It’s not a happy cry. It comes from below the surface, where the ovens line up for us. They do that. But the oven isn’t simply about the end or quitting the violence of Ted and illness that led her there. The oven is about her fight for herself and the love for her children. She made sure the towels placed at each door opening were wet and tightly wedged to absorb the gas. It was down to that, and she made the call in her 30th year, to leave.
I cry for that more than the light of creativity snuffed out too soon. What she gave us will last- it’s enough.
I don’t stay long in front of 23 Fitzroy Road, unremarkable among the other brick row houses except for the blue heritage plaque next to the front door. The plaque doesn’t have her name on it, however, because Yeats lived there first and it’s one of the reasons Sylvia wanted to move there. Imagine the energy in that mortar, housing two of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It feels like a man’s house, darkish and utilitarian in design.
The lavender place just down the hill at 3 Chalcot Square pulls me in, with its first floor wooden façade and white decorative window frames. There’s a patch of green across the way and the candy coloured recency era homes press closely together like sisters. It feels right, and it’s no wonder she was so productive here. Between the ages of 27-28 she published her first volume of poetry, wrote The Bell Jar, and gave birth to her daughter Frieda.
At 27 I move from the island of Newfoundland to the prairie province of Manitoba. Heartbroken and surviving on student loans, I begin my Ph.D. while living in an old man’s basement. A few months into the program I learn that my admission hung on the slightest of strings, which terrifies and ignites me. I can’t wait to shoot through the sky. Walking through the boring suburban landscape to and from the bus stand I know I will and that this is all temporary. None of it is me.
Two provinces and a million hangovers later, I’m sitting in a darkened room getting “rough magic” tattooed on the top of my right foot. It’s the title of Paul Alexander’s biography of Sylvia Plath that I hungrily lap up and clutch to my bony chest, defeated by cigarettes and the tired breath I am living. After another toxic weekend of hillbilly love and loud noises that stretched far too late into the night, I need this ink.
Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest who says: “This rough magic I here abjure”, I am reaching my limits and the myth of the magic bottle is drying up. When is it ever fun anymore?
Sylvia cites seeing a performance of The Tempest with her family, at the age of 8, as one of her intellectual awakenings. The play is also where she draws the name for the signature poem that would cast her moon everywhere, Ariel. The airy spirit eventually released by Prospero; Ariel was also the name of a horse that Plath used to ride in Devon. Both of them, Sylvia, even me, we gallop towards the silver freedom that hangs in the ancient sky and lights up every syllable from woman’s mouth.
Sylvia is a wishbone. Woman, eternal. We long to ingest her creaky marrow through book spines, glass-enclosed archives, and fan girl writings. Her blood, her desire, it’s ours. This is another reason I cry when I think of her. Six decades later and we are still damned. Like her we know it and we ache for the balm and the bombs we need to blow open our own holes, over and over again. We can use Sylvia’s bone-books only because she wrote so much and so so well, from the inventive juvenilia to the ferocious journals to the doubled-over destiny of Tulips and Lady Lazarus at the end.
She wrote to live, and her story is ours to follow. She is everything and we are too. Women who spin through the dusty cosmos and into the future leaving trails of light not just for others to follow, but for us to see and marvel in. Our brightness. This is forever. I will always cry when I think of Sylvia, the woman who wrote this in her journal on January 4, 1958:
Rooms. Every room a world. To be god: to be every life before we die: a dream to drive men mad. But to be one person, one woman-to live, suffer, bear children & learn others lives & make them into print worlds spinning like planets in the minds of other men.