MARILEE PITTMAN READS SYLVIA PLATH
Sometimes a poem will slap you in the face. "Tulips" by Sylvia Plath is one such poem.
The poem is a painting of white on white with a sudden splash of red. Like white hotel sheets with a stain of menstrual blood. Shocking and explosive.
In the poem the narrator is in a hospital bed.She seeks oblivion. Pure. Winter white. Colourless. Emotionless. Empty. The only colours are the green of the trolley car and the black pill box of her overnight bag.
There is a nautical flavour to the poem. Nurses float by like seagulls. She is the pebble that is soothed by their hands. She sees herself as a thirty year-old-cargo boat being swabbed clear of loving associations. The husband and the child in the photo are little smiling hooks. Her belongings sink out of sight and the water envelops her. She is nothing. She lies “Like an eye between two white lids”. She is in a snow white emptiness. “I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.”
And then the tulips enter the poem , wrapped in gift paper. She can hear them breathing lightly, “through their white swaddling, like an awful baby.”
The tulips suck oxygen from the room. They are too red. They are too loud. They are like a dozen red sinkers around her neck. They are dangerous animals who should be behind bars.
They haul her back from sinking into nothingness.
She becomes aware of her heart opening and closing. “Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.”
Then the closing lines;
“The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea.
And comes from a country far away as health.”
The poem was written two weeks after Plath suffered a miscarriage. She is in hospital recovering from an attack of appendicitis. Throughout her life Plath suffered from clinical depression. Her five year marriage is fragile. She and her husband Ted Hughes separate the following year. On February 11, 1963, she commits suicide.
I read this poem when I was a young wife and mother. I had never been exposed to modern poetry. As a student in the 1950s, we only read dead white male poets: Chaucer, Donne, Shakespeare. If we were introduced to a female poet, chances are the subject she wrote about would have been home fires, children, nature and flower gardens.
Reading “Tulips” was a shock. I knew what lying in a starched sheeted hospital bed was like. I also knew how to lie perfectly still to quiet the pain of a tooth ache or diverticulitis. I knew if I didn’t breathe, I wouldn’t disturb the beast.
I also could identify with savouring the pure white emptiness of nothingness. One of my favourite experiences in the water is to do the deadman’s float. To test how long I can float without breathing.
I also knew what it was like to lose myself. To put my husband and children’s needs before my own. To tether myself to them. To be bereft when they were gone from my axis. Who was I when I wasn’t wife or mother?
It is a wonder to me to be able to paint with words, the startling contrast between the arctic wasteland and the excited red tulips. They call her back from the precipice of annihilation. The sadness I feel knowing how Plath ended her life is ameliorated by the wonderful gift of her life.
Marilee Pittman is a grandmother, gardener and retired lawyer living in Corner Brook, NL
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.