The Sylvia Plath archive at the Lilly Library, I have learned, is unlike most any other. Almost no one in history has had a personal curator as good as Aurelia Plath, who saved and filed every one of her daughter’s letters, greeting cards, photos, drawings, paintings, scrapbooks, newspaper and hair clippings. There is a strange sense of time working through the years of these files, smelling the musty paper, the thin wavery edges of brittle blue airmail stationery. At a big table in the library’s reading room, with its twenty-foot high paneled ceilings and a gentle, natural light, I studied the pile of Plath’s letters in my open folder. My iPhone intermittently trembled its silent vibrations against a blotter pad, waking me to the modern world with emails, voice mails and text messages: from clients seeking to arrange appointments for when I returned home, or family members and friends checking in. I thought about the impermanence and weirdness of our communications today. Could archives like this be kept of poets and writers in the transient, digital work-world of 2013?
|The Lilly Library, University of Indiana at Bloomington.|
Plath’s live readings would be on YouTube, but then, I suppose they are now. There would be no Letters Home, as Plath would have called Aurelia and her brother Warren on her cell phone on a Friends & Family plan; or more likely, she would have Skyped, as Skype is free, personal, and lord knows that girl was thrifty. I envision Sylvia Plath on Facebook, with her status as “In a Relationship with [hyperlinked] Ted Hughes,” and soon after, posting “ Married ”; uploading cute photos she took on her phone of Frieda and Nick; her jars of honey from her own beehives; green apples from her orchard; and her new Bendix washer of which she was so proud. She might have sold rag rugs on Etsy. She might have posted design schemes she admired, and her tomato soup cake recipe on Pinterest.
Oh, but how fast it went wrong, from the start of 1962 to the end of it. From heavenly bliss to the carnage of war. I can imagine her on a tirade of angry Facebook statuses when she realized that her growing jealousy of Assia Wevill was actually warranted; and I imagine her falling apart when Ted and Assia have both unfriended her and gone to “It’s Complicated.” In the same way that Plath tried to hold her head up at the London literary parties after the separation was legal, she would seethe over so-called friends leaving snide comments and double-tongued posts. As I read through her manic, angry letters in the archives, I imagined a barrage of hysterical Tweets: Everything I’ve done is in spite of #TedHughes #gigolo #deserter #philanderer; or, @Assia @Olwyn @Dido You are all barren women, incapable of love. I imagine she might have written blazing angry blog entries instead of her journals, some public, some private; occasionally blowing it all away in moments of anger, or maybe clarity.
My archive work was harder on this, my third visit to the Lilly, than it had been before. I had made it my goal to read all of Plath’s letters, from start to finish. On my January visit I had left off in the middle of 1961. Now I was back: Frieda had already been born, they were scouting for houses, deeply in love, writing well and becoming more and more successful. Sure, there were some bumps in the road: a miscarriage and appendicitis; an upset with the Merwins, and with Olwyn. Sure, I knew the end of the story, and what her in-laws and friends really thought of her. But as I read, I couldn’t help but get swallowed up into feeling it with her. I cringed at some of the nasty remarks Plath made, and remembered a few of my own that I still regret, words and deeds that hang like embarrassing weights and shadows around the edges of my memory.
Who was I, back then? I could see the insecurity and need to prove herself in that shaky twenty-eight and twenty-nine-year-old Plath that came off as a superiority trip, or outright bitchiness. I thought about how much she had changed from her twenty to thirty years, and how much I had changed from twenty to thirty years old, and then thirty to forty, and forty to my almost fifty today. I can hardly believe I am almost fifty, and I hate the lines on my face that look like quotation marks around my eye brows and my mouth. Yet I like who I am. Finally. Sylvia Plath never got old enough to see any lines but written ones.
|Peter K Steinberg & Julia Gordon-Bramer at the Lilly Library.|
Thanks to Amanda Golden for use of this image.
This last archive trip left me with the most disturbing feelings. When Plath and Hughes’ marriage was coming apart, the negativity of reading about it was intense, repetitive, and so full of darkness and fury that I had to take a break, walk out to my car, and dig up some Ibuprofen for a headache that would not relent. My neck and upper back muscles were in a knot of stress, and my eyes hurt to read. It had been a joy to do my Plath work prior to this. Now, the battles of my own first marriage and divorce haunted me as I empathized, remembering so many similar feelings. Maybe this is why Plath gets to so many of us: she has put words to the unspeakable.
I took a lunch break and walked around old-town Bloomington, Indiana, with its charming historic square, its big shady trees and lovely gardens. The day was gray, dark, and unusually cool, and reminded me a little of my recent trip to England, Plath country. On this day, the Bloomington town square was full of beggars. Old gray bearded men with signs saying, “Vet. Please help,” or “Disabled,” and younger men with signs that read, “Light work or any help appreciated.” There was a bored, snoozing mutt sleeping at the foot of one of them. There were too many poor souls to consider helping even one. How does one choose? I wondered what each of their stories was. I wondered if some of them, like Plath, once had everything in place and once felt happy. I wondered how fast their lives fell apart, and if it were possible that this could happen to any of us. It shook me. I have never been happier than right now. I wouldn’t change a thing, like Sylvia Plath in Court Green in spring of 1962. How fast can we lose it? I treasure today, because tomorrow is not promised. And who would know, in this information age, if we existed at all?
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s forthcoming book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, vol. one, will be out on Stephen F. Austin State University Press in Spring 2014. You can find her digital traces at www.nighttimes.com, @jgordonbramer on Twitter, www.facebook.com/julia.gordonbramer1 on Facebook, www.prefirstdrafts.blogspot.com , and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.