Poetry followed me this week. I wrote an article about local poets while also reading The Archivist, a novel about a librarian who catalogues TS Eliot’s correspondence. The novel led me not, as one might think, to read more Eliot poems, but rather to Ariel, the celebrated collection of Sylvia Plath’s poems that was published posthumously.
In The Archivist, Matthias is content with his role as keeper of Eliot’s (and others’) personal papers. He treasures his quiet, controlled life. Enter young poet Roberta, who has a disruptive effect. She recalls to him the love of his life, his wife Judith, who was also a poet. Judith took her own life.
Judith and Roberta each possess intelligence and femininity that hold a deep appeal for Matthias at different points in his life. But each woman also introduces a haunting perspective, not unlike that reflected in some of Eliot’s works, which Matthias quotes easily—“We are born with the dead; / See, they return, and bring us with them.” The women, like the poet in whom Matthias specializes, seem to feel especially deeply, and that includes uncomfortable emotions, deep despairs. Matthias and Judith live through World War II and Judith, of Jewish descent, is unable to cope with the reality of what happened under Nazi reign. She resents Matthias’ Christianity and the world view with which it provides him. Roberta is struggling with her place in the world, especially following the recent revelation that her parents are Jews who escaped Germany and subsequently converted to Christianity.
Author Martha Cooley speaks convincingly in the voice of the aging protagonist and expertly draws more subtle parallels between his two pivotal relationships. Much of the book is a chronicle of Judith’s descent in a mental institution and Matthias’ horror at witnessing it. But Judith’s case is not simply a case of a mind falling apart. Matthias says, “Judith was the only fully awake person I’ve ever known. She watched and listened; she paid attention. History was anything but abstract for her, and she couldn’t defend herself against it.” Roberta is also acutely awake and Matthias is able to learn from her, and ultimately to apply what he learned with Judith to encourage Roberta in moving forward. He’s emboldened with a newfound courage that offers a surprise at the end of the book.
Moving on to read Ariel, by another tormented poet who took her own life, was a natural progression. I’ve always had a bias against Plath. I grew up hearing that she’d “stuck her head in an oven”, gassing herself, and I immediately disliked her for it. But after reading about Judith I wondered about Plath. Was she also a case of being fully, uncomfortably awake, permeable to all of the frightening ideas that most of us find ways to surround with some sort of barrier? A blurb by George Steiner on the back of the edition calls her poems a “bitter triumph”, suggesting that “she could not return from them.”
Where is that point of no return, when it becomes impossible to assimilate again into the “normal” world? How do we know when we’ve reached it? Most readers come to Ariel with the knowledge that Plath committed suicide, and perhaps that taints how the poems are read. But it’s difficult to read lines like those in “A Birthday Present” and not feel that we are witnessing her unraveling:
If you only knew how the veils are killing my days.
But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Plath wrote prolifically and is often described as inexorably driven. With my psychiatric training it’s impossible not to wonder if she was in a bipolar mixed state, in which people, as described by the National Institutes of Mental Health “may feel very sad or hopeless while feeling extremely energized.” Could Plath have been saved with modern medicine?
It’s always bothered me to see suicide romanticized in any way. In reality it’s an ugly and heartbreaking business that has destructive ripples for generations to come. But I also know that those suffering from clinical depression feel trapped by it and are often convinced that they will never find their way back into the light. William Styron describes this eloquently in his memoir, Darkness Visible:
In depression . . . faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come, not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.
Perhaps what I learned from both of my reads this week is that, while it’s unfair to elevate an artist because of some romantic perspective on their life “tragically cut short” by suicide, it’s equally unfair to dismiss them as unworthy of exploration because of their final choice. Their words, in many cases, chronicle difficult truths. They show us the darker sides of ourselves, sides that are hard to face or even acknowledge.
Perhaps these aspects of our being are better covered up; perhaps most of us learn not to be so permeable. But truths have a way of finding their way into words, and words, whether or not we beckon them closer, have a way of becoming our constant companions. On they continue after we are gone, markers of our experience, proof of our fragile existence.
Books mentioned in this column: