Your Own, Sylvia
Yesterday, I finished reading a biography of Sylvia Plath. Only it's not called a biography, because it's in verse, and therefore the way they're stated is fictive, but the truth of the contents is clear. It's called "a verse portrait," much the same sort of beastie as my WIP, a biography of Jane Austen in verse. Which, having read this book, I will assume might be deemed fiction as well, since the people I attribute things to didn't necessarily say them. Sigh. But I digress.
The book I just read is Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.
First, a word about the book's cover. I love this one, and not just for its front. See that small photo on the cover? On the spine of the cover, it's much much larger, with the right-hand edge being the same as in the small photo, but the left hand edge lining up with the corner of her mouth, so that only a fraction of her iris is on the spine. Kinda like the face on the spine of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, only much, much thinner. But equally compelling when it's on your book shelf.
And, on the back, it's what appears to be a reverse image of this image of her face and hair, only wearing a hat and coat, with her hands in the pocket. And the muted color choices are wonderful. Yeah, I don't usually go on and on about it, but truly, this is a great cover in my opinion.
And now, about the content. The book is written in verse appropriate to the period in which Sylvia wrote. Much of it is free verse, but there's a villanelle, some rhymed couplets and other forays into rhyme. I have a niggling suspicion there may have been a sonnet in there, but I can't put my finger on it for sure right now.
Each of the poems is attributed to someone who knew Sylvia (a family member, friend, teacher/boss or neighbor) or are labelled as "Imagining Sylvia Plath", in which the perspective is the narrator's, and the poem is written in the style of a particular Plath poem.
Here, an excerpt from "August 1953", one of Stephanie Hemphill's poems:
Her summer is a winter --
Frostbite, gangrene that devours her inside out.
Her wintering is a glass bell ---
Frozen crystal tongue without tingle, without chime.
Her glass bell suffocates fireflies, honeybees,
Jars them in heat, turns off their little minds.
Her fireflies must be shocked, relit.
Depression oozes from her fingers, softens her brain.
According to Hemphill, this poem is "in the style of 'The Fearful'". Here's how that Plath poem begins:
This man makes a pseudonym
And crawls behind it like a worm.
This woman on the telephone
Says she is a man, not a woman.
The mask increases, eats the worm,
Stripes for mouth and eyes and nose,
The voice of the woman hollows—
More and more like a dead one . . .
"The Fearful" provides us with imagery of selves being devoured by their attributes, with cannibalistic overtones. "August 1953" uses some of those types of images as well, pulling in other iconic images associated so closely with Plath: bees, and bell jars. "August 1953" serves the purpose of describing Sylvia's attempt at suicide in the summer between her junior and senior year at Smith College, which led to her being institutionalized. Unlike "The Fearful", it can't examine only the one concept too closely, but must relay useful biographical information, which it does in powerful manner.
Later in the poem, for instance, Hemphill writes:
She broke her mother's locked box
Of pills and swallowed them all.
Broke her mother's heart, but her stomach
Saves her, betrays her, won't keep death down.
Powerful, gut-wrenching (pun not intended, but appropriate) stuff, indeed.
Each of the poems is short -- usually not much more than a single page. Each poem appears on the page in the usual black ink. At the bottoms of the pages, single-spaced and in a light grey text, are additional biographical notes to fill the gaps, or explain who a particular person was (a roommate, perhaps, or a fellow poet).
The end includes copious source information identifying the source notes for each of the poems, and an enormous bibliography entitled "Sources and Further Reading".
This collection of poems describing the life of Sylvia Plath is beautifully done, and provides not just factual information -- the who, what, where and when of her life -- but also some of the hows and whys and wherefores. It doesn't truly get inside Sylvia's head, but is more like a close observation of her from outside. Part of the issue is that a lot of information about her remains legally surpressed for a while longer, compliments of her husband, Ted Hughes. Who, I may add, comes across as a real douchebag (as he did when Daniel Craig played him in the movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow).
I am left, after reading the book, moved and saddened by her life, and impressed by her art. And angry at the many people who failed her, even when they knew she needed help. Even when SHE knew she needed help.
I am also left, as some of you know, a bit mopey that someone else has published "a verse portrait" of a famous female author in period verse, since that is precisely what I'm working on for Jane Austen. But hey, at least it shows that my idea to do a biography in verse (which may, in fact, have to be marketed as fiction, the more I think it through) isn't an unmarketable idea. In fact, Sonya Sones says that the idea to tell Plath's story through verse is "inspired." So, there you have it.