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Sylvia Plath

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She Maneuvers Through Time

With even the remotest sliver of sun,

the children can find you.

 

There is no hiding or wondering if no one

knows, no one might notice.

 

The dogs know each other in the dark

and tell us so: Roooh,

 

Ro Ro Ro Ro Ro or maybe it’s

Hello! O, O, O, O. Every time the chair creaks

 

You are under threat of discovery.

Shh––the neighborhood dogs.

 

There’s that movie about a poet

played by an actress too lean for words.

 

She dies for words. The poet had wanted

to be found but she had no dogs,

 

no creaking chair. She had herself,

which is often not enough. She had

 

a wintertime flat, the two children, the slog

of former centuries. Something essential

 

had frozen. In it the echo,

Hello! O, O, O, O. And the lie.

 

 This Unhinged Her

Compartment after blue compartment,

edges smooth plastic, where victory is scaled

 

against its vast measure. Regarding ice

in the sun: it evaporates or drips.

 

The chandelier that should dangle

majestic glass over unreachable rooms

 

in the rich part of town is discarded

to storage, grounded. You clamber,

 

you groan, waking up in the dark,

awaiting the invitation to dance

 

in a well-lit ballroom––to leave the party

as the sun begins to carve ice,

 

trail through ancillary rooms

and down a grand stair to face what meets

 

you. The dormant continue still.

Light trickles into the storage room.

 

Surfaces inter their individual texture.

Surfaces remain unmoved.

The Secret Inside Her Material

You spend most of your life on islands.

Watching each sun rise for its difference,

the breakwater a lengthy bay, chevroned

to its vanishing point. / / You spend your time

on feathers, nests and wearing them.

Eggs for breakfast daily. You eat the island,

each mud clot, each pine. Teeth straight

into soft wood collapsing its rocky shore / /

What was it you wanted?

You paint your nails pale blue. Swallows

fly across your skin clocking miles. Dip

into the water. Its light will not devour you,

but you are clearer now. You haven’t slept

in two weeks. At a flea market somewhere,

stalls lined with animals, mid-action bell-jarred,

you shuffling slowly down the line.

The island leaves rustle, the ocean hums,

a cat or dog, / / maybe a person sings.

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Emily Wolahan is the author of HINGE (forthcoming from the National Poetry Review Press, 2014). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Omniverse, DIAGRAM, Boston Review, New Linear Perspectives and Drunken Boat. Her essays have appeared on NPM Daily, The New Inquiry, and Gulf Coast and she recently completed a Vermont Studio Center residency. She has collaborated with artist Joshua Thomson on his multimedia project Platinum Metres. She is also Editor and co-founder at JERRY Magazine, an online literary magazine. Find out more at www.emilywolahan.com.

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Surrealist Tourist: Alessandra Bava Honors Each Exquisite Corpse
By Jennifer MacBains-Stephens

In They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava’s first chapbook published in the United States (her third, internationally), Bava represents the voices of the dead through thirteen poems about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Amedeo Modigliani, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others. Lives cut short by drugs, suicide, illness, and murder – these artists and writers inspire Bava’s work. In this chapbook, assembled and handmade by editor and publisher Juliet Cook, ghosts requite and haunt red-walled Parisian cafes, New York street corners, and dark, succulent gardens.

It is no wonder that Bava would be able to channel many voices: she is an active participant in the World Poetry Movement, which uses poetic action to promote multinational communities that work towards social, ecological, environmental, and mental health, revering cultural diversity and social transformation. She is also a member of The 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a group that brings artists and poets together to work and perform, encouraging a sense of community. Both groups honor the qualities of cultural and philosophical diversity that are present in Bava’s own writing. Bava’s muses struggled throughout life to find their place and, whether through confessional poetry or offending critics, Bava portrays this glorious, marginalized group (some of them only achieving prominence postmortem,) in all of their eccentric and damaged glory.

In the titular, opening poem, the scene of a salon is staged. Writers talk and sip absinthe; as “Sylvia talks of her first attempt. Anne [Sexton] listens attentively…” the scene becomes almost like a portrayal of two school girls discussing a crush – words such as “sweet,” “infectious laugh,” and “loving,” convey an innocent intimacy; discussing death feels like looking for the shape of a friend in the dark at a sleepover. As readers, we witness this casual, everyday conversation about death, and the subjects’ preoccupation with ending life itself, capturing our attention, luring us closer to the grave. Experience the following:

“…the sweet

terrible act dissected
with loving details
as on a morgue
table,”

where a “morgue table” is dropped in almost like patio furniture, followed closely by a mention of sipping wine. The casualness of this chat between Plath and Sexton about life’s ending grabs hold of our daily routine as well; we cannot be squeamish, but are forced to encounter the transparent relationship between breathing and not breathing.

When read aloud, these quatrains almost measure out the time it takes to sip a glass of wine or cup of tea. Throughout the chapbook, there is sense of participating in the dead writer’s routines, bridging our closeness with the dead, and with death. The reader shamelessly eavesdrops on these subjects, taking pleasure in their sometimes-imagined conversations, which are interspersed with actual dialogue spoken by the subjects, taken from their body of work or historical records. The words of the dead hold power over us.

Is there any poet alive who doesn’t know that Sylvia Plath left this world by committing suicide, leaving her two children food, a note, and an open window so they would not be asphyxiated by her gas oven? Despite the fact that Plath has been characterized as abandoning her children through this final act, the heart-wrenching poem, Milk and Bread, illustrates Bava’s gentleness with the tortured Plath. Even as she narrates Plath’s suicide, Bava’s language emphasizes motherly, nurturing qualities, with lines like, “I left you in the arms of February winds…” In this chapbook, the inevitable event of that morning portrays Plath in pain, not heartless, as Bava writes lines like,

“I gave birth…
and to you with distant eyes –
in order not to love too much,”

focusing the reader on Plath’s alienation and displacement in the world, her own life foreign to the idea of “comfort.”

The cover art, by Erin Wells, is eerily reminiscent of Sylvia’s famous blond curls. These curls, however, fall over a horse skull, such an apropos illustration for this collection – the whimsical carousel ride of childhood juxtaposed with the ominous horse skull, to somewhat terrifying effect. We are reminded that, though childhood ends eventually, these beasts continue to gallop in a circle forever, reaching up towards heaven and down towards hell, keeping all riders in a state of limbo. Perhaps the resurrected ghosts of these artists and writers find themselves locked into similar patterns: Sylvia, for example, so gregarious and lovely, almost child-like herself in so many photos, gave life and conformist roles a shot, but in the end, her own darkness was the an all-consuming role. She, like many of these authors, now lives out repeatedly in our minds the deaths for which they are (at least in part) so well known. Perhaps the carousel horse reminds us from the cover that we, too, might have to plunge into the depths to come back up. Bava’s exploration of the lives of these creative icons displays the balancing act at knife point. Cut too deep and it’s all over.

The theme of motherhood is perhaps paralleled by a theme of lost father figures. Bava captures the robust, punctual words of Henry Miller when he meets up with the author herself in a café. The poem Exquisite Corpse reminds us of partaking in life lessons and meaningful conversation. Bava writes of Miller in groups of three lines – the words are shorter and come faster, there is a rawness of Henry Miller. Who wouldn’t want to meet Henry Miller in a café and write a poem with him? Having escaped to Paris, Miller befriended the Surrealists. Inspiration from these meetings brought Miller his first famous works: Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The Surrealists repeated the same mantra at every meeting:

“Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau.”
(The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.)

The Exquisite Corpse was, of course, a Surrealist game in which each person present contributed one line at a time to a collaborative poem, without being allowed to see most of the lines written by the others. In Bava’s poem, she and Henry play this game together:

“The morning ritual starts
as Henry walks into the
café and sits close to me”

Henry “demanding the pen…”

We feel the heat of him next to us and on the page. Miller writes a line and then Bava writes a line. They create a poem together as people (and Bava’s readers) watch.

Miller, one of the early figures of the “Beat Generation,” turned realism on its head: his books banned in the United States for a time due to their graphic sexual content. Miller could be the long-lost son of Rimbaud, whose sadness and magic hit a nerve but often remain obtuse. Miller slaps us across the face with life. Bava captures Rimbaud’s romantic slow passion, though even in Bava’s world, Rimbaud is tortured:

“I stare at his . . .
Provincial clothes,

At his holsters
Full of satisfied

Flesh, Christian
Mothers’ morals…

I pause, I pant, I shoot, I write.

He grabs my hand
And cries, “Wake up!

I’m just a ghost
Selling false promises… “

This ode to Rimbaud is at the end of the collection, almost feeling like the reader has time traveled and come back full circle to the café. It is only in the café that we shake off the grime of the New York streets. It is our respite after touring the Bowery with Patti Smith, Rimbaud’s
dark, hungry, crow-like daughter-figure. Bava describes Smith using stark apostrophe: “Your dress is scanty and no black train follows it, your lips are smeared with poison…” conveying the sexy rebellion of Madame Bowery. Smith shunned the glittery big hair/loud make up of this decade, choosing to wear men’s clothes and live in the un-glamourous Alphabet City. Smith, having shoplifted Rimbaud’s book Iluminations when she was young, said Rimbaud was like her boyfriend, that she connected with his words immediately. The godmother of punk, Smith’s song fused rock with poetic verse, belting out explicit heartfelt lyrics and embracing the darkness in life. It is in embracing the dark, that the light becomes more apparent.

A favorite aspect of this collection was the feeling of these people co-mingling on the page. Even though they existed in different countries, in different time periods, they fit together so well in They Talk About Death, almost familial. The reader re-befriends them through Bava’s poems and as is one purpose of creating or writing anything at all – there is immortality in these pages: they are not dead. But we live in the world of the living, and hence, we do experience loss. The author’s own vulnerability and connection to these lost souls is palpable. In Vision, (for Sylvia Plath,) Bava writes: “As I carve my own poem, I hear the apse rustle./ The vivid stained glass windows on my bark shake…/ I am left to contemplate the Apocalypse of the Word.” The reader’s brain wants nothing more than to replace “word” with “world.” Why is anyone on the path they are on? How do we alter life with casual or concrete choices made in a milli-second?
And the reader, who has doubtlessly been inspired by at least one of the dead in this chapbook, happily goes along for the ride, conjuring spirits through Bava’s poems. Our own mortality is a post-it note. We go to the ledge, but we don’t have to step off. It feels good just to stand there, playing tourist to these ghosts wandering around in dark mental caverns. We are here to “stare at our beautiful corpse of a poem,” and Bava generously allows us to dip a toe in the afterlife. If we are lucky, we can grab for a stronghold in the cliff and hold on.

They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava
Blood Pudding Press, 2014
20 pages
$7.00

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Jennifer MacBain-Stephens attended NYU, and has spent a large part of her life moving up and down I-95 and I-80 in the Midwest; she recently moved to the DC area. She is the author of the chapbooks Clotheshorse (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming, 2014) and Every Her Dies (ELJ Publications). She has written four YA non-fiction books (Rosen Publishing). Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and can soon or recently be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Blue Hour, Vector Press, The Golden Walkman, Split Rock Review, Toad Suck Review, and Hobart.

What does a writer need? I think, first and last, a writer needs to write. I think this is an obvious idea that, because it is obvious, often goes overlooked. Compared to this need, good teachers, free time, the approval of one’s peers, beautiful mistresses, and noble prizes, are utterly beside the point. Many writers have disappeared under the weight of those other needs. Writers who are busy writing do not commit suicide because it’s very difficult to write when you’re dead, and they are writing. Flannery O’Connor spoke of maintaining a ” habit” of art. The words art and habit might seem an odd pairing, but that’s what art is: the glamor of drudgery, and the drudgery of glamor. Picasso continued to scribble. If Sylvia Plath had been on a writing streak, she would not have committed suicide when she did. Maybe later because, for all her talent, she lacked “self-esteem,” but, in the throes of writing the poems for Ariel, suicide was on the back burner. I believe writers ought to know that the most important thing they can do is write– with no immediate purpose in mind. When a writer tells me he or she is blocked, I always run a rubric through my head as to why:

1. They like the idea of being blocked because they are fucking drama queens, and there seems to be some sort of tragic dimension to being “blocked” that daily application of thoughts to paper lacks.
2. They are having an inner sit down strike because either they hate what they’ve written, or feel no one else likes it, and they shut down to the process the way a child might shut down to a parent who has failed to show.
3. Writing isn’t really their main priority. They have penciled it in among the other activities of their day, but they are more invested in being busy, than in being busy writing.
4. They think “writing” is some sort of concrete product. It never occurs to them that, if they can’t write a poem, they could try writing a review, or a song, or an epic novel about a 19th century white woman who falls in love with a another woman from an African tribe and is raped by her empire loving and racist husband (Get Meryl Streep on the phone!) They over determine what ought to be written.
5. They are Goldilocks and are determined to say the porridge is too hot or too cold before any porridge exists. They won’t admit it, but they have an erotic relationship to the word “no.” Refusal turns them on. They are hot for the word “no” to such a degree that “just right” never shows up.
6. They need to be forced to write. They don’t want to take responsibility for writing. It’s like a rape fantasy: no one wants to be raped, but, in the dream, one need not feel ashamed when someone ravishes.

I hate when one of my friends is blocked.This is not compassion on my part, but, rather a sense of past experience that tells me a blocked writer is liable to be annoying. it’s almost as annoying as when I get dumped by a lover. “I’m blocked, I’m blocked.” Spare me! You can’t write because you won’t write. The self disgust, the ego, the anti-depressant, the children and the wife and the husband, and the groceries are all in the way, but if you sit down and neglect three of those things, and write, then you are writing! Writers must be willing to neglect almost everything except writing. How come no one thinks they are blocked from doing dishes, or fucking thier lover (well, that one often happens)? We never hear a janitor say he is blocked (God bless the janitors). It’s a job. You do it to get paid. A writer writes, and the “pay” is, first, a piece of writing. So here’s some tips for writer’s block:

1. Write anyway. Do a dry fuck. Feel miserable. Luxuriate in the ether of your own self disgust. Become an enemy of writing who is forced to pretend you “love” writing.. Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Stop expecting it to “fulfill” you or please you. I would rather have a wild lover over me right now, her hair whipping my face, her voice wailing in throes of passion at my tender ministrations, but it takes a lot more effort to get that than it does to write–at least for me. I mean, you have to look good. You have to smell nice. You have to be attractive. You have to have a reasonably clean car.In order to write, all you have to do is press keys down with your fingers, so I write. It does not depend on any sentient being other than myself. Thank God.

2. Copy a favorite poem or story or famous phrase, and warp it, substitute a passage or sentence. Be like a virus invading the body of the text. For example: “All true stories end in death: All true stories end in liverwurst.” It does not have to be profound. LEt’s go there:

“All true stories end in liverwurst, at least mine do. I know I should be eating healthier food, but, when depressed, and I am often depressed, only liverwurst, specifically liverwurst on Russian rye with a raw onion and hot mustard, consoles me. That is how I met, Jane, my wife of thirty years. She’s dead now, and I am writing this with the aid of a liverwurst sandwich.Perhaps I should correct myself: all true stories begin in liverwurst, at least mine do. This is a true story then, and liverwurst is its catalyst.”

Ok, so this is not great writing, which brings me to my third suggestion:

3. Don’t have any standards. Write. Don’t have any “ideas” for a story, and, if you do, avoid that idea like the plague until it overwhelms you and makes you submit to it. Begin with a line as far removed from your idea as possible. For example, you have an idea for writing about your lousy relationship with your mother. Forget it. Think of something as far removed from that idea as possible:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew through my window and began smothering me.
B. I seem to recall reading once that pigs have thirty minute orgasms.
C. IN a kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly.
D. Once, this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except Pizza Hut.
E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them.

Any one of these non-ideas can then be connected or dsconnected from the lousy relationship. You are the minor god of your writing. Act like a god: create laws, trees, surgical equipment salesman. Decide if you need twleve lines or one before you go for the idea:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew in through the window and began smothering me. My mother always said roses were her favorite flower, but she just said that because it sounded probable. I don’t think she thought of flowers much at all, unless it seemed appropriate to the occasion, and that’s how she loved me: whenever it seemed appropriate

B. I seem to recall that pigs have thirty minute orgasms. On the day I found out my mother and my ex fiancee were moving in together, the first thought that crossed my mind were those pigs.

C. In the kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly, wondering how I could have been so stupid as to have packed this hurriedly. “Careless” My mother said.”I’d rather have you evil than careless. Careless people do more damage.”

D. Once this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except pizza hut, and me and my 85 year old mother, sitting here, not even pretending the pizza or our relationship matters.

E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them, and, after a day with my mother, I often feel like a backed up sink.

Just for fun, take one of the above and finish it. Good luck.

This month marks the 47th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s passing, and my admiration grows more intense by the day—she is my touchstone, my first and last, my desert-island poet. I marvel at what she would’ve written had she lived longer, as each poem grows richer in chronological order.

Below: excerpts from an interview with Peter Orr, recorded in 1962, wherein Plath is wonderfully lucid and charming; candidly speaking about a poet’s life and work, the inextricability of the two. We’re extremely lucky to have access to this recording (and other brilliant videopoems!) here:

I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have—but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying—like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience—and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things…

I feel that this development of recording poems, of speaking poems at readings, of having records of poets, I think this is a wonderful thing. I’m very excited by it. In a sense, there’s a return, isn’t there, to the old role of the poet, which was to speak to a group of people, to come across.

Now that I have attained, shall I say, a respectable age, and have had experiences, I feel much more interested in prose, in the novel. I feel that in a novel, for example, you can get in toothbrushes and all the paraphernalia that one finds in daily life, and I find this more difficult in poetry. Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline, you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.

As a poet, one lives a bit on air.

I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I’m writing one. Having written one, then you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest, which isn’t the same thing at all. But I think the actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one.

Sylvia Plath and the Worry Bird — by Justin Fitzpatrick

further listening

Poppies in October : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlNP81tKdkQ
Medusa : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S63laZCOGQA
Amnesiac : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfiSF8abeCM
Ariel : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJbX5o2gqhM