Notes from Reading Sylvia Plath for POETS Day

The Unexpectedness of the poppies
their gratuitous beauty in
her own frozen life
               – Unknown Annotator

I checked out Sylvia Plath’s collections The Colossus and other poems and Ariel from The Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook, Alabama a week or so ago. Rather, I checked out Sylvia Plath’s collections The Colossus and other poems and Ariel from O’Neal Library, formerly The Emmet O’Neal Library until Emmet’s views on segregation that no one knew or knows about were dug up and found to be too embarrassing to city council public relations people but not so embarrassing that the O’Neal family’s, gracious benefactors it seems, name suffer as well, in Mountain Brook, Alabama a week or so ago. Someone got to Ariel before I did. Actually, lots of people got to Ariel before I did. At least I assume so. The earliest stamped date in the book, copyrighted 1966, appears to be May 7, 1987. A lot of people likely signed their name from the card that used to be in the check out sleave adhered to the last page. It’s all computerized now, of course, so the card is no more. Some library books still have them and I like to see how many people read the book, or at least took it home, before me. Not Ariel. The card is gone. I know at least one person checked it out though, because she wrote all over the place. That’s the someone I’m focusing on, because that someone went from being a someone to being someone.

I know it’s a her because the handwriting is rounded in general and tightly looped where a stop and reverse point would have sufficed. My suspicion is that she was in college when she marked up Plath because she’s neat and several of the letters are written with the cursive form in with the other print letters. She’s far enough from high school and penmanship lessons but not so far that the influence has been shed. I’d say that the choice of book puts her in college because most people don’t pick up poetry collections unless required to for one reason or another and a school assignment seems the most likely. This is just me speculating at what I see with no training in graphology (a common word I assume is part of everybody’s vocabulary which didn’t require me to search “what do you call handwriting analysis” because obviously, I already knew) but considering the prolific amount of scrawl she left in this book I imagine anyone with even an correspondence school acquaintance with the whorls and crests or whatever the experts focus on as the calling cards of calling card writers to extrapolate from would know what she prefers for breakfast on a rainy weekend. She’s laid herself out naked for those with eyes.

She wrote in pencil and someone did yeoman’s work, or at least yeoman’s effort was expended, in trying to minimize the damage done. Someone, or someone if she let guilt catch her, tried their best with an eraser, maybe more than one, to denote the book. The eraser gave up at some point and left a few pages unmolested. The notes on those pages I read and moved on. No big deal. The pages that were cleaned up look far messier for it and capture the reader’s curiosity as he acts as decoder trying to make sense of ghosts of graphite characters. Unmolested notes by the poem “Daddy” say “Misunderstood what part he played in the WWII.” I glanced at that note, got the gist, felt warmly towards someone because of “the WWII,” and continued without significant distraction. On the same page a few lines of “erased” notes read “Alldrips her maintain wait other kus band.” Possibly it’s “A Helps her maintain he fuhrer angus band.” I’ve spent more time trying to figure out the remnants than I have the poem.

Someone underlines quite a bit, so much as to make me wonder why she underlined in the first place. The idea is to highlight the important stuff; separate the most important lines or lines that give trouble for later consideration. If you underline damn near everything you’re just practicing draftsmanship. The poem “A Birthday Present” has thirty-one two line stanzas. Someone underlined twenty-six of the stanzas. What was wrong with the remaining five? I’ve read the poem repeatedly trying to divine – not what was going through Plath’s mind – but what was going through someone’s mind as she separated the wheat from the chaff. The second stanza got underlined and starred which makes the text, “I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is just what I want.”, suddenly pregnant with meaning because the star and underlining set up this self-referential loop of importance.

From what I can make out, her comments and notes are on target. There’s nothing revelatory in them but it’s the kind of observation you’d expect from a conscientious student doing a quick dive into subject matter she’s more than capable of grasping but not terribly interested in. I say that but I’m about to share a note that someone wrote that goes completely against my interpretation of the poem it was in relation to and I’m so glad she wrote it. At first it seems naïve, endearingly so, but it’s clever and made me look at the poem differently. I still disagree with someone, but I looked into the work more than I would have because of what she shared. I quoted it up there in the beginning:

The Unexpectedness of the poppies
their gratuitous beauty in
her own frozen life

It’s written under the poem “Poppies In October.” It’s a short enough poem that I’ll share the whole thing here.

“Poppies In October”

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —-

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

There are no poppies. Poppies are worn over the heart on Remembrance Day in Great Britain, where Plath was living when she wrote this poem. Shortly after completing it she committed suicide. She very premeditatedly put her head in a gas oven and died of carbon monoxide poisoning which can make the heart beat erratically. Some have suggested that the image is of a woman giving birth to “a love gift” and then despairing. Maybe. I see her contemplating her own desired death as her heart “pops” in and out of rhythm. The poppy is red and gets worn in the right place and she plays with that image, the onomatopoeia, and her emotional prison. I’m not going to go into more detail than that right now or even going to pretend to think I’m dead on as this poem has baffled more than a few and though I closed in on something near my eventual conclusion pretty quickly her thankfully not erased note made me stop to consider a few things.

Thanks someone. I checked out a lot of books from the same library in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series and somebody before me ate voraciously when he or she read. I could tell because one book was dotted with oil stains, another what looked like mustard, and in one volume I found a full pressed kernel of popcorn. Your disregard for public property was much more welcome than the mystery eater’s.

I realized too late to include without rewriting, but I’m musing about handwritten notes in a book called Ariel and there is an ariel font. Should have made a joke. Missed my chance.

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