The Bridal Path
London, February 1963. New York All Along.
A flatbed barge is roaring down Broadway with an American flag furling. The semi is on an empty run, returning from one of the fills upstate. I’m standing on the roof of Dodge Hall, Columbia University. I’m covered with bone dust. Candles are left to burn on the blacktop. They weep in sleepers’ windows. The night’s fires burn low as the city lies in bed, still awake. There’s some Columbia kids on the street in tattered, laundry day clothing and rearward baseball caps. They are mocking the Spirit of ’76 battle corps. One of them has a pennywhistle; another, a marching drum. The last one conducts the wind. They pass, single file, beneath the bell tower of the Broadway Presbyterian Church. They fade out of view. The kids have captured the essence of music. Soloing musicians always elude the range of the senses. They dare the faculty of memory to define them. Poets are even more surreptitious. They are forever soloing. Harmony, for them, is a matter of isolation. Revelation is a rootless tongue, a sourceless river. Before the race even begins, the starting blocks have disappeared. The lost runner is mortally wounded by the maddening echo of a gun unfired. Rarely do poets meet the viewer’s eyes in photographs. But she does.
The aqua cubes flicker, rectangles within rectangles. Tonight, the news of the world will conjugate with my accustomed scrutiny of the cosmos. Dan, Tom, and Peter. Our boys of doom in their winter. Our nighthawks of the woeful countenance. They, or one of their dredged-up experts, will have an answer to every question and a solution for naught. There will be no commercial breaks tonight. The show is being sponsored by our collective subconsciousness. This is a party thrown by the crashers.
And I had in mind to write the story of a violent trespasser long before this evening. For years I’ve obsessed about Sylvia Plath, she of the guileless photo studies. She was a formidable poet. She was another in a long line of female literary kamikazes, the breed extending back to the authors of the Sibylline verses or, if you would rather, to the First Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt when it is said that female scribes, laboring blithesomely under the shadow of proscribed death sentences, were given the task of ghostwriting autobiographical funerary texts—under the pharaohs, dying in style was given exaggerated preferment over living in the same manner. The most prominent of these ancient farewell poems is The Dialogue of a Man with His Ba. This work, dating from a little more than two thousand years before Christ, is a meditation on the art of suicide.
Sylvia, through the channel of her posthumously published dialogue with her own soul, has been for many years a spokesperson for the alienated, the lovelorn, the vengeful, the suicidal, and for all suicides, speaking to, for, in, and of multitudes from her early and chosen grave. Sylvia’s appeal is, in no small way, linked with her inscrutability and her swaggering mortal failure. This lingering impression seems to be precisely what she had in mind. The meandering and the vulnerability of The Journals, Letters Home, The Colossus, and The Bell Jar are as understandable as Hamlet’s when you read the unmasking act of Ariel. In photographs, she has a first date’s eyes, all too wide and eager, and a blind date’s smile that pleads with you to like her, while at the same time referring in its ebullience to the photo’s substructure; the phosphorescent neutralization of the negative beneath, wherein her smile will surely resonate and her certitude will surely glow, if you will just squint your eyes and hold your gaze. You must not pay attention to her; you must pay immersion. She is a fire that has burned low of its own severity. She lies in her grave now, still awake.
From the perspective of forty years, her photographs have the exact value as her Ariel poems and the same eminence as recollected moonlight. In photographs, she is a captured death upon arrival. She is a bright, evasive, and eternal open question. She is wild and cannot be tamed. She is a wound that can be nursed and never healed. In Ariel, no matter how many times you read the poems, Sylvia is always your first, always your blind, auguring date.
A few years ago, Sylvia’s widower, poet laureate of England Ted Hughes, surprised us all by acknowledging his wife in a published collection. What a bleak, anticlimactic, eschatological PR caper that Birthday Letters charade made for. Ted has his last word in his last book. Ted made his last buck. As in a fable, he broke his silence, spoke his contestable truth, and then whistled his way out of the spotlight. He died offstage of a heart attack, hard upon his belated birthday tidings. The black cable extended across the Atlantic and culminated in the leaden ink of the morning paper. The telegram photoelectrically opened the door to unending public gossip sans slander suits. It cued yours truly and God knows how many other bibliophilic skulduggerers out there. With Ted gone, we can now muse behind his back and over his grave as well. Hearing hovering voices, as a matter of fact, cannot be anything so very new for either Sylvia or Ted. Nor can answering those voices, indistinctly or outright, if we, their readers and interpreters, can hope for a continuation of our long years of haunting. To be vexed, haunted, harassed, and obsessed by their convergent lives and mutually exclusive destinies is what we, their readers, we, their jury, we, their angels of ill intent, want more than a delineation of their collective tragic/romantic mystery. Rest assured. Though their bodies lie in what passes for peace now, concordances are being amassed. Prodigal poems are being called home to the anthologies. The last of their papers are being perused. In troubled times, their enmity and adversity will always provide us with a source of repose.
Notwithstanding jealousy, betrayal, marital separation, and their ultimate deaths, thirty-five long years apart, Ted and Sylvia have remained on tenuous, sometimes ireful, speaking terms all along. Many years before his birthday condolences, Ted wrote a volume concerning a transmutable crow who journeys to death and back. He wrote another book about the blood sacrifice of a changeling, seemingly in response to Sylvia’s poem about a trainee-suicide who sheds flesh like a striptease artist, taunting death itself. Sylvia seems to have left detailed instructions to posterity regarding the way in which she would like to be unremittingly psychoanalyzed in the echo chamber of Ted’s conscience and also in the dominion of Western literary studies. She was not only responsible for her own death; she selected the subterfuge of her burial site. She killed herself in pursuit of neither rest nor peace, nor even understanding, since recognition hardly ever equals understanding. For that matter, neither of the poets was interested in minting truth so much as in promul- gating myth. Sylvia and Ted were mythologists with three primary thematic subjects: themselves, each other, and all the repercussions of their pairing—up to, including, and in the aftermath of the appearance of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the opaque lady of the sonnets. The divergent confessions of the two poets do indeed constitute a narrative much more than they constitute any sort of reckoning. In the last analysis, I think that it might be wiser to trust them less than their own critics and biographers. Their pattern of lies is my only paradigm, my one true fiction. I love Sylvia. I resent Ted. I owe neither of them anything. Their poems forged my identity. They did not foretell, but they fore-informed my future. And, incidentally, they ruined my life. I couldn’t imagine any of us old.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Little Fugue by Robert Anderson. Copyright © 2004 by Robert Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.