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  • Ana Savković

Sylvia Plath: A Gift in Plaster

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Image: Unsplash, downloaded (18.3.2021.)

Tale of a Tub

The photographic chamber of the eye

records bare painted walls, while an electric light

lays the chromium nerves of plumbing raw;

such poverty assaults the ego; caught

naked in the merely actual room,

the stranger in the lavatory mirror

puts on a public grin, repeats our name

but scrupulously reflects the usual terror.

Just how guilty are we when the ceiling

reveals no cracks that can be decoded? when washbowl

maintains it has no more holy calling

than physical ablution, and the towel

dryly disclaims that fierce troll faces lurk

in its explicit folds? or when the window,

blind with steam, will not admit the dark

which shrouds our prospects in ambiguous shadow?

Twenty years ago, the familiar tub

bred an ample batch of omens; but now

water faucets spawn no danger; each crab

and octopus -- scrabbling just beyond the view,

waiting for some accidental break

in ritual, to strike -- is definitely gone;

the authentic sea denies them and will pluck

fantastic flesh down to the honest bone.

We take the plunge; under water our limbs

waver, faintly green, shuddering away

from the genuine color of skin; can our dreams

ever blur the intransigent lines which draw

the shape that shuts us in? absolute fact

intrudes even when the revolted eye

is closed; the tub exists behind our back;

its glittering surfaces are blank and true.

Yet always the ridiculous nude flanks urge

the fabrication of some cloth to cover

such starkness; accuracy must not stalk at large:

each day demands we create our whole world over,

disguising the constant horror in a coat

of many-colored fictions; we mask our past

in the green of Eden, pretend future's shining fruit

can sprout from the navel of this present waste.

In this particular tub, two knees jut up

like icebergs, while minute brown hairs rise

on arms and legs in a fringe of kelp; green soap

navigates the tidal slosh of seas

breaking on legendary beaches; in faith

we shall board our imagined ship and wildly sail

among sacred islands of the mad till death

shatters the fabulous stars and makes us real.

In Plaster

I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:

This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,

And the white person is certainly the superior one.

She doesn't need food, she is one of the real saints.

At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality --

She lay in bed with me like a dead body

And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was

Only much whiter and unbreakable and with no complaints.

I couldn't sleep for a week, she was so cold.

I blamed her for everything, but she didn't answer.

I couldn't understand her stupid behavior!

When I hit her she held still, like a true pacifist.

Then I realized what she wanted was for me to love her:

She began to warm up, and I saw her advantages.

Without me, she wouldn't exist, so of course she was grateful.

I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose

Blooms out of a vase of not very valuable porcelain,

And it was I who attracted everybody's attention,

Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had at first supposed.

I patronized her a little, and she lapped it up --

You could tell almost at once she had a slave mentality.

I didn't mind her waiting on me, and she adored it.

In the morning she woke me early, reflecting the sun

From her amazingly white torso, and I couldn't help but notice

Her tidiness and her calmness and her patience:

She humored my weakness like the best of nurses,

Holding my bones in place so they would mend properly.

In time our relationship grew more intense.

She stopped fitting me so closely and seemed offish.

I felt her criticizing me in spite of herself,

As if my habits offended her in some way.

She let in the drafts and became more and more absent-minded.

And my skin itched and flaked away in soft pieces

Simply because she looked after me so badly.

Then I saw what the trouble was: she thought she was immortal.

She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior,

And I'd been keeping her in the dark, and she was resentful --

Wasting her days waiting on a half-corpse!

And secretly she began to hope I'd die.

Then she could cover my mouth and eyes, cover me entirely,

And wear my painted face the way a mummy-case

Wears the face of a pharaoh, though it's made of mud and water.

I wasn't in any position to get rid of her.

She'd supported me for so long I was quite limp --

I had forgotten how to walk or sit,

So I was careful not to upset her in any way

Or brag ahead of time how I'd avenge myself.

Living with her was like living with my own coffin:

Yet I still depended on her, though I did it regretfully.

I used to think we might make a go of it together --

After all, it was a kind of marriage, being so close.

Now I see it must be one or the other of us.

She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,

But she'll soon find out that that doesn't matter a bit.

I'm collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,

And she'll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me.

Love Letter

Not easy to state the change you made.

If I'm alive now, then I was dead,

Though, like a stone, unbothered by it,

Staying put according to habit.

You didn't just tow me an inch, no--

Nor leave me to set my small bald eye

Skyward again, without hope, of course,

Of apprehending blueness, or stars.

That wasn't it. I slept, say: a snake

Masked among black rocks as a black rock

In the white hiatus of winter--

Like my neighbors, taking no pleasure

In the million perfectly-chisled

Cheeks alighting each moment to melt

My cheeks of basalt. They turned to tears,

Angels weeping over dull natures,

But didn't convince me. Those tears froze.

Each dead head had a visor of ice.

And I slept on like a bent finger.

The first thing I was was sheer air

And the locked drops rising in dew

Limpid as spirits. Many stones lay

Dense and expressionless round about.

I didn't know what to make of it.

I shone, mice-scaled, and unfolded

To pour myself out like a fluid

Among bird feet and the stems of plants.

I wasn't fooled. I knew you at once.

Tree and stone glittered, without shadows.

My finger-length grew lucent as glass.

I started to bud like a March twig:

An arm and a leg, and arm, a leg.

From stone to cloud, so I ascended.

Now I resemble a sort of god

Floating through the air in my soul-shift

Pure as a pane of ice. It's a gift.

Source: The collected poems (Plath, S. (1992.), The collected poems, New York: Harper Perennial)


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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