Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sylvia Plath

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it -

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify? -

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The Peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot -
The big strip tease.
Gentleman, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart -
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash -
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there -

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
- Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus recounts the painful and bitter process of rebirth, making specific reference to a childhood accident and her suicide attempts. She also references the Holocaust, presumably in an effort to more vividly draw the grotesque struggle, the horror of each revival and her own sense of being hollow and victimized. I love how she somehow managed in this piece to sound both triumphant and supremely bitter. The sense that she grows in strength as the poem goes on, the scorn that drips from each line and the resignation to her fate are all very powerful.

Sometimes rebirth is a joyful thing; everything is new and you are full of hope. But a personal rebirth can also be born of necessity and come from a place of anger and pain. No less powerful or valuable, but completely different in nature. It is the latter that Plath addresses and that I feel is so often overlooked.

She speaks of rising from the ash - like the mythical phoenix. I have never thought of the phoenix as being a particularly positive symbol, but it certainly has a whiff of optimism to it. It rises from ashes. Which means it had to begin in the ashes - in the fire. I know I’ve mentioned this poem before, but Lady Lazarus has always been a particular favorite. An ode to bitter survival written by a woman who did not, ultimately, survive her own darkness. I recited it for drama competitions (chosen for me by my coach due to my red hair, I suppose) when I was younger. Lately I find myself going over bits of it in my head, like some off-kilter mantra; disconcertingly dark but invigorating in it’s assertion of power.

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