Wednesday, March 10, 2004


From the looks of the bathtub detritus scattered about my bathroom floor, I will never get to work today. I'm babysitting the plumbers this morning, and snow is falling outside. I have my pepper spray by my side, placed within arm's reach because the paranoid tales of predatory service men have clouded my more trusting instincts. But of course they're perfectly nice.

Perhaps it's the sitting at home on a workday, not sick, not working, that puts me in the mind of a 1950s housewife. I'm sifting through my bread recipes, wondering why I can't ever get my dough to rise correctly. Is it the yeast? Is it inadequate kneading? I'm thinking about the hyacinths that have already come out of their dormant winter in Kriston's garden, and I'm worrying that the snow will smother them. I don't have a tarp to cover them, and anyway I'm at my house now. Briefly, the image of his next door neighbor's perfect, precocious daffodils flashed into my mind, and I felt certain that they're doomed.

I read Christina Nehring's wonderful essay on Silvia Plath this morning in the Atlantic Monthly. What an essayist that woman is. I utterly agreed with her on Plath, and the cult of Plath that rose in her wake to damn her and canonize her. Nehring acknowledges what shouldn't need mentioning, that Plath is a serious artist of the first rank, and not just a muse for world-weary preteens and melodramatic man-haters. As Nehring notes, those that respond to her so often feel the need to see her as either a raving madwoman or a simple (in both meanings of the word) domestic.

Instead she's mesmerizingly complex, and Nehring says Plath's life makes an argument by itself for a critic to consider biography alongside art. Both maternal and "violently ambivalent' towards her children. Both exuberant in love, and transfixed by the mysteries of death. Don't we all contain multitudes?

A critic tries to pin her on a contradiction, as if one could call an artist on "flip flops" as one can a politician. One of Plath's most affecting, disturbing poems is her "Tulips," written of these flowers that her husband brought to her in the hospital. Critics have said:
Look at this ecstatic letter about sweet Ted's [her husband] bringing her tulips when she was in the hospital.... And now look at the poem "Tulips": the flowers "hurt" her; they are "dangerous animals"; the smiles of the speaker's husband and child "catch onto my skin" like "little smiling hooks." Was she schizophrenic? Or just a pathological liar?"

And this is exactly the Plath that irritates many of her critics. Come now, they say, you had a loving husband and a child. Why the melodrama? Nehring responds well in defense of Plath. Of course, in her daily life she was not "running around ranting blackly like Lady Lazarus and 'eating men like the air.'" (even though, honestly, how awesome would that be?) Like anyone, she told herself she was happy, she pursued hobbies, she found tiny joys. She coped. But:
that does not mean there wasn't a level at which Plath gave free rein to her doubts, at which she permitted herself to be pessimistic, to be brutal, to follow her fears, her fantasies, her darker intuitions, as far down or up as they would take her. It seems to me that the critics who call Plath schizophrenic are pretending that people are simpler than they are.


The cursing and banging from my bathroom seems to be dwindling, though I note with dismay that the snowfall seems to be energizing. It's a bit of a hike to the bus stop, so perhaps I'll cozy up here a bit longer. No more Plath for today, and I promise not to stick my head into the oven.


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