My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reading Ariel all the way through–any version–is brutal. The Restored Edition, however, definitely has a different feel to it. Ted Hughes took out some of the poems that Plath had originally intended and then added some that she hadn’t included in the original manuscript. It’s the poems that he left out, though, that add a whole other layer to this edition. Poems like “Thalidomide” and “Barren Woman” were all eventually published in her Complete Works, but reading them here, interspersed between favorites like “Tulips,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy” puts them in a different context. Images of wombs and deformity and violent birth haunt these poems, and these images change the thrust of her overall themes. I can’t help but think that Plath is writing about how the creative process plays out in motherhood and art and how her relationships with men perhaps both contributed to and stymied both processes.
In both “Thalidomide” and “Barren Woman,” Plath conjures up images of birth thwarted. “Thalidomide” throws out one brutal image after another in these stilted, aborted stanzas, the first three which end with Dickinson-like dashes. It’s like those jarred fetuses that Buddy Willard shows Ether in The Bell Jar, except here they are grotesque “dark Amputations” that “crawl and appall” with “indelible buds/ Knuckles at shoulder blades” and “half-moon” faces. It’s nightmarish stuff, and in the middle of these monstrous images the speaker (can I just say Plath?) wonders “What leatheriness/ has protected/ me from that shadow–” How did her “blood-caul” (amniotic membrane) protect her from such a fate? In the end the speaker describes how “all night I carpenter/ a space for the thing I am given.” She describes birth and gestation with a masculine term like “carpenter,” which makes me think of builders or artisans, not birth. She’s a craftsman, someone with skill. She’s creating space for this new “love,” a baby that she describes almost indifferently as “two wet eyes and a screech.” And in the end this imagery rots and becomes grotesque too. She ends with images of rotten fruit, broken glass, and fleeing mercury (another substance that causes birth defects). In this poem Plath juxtaposes birth and creation with deformity and rot and it’s unsettling and frightening.
And this same theme is present two poems later in “Barren Women.” Except now instead of all this gushy, organic, liquefied rot that she conjures up in “Thalidomide,” she describes this white, hard Grecian building. An “Empty” woman walks through a museum that’s bare, “without statues” but filled with “pillars, porticoes, and rotundas.” So there’s not even human statues in this sterile place. Just a vast empty room with ancient architecture, but in the middle there’s a fountain that “sinks back into itself.” It doesn’t go anywhere or feed anything. The water is sterile too. In fact, she describes it as “nun-hearted and blind to the world.” The fountain is chaste and virginal, the exact opposite of water as a life-giving force. And then in the next stanza she imagines herself as the mother of “white Nike” (the goddess of victory) and “several bald-eyed Apollos.” But she quickly realizes that this image too is false: “Instead the dead injure me with attentions and nothing can happen.” She’s sterile and barren and locked inside a lifeless place. She ends this poem with the image of a silent moon that “lays a hand on [her] forehead.” However, it’s not the warm hand of a mother or the energizing touch of a muse; it’s a “blank-faced” and silent nurse. Is the speaker here a barren women because she’s infertile or because she can’t create art herself?
So, yes. This is an interesting edition, and was Ted Hughes right to change this book the way he did? I have no idea. I honestly have no dog in the fight in the Plath/Hughes wars. Frieda Hughes (Plath’s daughter) writes an interesting forward where she discusses what it was like growing up under the shadow of her mother’s suicide and all of the angry feminist hordes who flung so much blame and vitriol at the father she loved. It must have been excruciating. Of course, she also has to get in one last dig at the creators of the movie Sylvia, staring Gwyneth Paltrow, a movie that could’ve been amazing except Hughes refused to give the creators of the film permission to use her father’s or mother’s poetry. And she has to slam Kate Moses’s awesome book Wintering, a fictional imagining based on the last months of Plath’s life. So part of me questions the motivation for putting this edition out (the aforementioned Kate Moses wrote a pretty scathing piece on all of this drama for Salon a while back). And was it really necessary to include copies of the actual typed pages that are basically identical to the published work, minus a scratch-out here and there? I don’t see what they add expect pages to what should be a pretty slim volume.
All this said, it’s still Plath, and it’s her last volume of poetry the way she left it on her kitchen table. In a way it feels like her last words, her suicide note all bound up for her readers. These poems go on living and breathing with all the creative force and energy that was obviously oozing out of her in the last months of her life. The barren, creative angst that seems to be present in so many of these poems ironically contradicts the fact that in this collection Plath ended up and produced one of the most important, honest, and brilliant collections of poetry to come out of the 20th century.