaping texts, and that nothing about writing is solid… not even old books.