Audio

The After-Hell: A discussion of Sylvia Plath's poem “The Stones”

October 17, 2018

Al Filreis: I'm Al Filreis and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We'll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive at writing.upenn.edu/pennsound.

 

Today, I'm joined here in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers House in our Wexler Studio by Sally Van Doren, poet and artist, author of three poetry collections: Sex at Noon Taxes, 2008, Possessive, 2012, and her newest book, a wonderful book Sally, Promise of 2017. Has received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and has taught at the 92nd Street Y, Washington University, and the St. Louis Public Schools and who posts daily excerpts, which I follow daily, from her ongoing poll, The Sense Series via Instagram @sallyvandoren, all one word, sallyvandoren. And by Huda Fakhreddine, a specialist in Arabic literature with a focus on modernist movements and trends in Arabic poetry, whose book Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition approaches the modernist free verse movement in relation to the Abbasid muhdath movement as literary crisis and metapoetic reflection, who's been a great partner on various projects with us here at the Kelly Writers House, including a powerful semi-spontaneous reading by poets from predominantly Muslim countries whose immigrants were prohibited by the Trump administration in January, 2017, at an event held at the Writers House called Poetry Unbanned. And by Susan Schultz, poet, teacher, critic, editor, publisher, author of several volumes about memory, and two others about forgetting. Among them most recently Memory Cards: Thomas Traherne Series, Talisman Press, 2016, and Memory Cards: Simone Weil Series, Equipage in the UK, 2017. Who has also published two volumes of Dementia Blog with Singing Horse Press, which is here in Philadelphia.

 

 

Susan Schultz: No.

 

 

Al Filreis: Oh, no longer.

 

 

Susan Schultz: It hasn't been here for many, many years. It's in San Diego.

 

 

Al Filreis: Isn't that Gil Ott's, Singing Horse?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Gil Ott gave it to Paul Naylor many years ago.

 

 

Al Filreis: And it's in?

 

 

Susan Schultz: It's in San Diego.

 

 

Al Filreis: San Diego, a little closer to Hawaii. Author also of A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and founder famously of Tinfish Press, which publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific region, has resided for many years on Oahu with her family, and who is, I add with deep regret and consternation, a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. Let the record-

 

 

Susan Schultz: Go Cards.

 

 

Al Filreis: No, we have two Cardinals fans. Let the record show that Susan did a kind of Kirk Gibson pump. They're wrong team, but Susan, thank you for coming all this way from Hawaii. You've been in New York and here. It's really great to see you again.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Thanks. It's great to be back. It's oddly snowing outside.

 

 

Al Filreis: You're not really used to that.

 

 

Susan Schultz: No. No, no, no.

 

 

Al Filreis: You're originally from St. Louis.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I grew up in the DC suburbs where-

 

 

Al Filreis: Well that's right. I knew that.

 

 

Susan Schultz: ... if it snowed this much, the world ended.

 

 

Al Filreis: How did you pick up the Cardinals?

 

 

Susan Schultz: I was born in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

Al Filreis: Okay, there you go. When did we meet? In the late '70s I want to say, or late '80s.

 

 

Susan Schultz: No, no, no. We met in graduate school. That was the '80s for me.

 

 

Al Filreis: For you, in the '80s. Well, it's great to see you again. Sally, great to have you back at the Writers House this time on the good side of the microphone.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Delighted to be here.

 

 

Al Filreis: Anyone listening to this PoemTalk will be able to find the video and audio recordings of a wonderful reading conversation we did earlier on this very day. Huda, always good to see you.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Good to be here. Thank you.

 

 

Al Filreis: Thank you. Yeah. First time on PoemTalk and I hope we'll do it lots.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Me too.

 

 

Al Filreis: Well, we're here together to talk about a poem by Sylvia Plath. It is called The Stones and was written in October sometime, or more likely early November of 1959, and appears as the seventh poem in a seven part sequence called Poem for a Birthday, but we're going to, for the sake of argument, consider The Stones a poem in its own right, which I think most people do, although it's part of a sequence. Our recording of the poem comes from a studio performance Plath did for BBC records sometime between 1960 and 1962, and this particular one we think dates from 1962. So here now is Sylvia Plath performing The Stones.

 

 

Sylvia Plath:  

 

 

This is the city where men are mended.

I lie on a great anvil.

The flat blue sky-circle

 

Flew off like the hat of a doll

When I fell out of the light. I entered

The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard.

 

The mother of pestles diminished me.

I became a still pebble.

The stones of the belly were peaceable,

 

The head-stone quiet, jostled by nothing.

Only the mouth-hole piped out,

Importunate cricket

 

In a quarry of silences.

The people of the city heard it.

They hunted the stones, taciturn and separate,

 

The mouth-hole crying their locations.

Drunk as a foetus

I suck at the paps of darkness.

 

The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens away.

The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry

Open one stone eye.

 

This is the after-hell: I see the light.

A wind unstoppers the chamber

Of the ear, old worrier.

 

Water mollifies the flint lip,

And daylight lays its sameness on the wall.

The grafters are cheerful,

 

Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers.

A current agitates the wires

Volt upon volt. Catgut stitches my fissures.

 

A workman walks by carrying a pink torso.

The storerooms are full of hearts.

This is the city of spare parts.

 

My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber.

Here they can doctor heads, or any limb.

On Fridays the little children come

 

To trade their hooks for hands.

Dead men leave eyes for others.

Love is the uniform of my bald nurse.

 

Love is the bone and sinew of my curse.

The vase, reconstructed, houses

The elusive rose.

 

Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.

My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.

I shall be good as new.

 

 

Al Filreis: Susan, the speaker is in quite a situation. It's a little fluid, but take a stab, who's the speaker and what's the situation?

 

 

Susan Schultz: It's very interesting because the eye does not necessarily seem to be terribly attached to a human speaker, which is what we always associate. We think of Plath as confessional, is writing about herself, but this eye is oddly detached. The voice is oddly English. The lichens stick out-

 

 

Al Filreis: As opposed to likens.

 

 

Susan Schultz: ... as an American poet.

 

 

Al Filreis: Not to mention the accent, did we say that?

 

 

Susan Schultz: That's what I mean. She sounds oddly English.

 

 

Al Filreis: She was writing this while in the United States, probably at Yaddo that fall, the Writers College. She was in the US living in Boston.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Okay. Well, it's about, and it's odd that the first line is, "This is the city where men are mended," but clearly she is ... this is the voice of someone who has become a kind of object and is being put back together by doctors and workmen, almost like a doll. The line that really sticks out to me as a kind of mixing of the natural and the artificial is, "My swaddled legs and arms smell sweet as rubber," where swaddling suggests that birthday, the birth, but arms do not usually smell like rubber. That's my first take on it.

 

 

Al Filreis: That's a good start. Huda, Sally, let's follow up on the eye. Huda, what do you make of this person, this speaker?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Well, I agree on the conflation of the natural and the human, the focus of the poem where the center of it to me is that line, "The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry open one stone eye." I think that's the counterpoint of the poem, where the stone suddenly has an eye, and is looking, is opening it.

 

 

Al Filreis: A stone with subjectivity, a stone with perception.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: But also a stone being made, being worked on by others. That's another really important point to me reading this poem, it stands out, it's the agony of being put together by others, and the stone image drives that.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I see that too sort of carry throughout the tension between the inanimate and animate. Also with this eye, there seems to be a little bit of a narrative progression from the beginning of the eye lying on the great anvil, and then it becomes this still pebble. But then there is the moment, this line, "This is the after-hell: I see the light," and for me that's clearly a turning point too, and I love the idea of the after-hell. Does that mean the person has been through hell and now is on the other side, or is after-hell still sort of a form of hell?

 

 

Al Filreis: I don't usually do this because I'm into the flow of conversation, but I'm going to add sort of a footnote there on the after-hell. In 1958, she and Ted Hughes moved to Boston, living in Beacon Hill. They mostly wanted to write, but Plath took a part-time job at the Massachusetts General Hospital, which made me think in a very superficial way that she is imagining herself as one of the people that she may have encountered in that volunteer work or that part-time work, as well as seeing in third person such people being put back together. I'll just add that at the same time, she audited Robert Lowell's writing seminar, met Anne Sexton in that class at Harvard. This was exactly the moment where Skunk Hour was written, and I too am hell is such a Lowelian line, this is the after-hell. So that was a conversation stopping foot note, but I want to go back to the way The Stones as a figure are deployed. Can we, four of us, accumulate instances of the various ways that stones, pebbles, quarry, get accumulated. Who wants to start?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Well, you first have the mother of pebbles, but then you have the head-stone quiet. So it suggests that the self is a graveyard at the beginning which is scary.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yes. Good. That's one. Huda, you want to add one?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Well, the stone is another very striking thing that I've made many connections to. We can arrive at them later, but the stone is a very old thing. Like there's nothing as old as stone and with stone, the stepping stones of this poem we arrive as being good as new. Something there to be unpacked.

 

 

Al Filreis: I'll say. Okay. Want to hear more about that. Sally, what stones?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I wondered a lot about what the mouth-hole was and if that actually ... I thought of a stone fountain with a mouth that sort of projects water sometimes, or if it's the beginning of the opening of a cave, because even though mouth does not suggest somethings stone, I felt like they were being compared.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Then connected to the paps of darkness.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah, and drunk as a fetus. "I suck at paps of darkness."

 

 

Susan Schultz: So their body's in stone and there's a fetus. There's all these enclosed-

 

 

Al Filreis: Well, it's like a fetus, yeah.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Yeah, these enclosed bodies.

 

 

Al Filreis: If all of PoemTalk's listeners were tenth graders or ninth graders, the first thing, and anybody who's been in a situation where they've been busted up pretty badly and they are now encased in ... kind of like there's almost like a body cast quality and the whole mouth-holes where this person is fed, the mendings itch when you have that itch under the cast. So it could be a tenth grader reading, but I thought I would just throw it out there, which is that ultimately she's imagining the subjectivity of someone who is being mended by way of encasements in a hospital. Simple enough, and yet she's mixing the metaphors and moving them around constantly. Can we accumulate one more evidence? One more example of the mixing of metaphors or the shifting of the register?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well, when she brings in the workmen, walking by carrying a pink torso-

 

 

Al Filreis: Horrifying. That's twilight zone.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: But it could be a mannequin. It could be a completely-

 

 

Al Filreis: Or a flamingo.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: ... shifted scene.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Also to trade hooks for hands when you would expect the opposite.

 

 

Al Filreis: That's right.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Then to go back to earlier in the poem, the hunted stones.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: They hunted the stones, taciturn and separate.

 

 

Al Filreis: Plath likes to reverse illness and health constantly, "Love is the bone and sinew of my curse." It strikes me that there's a lot of ... we're supposed to imagine someone who's being recomposed, a person who's being put back together, sculptured, and the body parts are being reassembled, but we keep seeing decomposition rather than recomposition, and decomposition, Susan Schultz, is a great stay against the Plath that most people think of, which is so composed, so compositional. She tends to use, as you noted, herself as subjectivity. Here it's not clear. It seems to wander. I'm inviting you, Susan, to say something about the usual Plath and the way in which this might be different.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I was, just to sort of run with this a little bit, I was thinking that it's because we know Plath in a certain way, it's very difficult, at least for me, and maybe for other women of my generation, not to read her confessionally ourselves as in high school, we were very drawn to Plath because she seemed to express what we felt, but this is kind of before that Plath.

 

 

Al Filreis: This is said to be the turning point, that period at Yaddo when she came into her own, and this series is said to be a turning point, and yet this is the last one and it's different.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I think that if you read sort of backwards, that you can see that those late poems, the famous ones are, well, they're more violent and angry, they're equally composed.

 

 

Al Filreis: Right. I guess I'm suggesting, Sally, that I see some decomposition here. She strikes me as less composed here. Does that make any sense to you or do you want to add something to this question of the confessional?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well, it's interesting that she uses this image of The Stones which are so composed, but she is still resisting the firmness that a stone would present by the sort of the decomposition. I do see though that there is some like rejuvenation in it, with the line, "After the hell, I see the light," and also, "There's nothing to do. I shall be good as new."

 

 

Al Filreis: Isn't that ironic?

 

 

Susan Schultz: I find that last line really scary because I shall be good as new doesn't mean that she wants to be.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine:   Yes, I agree.

 

 

Susan Schultz: The only moment in the poem where I thought I heard her actual voice come through was, "My mendings itch," and it just sounded like, "Uh, if only not."

 

 

Sally Van Doren: But isn't that healing?

 

 

Susan Schultz: I get that sense that healing is a very ambivalent thing.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Yes.

 

 

Al Filreis: Huda, you were going to say something a minute ago?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Yes. Yes, exactly. When I arrived at that last two lines, the thought that struck me was that it's really devastating to have survived sometimes. There's something very devastating about having made it. Yes, it's cure, mendings are a mark of being healed and fixed and cured, but they're also reminders of having been broken and put together by others. I think the thing of being put together by others is agonizing.

 

 

Susan Schultz: To say there's nothing to do-

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Nothing to do.

 

 

Susan Schultz: She has no part of that healing if that's what it is.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: There's something very lonely in being new.

 

 

Al Filreis: Speaking of new, the poem ends with newness, but it also begins with what strikes me as so elliotic that it might refer to new in the sense of modernism. So I could be over-reading, but Huda, I want to invite you to comment on this. So, "This is the city where men are mended." It's so elliotic. City, not the hospital, but hospitals can seem kind of like cities, but I see a reaching for some great modern dilemma, and then the ironic I take to be ironic, "I shall be good as new." So, am I way off in thinking about newness and modernism here?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: No. I'm going to try to hold back now.

 

 

Al Filreis: Don't hold back.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: The idea of stone, and the fact that this piece is titled The Stones and we in my seminar on Arabic poetry we were reading a pre-Islamic poem. Stones in Arabic poetics are central. A conversation with stone is usually where the poem begins. The archetype or Arabic poem opens with a poet questioning stone in search of poetic voice, and this is a convention where all poets before him, he's usually a man, have stood. So it's standing under the pressure of others and what they've done and the voices they found and trying to find a singular individual voice there. Then being new is a breaking away from that, is a surviving, is a coming out with men dings but marks of others having influenced you, and how you deal with that and put it together into something possibly new, but not new without the effect of others.

 

 

Al Filreis: Wow.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: There.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Can I tease you out-

 

 

Al Filreis: Please, yes.

 

 

Susan Schultz: ... and say that men are mended is mending wall, which is made of stone.

 

 

Al Filreis: There is some of that. It's all about putting The Stones back and saying, "Stay there where you are."

 

 

Susan Schultz: That's also not a mending, right?

 

 

Al Filreis: So we've got Elliot, we've got Frost. I mentioned Lowell, and we've got Roethke. She was reading Theodore Roethke at Yaddo when she wrote this, and she was deeply influenced by Roethke's suffering, his mental illness, his several attempts at suicide. Hers had been 1953. She discovered that Hughes was or clearly would be or maybe always had been unfaithful to her in 1958. Everything seems to be falling apart, and he was also a poet. So you have all of those influences and I think Huda's suggesting that this poem might be metapoetic in the sense that it's a ... she supposedly finding her own, and I hate to read it as an allegory, but having a woman poet situated in a hospital, it's a city where men are mended, maybe she's not actually being mended, because she's got all these male influencers, but she's not male, and how is she ever going to put herself back together again? Sally, what are you thinking?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I'm thinking that the stones are very important to her. Actually as I was reading this poem that I went back through the collected poems and started reading and noting every time that she has.

 

 

Al Filreis: How was that?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well, she mentioned stones frequently.

 

 

Al Filreis: Do you have a few poems listed there?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: “Hardcastle Crags” and “Point Shirley”, I'm in a stone in parliament. My handwriting's really bad, “Tulips”, it's a well-known poem. “The Rival”. She also mentions somewhere that she grew up on the northern shore of Boston along that harbor there, that's where her grandparents lived when her father was dying, and so that looking at the stones, walking along the stones on the coast is a very important experience for her.

 

 

Al Filreis: So where are we Susan?

 

 

Susan Schultz: To bring it back to her since inevitably we want to look back to her, if you read the three lines, "Heating the pincers, hoisting the delicate hammers. A current agitates the wires, volt upon volt." This was the era of electroshock therapy at its worst, and she-

 

 

Al Filreis: Which Lowell was receiving as he was teaching her, although she hadn't.

 

 

Susan Schultz: She hadn't yet.

 

 

Al Filreis: No. I think she had in '53, but not at this moment.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Right, but she had experienced it.

 

 

Al Filreis: I think so. Someone will correct us if that's not right.

 

 

Susan Schultz: So there is this sense of not just being laid out on the anvil and fixed physically, but also shocked into this newness that for her is a problem.

 

 

Al Filreis: Would we all agree that this is really about psychological ill health rather than broken bones and the hospital where the mending is spiritual and psychological?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Yes, except that she is observing others, "Here they can doctor heads," so that's a reference to the psychological.

 

 

Al Filreis: Well that could be psychological.

 

 

Susan Schultz: But then, or any limb and the little children coming in. So she's analyzing herself but also being influenced by other people's experiences.

 

 

Al Filreis: Let's talk about the mixing of the metaphors. We started to talk about it a little bit. In a kind of exciting way, it gets kind of out of control. There's so many different things going on. Let's take the first two triads. "This is the city where men are mended. I lie on a great anvil. The flat blue sky-circle," not sure what that is, "Flew off like the hat of a doll when I fell out of the light. I entered the stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard." There's all kinds of crap going on here.

 

 

Susan Schultz: There's also that way she moves from literal to abstract, stomach of indifference. Quarry of silences.

 

 

Al Filreis: What poetry writing workshop teacher would ever let someone write a poem with the stomach of indifference?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Robert Lowell maybe. I don't know.

 

 

Al Filreis: Huda, when you prepared this, to talk with us about it, what in a positive sense got you excited, happy, what do you like about this?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: That I'm going to be talking about it with you.

 

 

Al Filreis: That's so nice.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: What did I like about it?

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: I find it devastating.

 

 

Al Filreis: Do you think it was a good choice for Plath for PoemTalk?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Yes, definitely, and I like this idea that there's this story around this poem as being where her voice comes out. I'm really interested in where poets find their voice, whatever that means.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah. Well, it is said that this is when she found her voice.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: And the fact that it's using all these images and mixing these metaphors. To go back to your question about looking at all the different metaphors, I was struck by, "Love is the bone and sinew of my curse. The vase," the image of the reconstructed vase, and then followed by the fingers that shape a bowl for shadows. The shadows and the rose in the vase, and why elusive? Isn't this what elusive-

 

 

Al Filreis: Poets we admire do, which is to turn reverse assumptions using language, create something not expected. For me when the food tubes embrace her, embrace is very tough there because if you imagine her tangled by the food tubes, but embrace is like affection, there's very little affection otherwise.

 

 

Susan Schultz: There is the bald nurse, "Love is the uniform of my bald nurse." I love that line.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah. Wow. I don't know what to do.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I have no idea what it's about, but I love that line.

 

 

Al Filreis: It's kind of creepy like the pink torso passing by the door in the hospital room. But after the food tubes embrace her, or the speaker, sponges kiss my lichens away. So that strikes me as weird because lichens would form on someone who has been made of stone through these casts and has been there a long time. It reminds me of the Colossus, of the various stone monuments usually to the father or to an authority, to a male authority, whether it's a poetic authority or a Patriarch, an actual Patriarch. Here, the sponges, meaning somebody, the bald nurse is wiping her down or something, but clearing the moss away, and it strikes me that she has become a kind of stone monument, inner stone monument of the kind that she assails in the poems where she's really hitting her stride in the famous Plath sense. So there's another interesting reversal.

 

 

Susan Schultz: She is assailing herself in those late poems. It's not just daddy who's the bad guy. There's a lot of self-hatred going on.

 

 

Al Filreis: Is there self-hatred here?

 

 

Susan Schultz: This is one thing that I don't quite understand about this poem, is what the affect is. It's so controlled and it's so beautifully written. I mean, I just wanted to say she's great with vowels.

 

 

Al Filreis: Examples?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Men are mended, I lie on a great anvil, like lie vil flat. The way she modulates between the short vowel and the long vowel is somehow beautiful to the ear, but no, I don't get the affect so much.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: On the question of self-hatred, I think maybe there's less here because she steps outside of herself and looks at herself as an object. We tend to empathize with objects more than we do with ourselves.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Possibly she's the importunate cricket.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Cricket.

 

 

Al Filreis: I don't know what to do with that phrase.

 

 

Susan Schultz: But that's a really great phrase.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well, that's some beginning. That she has reduced, she's been reduced anyway, but that's not such a position of self-loathing necessarily. It's an importunate cricket in a quarry of silences, and that image is kind of positive.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I think that where there might be some affect that's difficult is there at the end, "I shall be good as new."

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: More like a lament. More like self-loathing, more like a-

 

 

Susan Schultz: Right.

 

 

Al Filreis: Is that the famous Plath line that, "I shall be good as new." That kind of line is the Plath that I know particularly.

 

 

Sylvia Plath: Drunk as a fetus, I suck at the paps of darkness. The food tubes embrace me. Sponges kiss my lichens away. The jewelmaster drives his chisel to pry open one stone eye. This is the after-hell: I see the light.

 

 

Al Filreis: Anybody want to take a stab at what the tone is?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Her voice reading it was kind of a poet voice, kind of oracular.

 

 

Al Filreis: Which is weird, right?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Which is weird. Yes.

 

 

Al Filreis: Wrong for this poem.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Well, how would you read it otherwise? I mean, what would be another way to read it?

 

 

Al Filreis: I'm in another universe because this is Plath's English poet voice, BBC. I think this is a great poem, but I don't think that reading ... that reading is a misleading, because she-

 

 

Susan Schultz: No, but what would be a better reading of it?

 

 

Al Filreis: That reading suggests she's standing apart from this situation, and maybe is Not imagining herself as the person in the hospital.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Well she's trying hard not to.

 

 

Al Filreis: Well, trying hard, and if in fact, I think I said that I think this was dating from 1962, that's a period of tremendous depression. Nobody at the BBC would ever notice what she was going through, but that's too much reading where we're talking about a poem of November '59 and listening to a reading of '62, so much can change: two babies, separation of the marriage, a completely different poetic style. She's kind of rereading the poem, that is reinterpreting the poem by reading it. I avoided your question though.

 

 

Susan Schultz: If you want to talk about a modernist who might have influenced this, I would say Yates who was very interested in stones, but he was also interested in masks. This poem reads to me is heavily masked.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I also was interested in these sort of three declarative sentences that I feel has something to do with the assertion of authority. Like, "This is the city," and then the repetition of that, "This is the after-hell," and then there is nothing to do, or there's actually another, "This is the city of spare parts."

 

 

Al Filreis: That's a devastating line.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Yes.

 

 

Al Filreis: This is not the city where men are mended. This is the city of spare parts. That to me, again, I keep hearing the word decomposition as the poem sort of ... it doesn't fall apart because it's so masterful, but-

 

 

Susan Schultz: With spare parts, you fix something. You don't mend it.

 

 

Al Filreis: Right. Good point. Let's go back to poet voice. We're trying to explore a possible distance or irony that's created by poet voice rendering this poem. You asked me how, what's an alternative reading? An alternative reading is much more demotic and idiomatic, but the problem with that is the poem is so masterfully put together that it doesn't work if you just talk like a person who's just come out of the hospital. No one who's just been through this would say, "This is the city where men are mended."

 

 

Susan Schultz: Or the rhyming at the end-

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: And the rhyme.

 

 

Susan Schultz: ... is very artificial.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Hearts and parts, and nurse and curse.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Do, new.

 

 

Al Filreis: Before we go around for final thoughts on this, I just want to go around once more on, once prior to that, inviting everybody to talk about this poem. We started this a little bit, Susan, but I want to finish it. This poem in relation to the confessional Plath who is for better or worse, most would argue better, famous for that breakthrough being part of the Lowell, Sexton, Plath confessional mode. There are others obviously, Snodgrass. Maybe Roethke brought forward in time. Okay. So this poem in relation to that Plath, and it could be simply your commenting on your own experience of being assigned to prepare this poem for PoemTalk as opposed to daddy or something else.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well, the fury that comes in the Ariel poems, seems to be kind of tamped down here. There's still, I agree with you, this is kind of a miserable experience that the speaker has gone through and is dealing with, but it's not unleashed the way it is in those later —

 

 

Al Filreis: Tamped down by?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I think by the control-

 

 

Al Filreis: Formalism?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Yeah, of the language, and also this, the observances of the focus on the things around her as opposed to her own emotional experience.

 

 

Al Filreis: Perfect. Huda.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Yes. Noticing everything around her as opposed to her emotional experience, but then it arrives at this really intense, "I shall be good as new," as if like preparing for that, the anger that will come later. This is the making of this. This is the recognition of the fissures and the cracks and the mendings and then once you're past that and you've realized it, you know you're broken, and then that other voice comes, the unleashed voice.

 

 

Al Filreis: Okay. That's interesting.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I'd like to call into question the word confessional because-

 

 

Al Filreis: Overall?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Yeah, because I think late Plath, well there is that energy and that anger, it's still run through this mythological template, which as I recall made me furious at her at a certain point in my life, because I'm hurting so badly, I'm like a Jew in Nazi Germany, which I thought the proportionality of that was completely wrong.

 

 

Al Filreis: You're not alone.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I'd like to say that even when we call her confessional, she's always creating a mythology, and it's this kind of work that prepares her for that part of her confession.

 

 

Al Filreis: Yeah. The mythology here is borrowed from modernism. It's the modern city, the spare parts, the modern city, which is a city of bits and pieces to try this and not holes. This is the city where ... So, these are big declarations, high poetic declarations, and I hear what you're saying or the thought that occurs to me when you say it is she's never really interested in getting rid of that oracular formalistic high poetic approach to things, which is fine. There's nothing wrong with it. It's not confessional. So something truly confessional, whatever that means, poems are not feelings, they're words. Aside from that obvious thing, we're not getting to the heart of something. We're kind of moving around carefully staged figurations.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Yeah, I think actually someone like Adrienne Rich is more confessional than Plath in an odd way.

 

 

Al Filreis: Later, the '60s, '70s Rich.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Yeah, but she's not called a confessional poet. Is she?

 

 

Al Filreis: Interesting. Well, the early '70s Rich is certainly doing that. The Rich at this period is actually very formalistic.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Is very formalistic too, right?

 

 

Al Filreis: So it's very complicated. I think we're going to go ... Did you get a chance to talk about the confessional Plath? I think you did Sally, but do you want to add one more?

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I do. I want to bring up another subject, which I noted in my book that says this poem was for November 1959. Her first child, Frieda, was born on April 1st, 1960. So that was five months later. So when she wrote this, she was four months pregnant.

 

 

Al Filreis: She's pregnant. There's your fetus.

 

 

Susan Schultz: She is constructing.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Yes, and I thought, "She's possibly even, not necessarily speaking in the voice of her own fetus, but transposing herself onto that being," because there definitely are some sort of womb-like allusion.

 

 

Al Filreis: What is making, we had this discussion offline, what is making? Making is putting things together as a poet does, as an artist does, or it is reproduction.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: Well I hadn't gone there either that she's the hospital in making her own child.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: She's the trap of tubes, that's her.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Is the child a stone of the belly?

 

 

Al Filreis: Well, "The mouth-hole crying their locations." Whoa. "Drunk as a fetus," so the fetus is part of a simile. So if the poet is pregnant, and momentarily imagining herself of the subjectivity of someone who's swallowed in bandages in a hospital, and the fetus is a simile to the mouth-hole that feeds her, the mother, this is really ... No wonder people are walking around with pink torsos.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: No wonder.

 

 

Al Filreis: Well, one more round, final thoughts, something you came today to talk about in relation to this poem of Plath that you didn't get a chance to. Huda, we'll start with you. Any final thoughts on this?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: I'm going to go back to the word elusive, and the idea of modernism. There's also the dead men who leave their eyes for others. It seems like there's nothing more terrible than being elusive than finding yourself elusive. Not being able to actually grab who you are, and this idea of breaking out of others' influence and others' effect on you. So it seems to me that that image, again, I always go back to it, the rose, the elusive rose and the reconstructed vase, there's something there that I came to talk about and I'm going to take with me.

 

 

Al Filreis: Okay. Thank you Huda. That's great final thoughts. Susan, final thought on this.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I'm grateful that you asked me to talk about this poem because-

 

 

Al Filreis: But you were a little mad.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Well, no. I was mad that you asked me to talk about Plath.

 

 

Al Filreis: Generally, right?

 

 

Susan Schultz: But the poem I like because I had such strong feelings about Plath one way or another when I was much younger, and then I lost her for a long time. But this is not the Plath that I ever cathected with. This is someone who's a little ... there's a little less oomph to it, but it's a beautifully made poem.

 

 

Al Filreis: Thank you. Sally, final thought.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I do love the sounds of this poem, the consonants, the assonance, the men are mended, the stitches and fissures, and that she seems to carry throughout. So if you're just listening to it without necessarily trying to make complete sense of it, it is satisfying in a way.

 

 

Al Filreis: Fantastic. My final thoughts very quick, back to after-hell. After-hell reminds me of ... well, when someone's been away in a psych ward or been away for extended therapeutic, either drying out or recovering from some addiction, they call the next step, after-care, and it's after-care. Now, if this is after-hell, damn, because what happened before? I see the light has to be ironic if we go by my reading of after-hell. Actually, I think the speaker is saying that she literally sees through the holes they've made in the cast, but it's not seeing the light in the big sense. Well, we like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, which is a chance for us to each spread wide our narrow Dickinsonian hands to gather a little something really poetically good to hail or commend someone or something going on in the poetry world, or the art world, or just your world. So I'm looking around and I can't see who's ready to ... Susan, gather some paradise.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Sure. If I could push a little Tinfish product since I'm an editor of Tinfish.

 

 

Al Filreis: Please, I want you to.

 

 

Susan Schultz: We have two new books, one by a young poet named Leona Chen, who is still I think at Washington University in St. Louis, and she's a Taiwanese American who's writing both in Taiwanese, Chinese, and in English. Then even more recently, I haven't seen it yet, is a book by Genève Chao, which is in Guernsey French and English, and she's putting together the Island Experiences of Guernsey and Hawaii, where some of her ancestors worked on the plantation. So in terms of sort of multilingual, multicultural work, that's what I would recommend.

 

 

Al Filreis: That's great. Tell us, give us the sort of one line description of the Tinfish project overall.

 

 

Susan Schultz: Tinfish Press, which was founded in 1995, publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific region.

 

 

Al Filreis: Perfect. You've done that before.

 

 

Susan Schultz: I've done that before.

 

 

Al Filreis: Sally, gather some paradise.

 

 

Sally Van Doren: I just read a great first book by Chanda Feldman called Approaching the Fields, published by LSU Press. She's been writing for a while and this is a lovely debut.

 

 

Al Filreis: Fantastic. Huda, gather some paradise.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Something multilinguistic and multicultural. I've been reading recently a Kurdish-Syrian poet. His name is Salim Barakat, and working on some translations. He hasn't been translated into English yet, although he has a huge presence in other languages. He is similar to this poem in extracting violently something very singular out of the language of others.

 

 

Al Filreis: Will you spell the last name?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: B-A-R-A-K-A-T, Barakat.

 

 

Al Filreis: Perfect. Did you say you were translating? So Kurdish is one of your languages?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: No, he writes in Arabic.

 

 

Al Filreis: He writes in Arabic.

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: So the language of others. He Kurdifies it.

 

 

Al Filreis: He Kurdifies Arabic, is that hard?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Curls it.

 

 

Al Filreis: Is that difficult for you?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: No, he just takes it back to a time where Arabs today don't recognize it. He reclaims it.

 

 

Al Filreis: You're translating it into-

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: English.

 

 

Al Filreis: English. Can you, sorry, you didn't expect this, but can you tell us about the book you're working on currently?

 

 

Huda Fakhreddine: Selections from all of his collections. He has over 25 of them.

 

 

Al Filreis: Fantastic. Thank you. So my gathering paradise is Susan Schultz, who’s paradisal, so good to see you, and you come from paradise. Is Hawaii a paradise?

 

 

Susan Schultz: Allegedly. No, it's not at all.

 

 

Al Filreis: No. Okay. Sorry.

 

 

Susan Schultz: No.

 

 

Al Filreis: You come from a place that strikes me as paradise, but that's a myth. Anyway, we've got two new books, relatively new from Susan Schultz. One is, and they're part of the Memory Cards Series, although confusingly each one is called series: Thomas Traherne Series and Simone Weil Series. I'm going to read a piece, a prose poem, from the Thomas Traherne Series, and each of them begins with the phrase from Traherne, and no I won't read in poet voice. "Things unknown have a secret influence on the soul." That's the quote. "He'd been on the street for years, the vet. Big island, six kids, all through college, full Hawaiian, a medic. He'd seen too much death. Vietnam didn't take him, but Afghanistan, his daughter. Major at 22, lawyer for man accused of rape, blown apart by an IED. Brought home in a box. His hands measure it for me. Small. He tried to jump in the hole with it. What matter Google cannot trace her, that the photos fail. The hometowns, the age, the rank. Why I want the accuracy of fact, not dreamwork. There are invisible ways of convenience. What we do in saying is more than what words allow us." That's a piece from Susan Schultz's Memory Cards, Thomas Traherne Series. Well, that's all the after-hell we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks so much to my guests, Sally Van Doren, Huda Fakhreddine, and Susan Schultz, and to PoemTalk's director and engineer today, Zach Carduner, and to PoemTalk's editor, the same exact amazing Zach Carduner. A shout out to Nathan and Elizabeth Leight for their very generous support of PoemTalk. In our next episode, [inaudible 00:47:10], Amber Rose Johnson, and Tonya Foster join me in a discussion of Gwendolyn Brooks' poem Riot. This is Al Filreis and I hope you'll join us for that, or another episode of PoemTalk.

 

Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Susan Schultz, Sally Van Doren, and Huda Fakhreddine.

Program Notes

More Episodes from Poem Talk
Showing 1 to 20 of 129 Podcasts
  1. Friday, November 16, 2018
  2. Wednesday, June 13, 2018
  3. Friday, April 13, 2018
  4. Friday, March 9, 2018
  5. Thursday, December 14, 2017
  6. Friday, October 13, 2017
  7. Wednesday, September 13, 2017
    Poets
  8. Wednesday, July 12, 2017
  9. Tuesday, June 6, 2017
    Poets