Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Phantom Narratives and the Reel Picture

Photo by  Robyn Beattie
…and I don’t meant zombie narratives, though my husband has a stellar idea for one of his own and is halfway through Volume 2 of The Walking Dead. Nor will I be addressing the Phantom of the Opera. I’m talking instead about the subterranean corridors one paces when the imagination gets fired by the unchecked reptilian force of jealousy, as mine erroneously was this past month.

One of the exquisite metaphors for projected infidelity resides in this cinematic jewel from the film Sylvia (the version directed by Christine Jeffs, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the poet and the devilishly handsome, pre-Bond, pre Dragon Tattoo Daniel Craig as the other poet, Hughes). Sylvia sits alone in a room partitioned by a piece of mottled glass behind which Hughes and a female friend wash dinner dishes.

As the pair behind glass pass back and forth, you see what Sylvia sees: their bodies reduced to mottled chunks of color morphing out of their borders, overlapping, merging. Actually, you see Sylvia’s fear: where does her husband end and the woman begin? Was the affair inevitable, already ignited, or did the intensity of Sylvia’s gaze, and later, her jealousy, goad Hughes into the woman’s arms?

In good company with many a girl poet of my generation, I remember (at the naïve age of 19) stepping out of the pristine order of Plath’s poetry and circling her life, which really meant hunting Ted, blaming Ted, for Sylvia’s destruction; if only he’d been faithful, if only he hadn’t burned her journals, think what else she’d have written, as if Sylvia didn't have any vulnerabilities or failures, as if she belonged to all of us, women poets in particular, as if I personally knew, an attitude with an attendant voyeuristic hovering in the couple’s collective corona replete with light and distortions meant only for them.

Fast forward ten years: as a new mother, watching the film, I no longer could side with Sylvia. As the camera pulled up towards the ceiling over the cribs of her children, the window ajar to allow air, I folded with grief on their behalf, the image of my infant and toddler at home with their father calling up an unreasonable desperation to return home to them.

With an additional decade of motherhood behind me, I know none of us can tease apart the multiple truths wrapped around another human being’s fate. Best to transmute one’s ire at the young poet husband into an inquiry of the inadequacies of the human fabric we’ve woven that fails to support both women and men in their individual quests (raising a family and trying to fulfill both the wife and the husband’s life dreams, wether poet, soldier, diva, carpenter, farmer, priest). Better yet, to let Sylvia go, in peace, unsolved.

Other writers have done a much finer job of sorting through the psychological debris of how she came to no longer write poems or raise her children, including April Bernard, in her precise and lovely essay My Plath Problem (from By Herself, Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade).

I agree with Bernard when she writes, “It is naïve to think that we can unlearn the biography and read the poems free from the pollution of context. But my hope is that by dragging myself, (and you, reader) through the maze of biography, we will have found ‘the best way out,’ which, as Robert Frost had it, ‘is always through.’” Bernard includes in the heart of her essay two reveries playing with the same sets of facts about Sylvia to create a Good Sylvia and a Bad Sylvia fairytale which lets us simultaneously err on the extreme end of two polar ways of perceiving Plath’s plight.

And still, here as I make my peace with Plath, I willl still say that if you are female, writing, attracted to men, considering mothering or finding yourself a mother in a marriage, you will perhaps at some point feel there’s something to be gained by examining Sylvia’s story. What if your lover, while courting you to core growth, fails in the end to alchemize your potential, but stills it somehow, stills you, or helps you on your way to still yourself? Or turn it around, what if you do the same to your lover, or worse, to yourself?

How complicated we are….

Detail from plate 133, Jung's Red Book
And fragmented on our way to eventual wholeness. I’m thinking of the facets of face from one of the color plates in Jung’s Red Book. Tiny blue and pinkish white tiles make up a face, they tilt towards various centers, say the eyes, for two.
I’m thinking too of “will”--how we can be pulled by the will of others in a kind of centrifugal mirror, each living thing around us pulling energy from us, that we simultaneously emanate our own energy and pull in the energy of others, bodily vortices.

So it matters—to choose a life mate carefully, to commit to stewardship of oneself, to respect the dance of opening and closing the borders of one’s mind as a writer...giving what one can of oneself while passing through. To give one-self a few quiet moments of “stop” for truce, a gap, long enough for integration, for the energies of fear and reptile to recede.

In one such gap, I shed the month’s grip of jealousy (mine) and its attendant phantom narratives (mercifully, unlike as was the case for Sylvia, absolutely unfounded). Which left me free to enjoy the family and the husband I actually possess.

When I woke, returned more or less, it was to a moment in the early dark of winter, driving the curves of Pocket Canyon, a pomegranate in a gingerbread man bag tied with a red ribbon to hand off, my ten year old ballerina heading (with a backpack full of Monday’s homework and a ball of yarn skewered with wooden knitting needles) towards another ten year old ballerina racing expectantly down the moss covered steps with a smile on her face.

I grabbed my girl’s arm and battled a few yards of scarf to find her warm cheek, frantic to plant a last kiss. Which she tolerated. Without a backward glance, she pulled her arm out of my hand, scrambling up the three flights of stairs to a house on the side of a hill in the sleepy little town of Guerneville. “We’ll take good care of her,” my friend promises, that knowing glance passing between us. A little quiet at our home, a sacrifice of trust to let my girl go, just for one night, and here I am missing her already as she sidles away.

At home, my husband’s drawing the outdoor bath, adding wood to the cast iron stove that sits on the stone patio beneath the redwoods. When he heard about the sleepover, he said, “Do you have to go now? I just fired this up for us…” And I’d promised to be back in half an hour, the boys shooting their pellet guns off the deck at the largest of the pumpkins listing to one side, still holding shape despite its molding innards, the Husky nipping at the kitten’s back.

There’s yet Pinot and vanilla ice cream to buy, so I drive the length of Main Street making a mental note of where I’ll do my last minute shopping far from the mall crowds: Hemp and Chocolate for truffles, River Reader for a book and calendar or two, Guerneville 5 and Dime where the woman behind the counter last time made other customers wait while my daughter counted out her change from her piggy bank, proclaiming with a smile, “Honey, you’ll use math for the rest of your life. You take your time, go ahead.”

My boys are only a fifteen minute drive away. There’s nowhere else I want to be, but there, now, as I rush out of the fluorescent light of Safeway, this last task between stars and wine and heat…can’t wait, can’t wait to sink down into the hot lavender water, wrestle my husband’s thighs for a spot, the wet stone of the patio glittering from tub to stove, stars visible in the tree canopy, three quarter moon casting its blue light further past the ring of our fires’ light onto the road descending from the ridge above us.

Photography of Robyn Beattie: http://www.robynbeattie.com/

Oct 2013 additional reading:

Posted at Rattle: A Review by Paul-John Ramos of  HER HUSBAND: TED HUGHES & SYLVIA PLATH – A MARRIAGE by Diane Middlebrook (Penguin Books)

October 2015:

Posted at The Guardian: Sylvia Plath's suicide note--did it name a final lover? by Jonathan Bates

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