I’ve always loved Sylvia Plath, though I think she is a kind of Rorschach blotch that says more about the interpreter than the interpreter can reveal about who she really was. We are all such mysteries to one another, even to those most intimate to us. Biographers and scholars and angsty teen girls, 20-something poets, thirty something mothers who don’t find time or inspiration to write anymore amongst the dirty laundry and the floor needing vacuumed and the grocery lists and the car licensing due dates are all grateful someone gives their inner state such apt utterance. Her motherhood poems speak to me at this point in my life, while her father issues and black moods spoke to me in another. I think people mythologize her in unhealthy ways because of her suicide, and that bookend has made her legendary in a way that sadly eclipses her craftsmanship, not unlike Kurt Cobain and so many others.
If I remember correctly, she wrote Ariel by getting up at something like 4 a.m. on a daily basis, to have the luxury of being a mind separate from others, to work, to think, before the children she was raising without her husband awoke. It is hard to think freely in the proximity of other people, and sometimes we have to escape into ourselves, even from those we love more than our own selves.
But the dark hours of early morning are heavy, too, with the duty of parenthood. I think often of my father rising at 5 a.m., packing lunches, stoking the fire, as well as working out in the basement before his work day began. There’s a poem by Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays, that describes his own father doing the same:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Perhaps daughters are different, because while we may have never thanked my father explicitly, we knew the extent of his labors for all of us, and we loved him for it. His hands, too, were cracked with his labors, and calloused from years of them. We sometimes helped stack the wood that he split with a Zen-like cheer and a practiced, masterful efficiency he had developed over many years of swinging an axe. My father was an artisan, in his way, and a soft spoken, gentle man, and our home was warm, though I think sometimes of his quietness, his gaze into the horizon, and I wonder who he was to himself, what thoughts were his in his quiet mornings carved out to be alone with them.
Mornings are my own, for now, until the night wakings, the haze of 3 a.m. nursings begin, the blue hours of dawn and the contented murmurs of an infant become my life again. That is not a complaint. There is something deeply content about those moments, and quiet, and transcendent.
Is that quiet blissfulness merely oxytocin? Merely, as if the brain chemicals that code are experience are somehow less real for being chemical and determined by forces other than our inner monologue that thinks it is our true self? So much of the self changes in this pregnant state and the nursing, caretaking state later, in response to biology’s programming, chemical surges that seep into and color the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and what matters, that it often unnerves me. Another line from Plath’s Morning Song: