Poetry News

Leslie Jamison Explores Female Anger & Its Literary Counterparts

By Harriet Staff
Sylvia Plath

The New York Times Magazine features essayist Leslie Jamison writing about the phenomenon of female anger. She discusses "the slew of news stories accrued last fall," and has ensuing questions. "How much female anger has been lurking offscreen? How much anger has been biding its time and biting its tongue, wary of being pathologized as hysteria or dismissed as paranoia? And what of my own vexed feelings about all this female anger? Why were they even vexed?"

Jamison also goes into the "sad icon" herself, Sylvia Plath:

As a certain kind of slightly morbid, slightly depressive, slightly self-intoxicated, deeply predictable, pre-emptively apologetic literary fan-girl, I loved Sylvia Plath. I was obsessed with her own obsession with her own blood (“What a thrill ... that red plush”) and drawn to her suffering silhouette: a woman abandoned by her cheating husband and ensnared by the gendered double standards of domesticity. I attached myself to the mantra of her autobiographical avatar Esther Greenwood, who lies in a bathtub in “The Bell Jar,” bleeding during a rehearsal of a suicide attempt, and later stands at a funeral listening “to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” Her attachment to pain — her own and others’ — was also a declaration of identity. I wanted to get it tattooed on my arm.

Whenever I listened to my favorite female singers, it was easier for me to sing along to their sad lyrics than their angry ones. It was easier to play Ani DiFranco on repeat, crooning about heartbreak — “Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating/when you stopped calling me?” — than it was to hear her fury, and her irritation at the ones who stayed sad and quiet in her shadow: “Some chick says/Thank you for saying all the things I never do/I say, you know/The thanks I get is to take all the [expletive] for you.”

I kept returning to the early novels of Jean Rhys, whose wounded heroines flopped around dingy rented rooms in various European capitals, seeking solace from their heartbreak, staining cheap comforters with their wine. Sasha, the heroine of “Good Morning, Midnight” — the most famous of these early picaresques of pain — resolves to drink herself to death and manages, mainly, to cry her way across Paris. She cries at cafes, at bars, in her lousy hotel room. She cries at work. She cries in a fitting room. She cries on the street. She cries near the Seine. The closing scene of the novel is a scene of terrifying passivity: She lets a wraithlike man into her bed because she can’t summon the energy to stop him, as if she has finally lost touch with her willpower entirely. In life, Rhys was infamous for her sadness, what one friend called “her gramophone-needle-stuck-in-a-groove thing of going over and over miseries of one sort and another.” Even her biographer called her one of the greatest self-pity artists in the history of English fiction.

It took me years to understand how deeply I had misunderstood these women. I’d missed the rage that fueled Plath’s poetry like a ferocious gasoline, lifting her speakers (sometimes literally) into flight: “Now she is flying/More terrible than she ever was, red/Scar in the sky, red comet/Over the engine that killed her — the mausoleum, the wax house.” The speaker becomes a scar — this irrefutable evidence of her own pain — but this scar, in turn, becomes a comet: terrible and determined, soaring triumphant over the instruments of her own supposed destruction. I’d always been preoccupied with the pained disintegration of Plath’s speakers, but once I started looking, I saw the comet trails of their angry resurrections everywhere, delivering their unapologetic fantasies of retribution: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.”

Please read it all at the NYT Magazine.



Originally Published: January 19th, 2018