The Plath Cabinet

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Many of the strongest poems in this poetical homage politicize Sylvia [Plath], showing her to be less a victim than a citizen of her time, whom history can misrepresent but not silence.

Is history’s portrait of Sylvia Plath as the arch-obsessive accurate? “I know just what I want/ and I want to do it,” says the speaker of “Last Wishes, 1963,” a poem from Catherine Bowman’s latest collection, The Plath Cabinet. Bowman’s work shifts the posthumous perception of Sylvia’s incantatory aspirations, preserved mostly in correspondences to her mother, as not neurotic, but heartbreaking, as was the simplicity of Virginia Woolf’s precursor for happiness (a room).

The speaker of The Plath Cabinet thrills at Sylvia’s ready access to the means of mental development (which, for Woolf, included library privileges to the Cambridge library, denied by a beadle), and solemnizes the implications of going without, as Sylvia’s life grew increasingly destabilized. The speaker goes so far as to re-envision the most incontrovertible “fact” of Sylvia’s life—suicide. From the collection’s last poem, “Sylvia’s Hair”:

Sweetly, sweetly she breathes, how soft the night glow—
She says: I’ll tell you two secrets, come close, very close:
I am murdered.
I did not kill myself.

A pony for Frieda, a salon in London to “get her brain back and practice/ to write herself out of this hole,” and buying a rose-quartz tweed suit with her birthday check are among the desires Bowman sets forth for Sylvia in her recreation, for which she copiously researched the Plath materials housed in the Lilly Library of Indiana University.

Few words sicken more on an instinctual level than the word “martyrdom.” Yet that is the backdrop to this staged reenactment, an inconvenient truth if ever there was one. Bowman’s materialist assemblage of Sylvia’s life and death remains true to the propulsive diction of Sylvia’s own verse. From “The Martyrdom of Sylvia Plath:”

She stands burning,
retching into bright orange
basins. Thorned hands

winnowed by angles,
laid waste and unshriven,
desire only God. Gut feasting,

the knot of worms, flies watch,
prove that flesh is real, flawed
earth-flesh, charred and ravened . . .

The banter between the recreated muse and the speaker of The Plath Cabinet is at times glossolaliac, playful. “Tie me/ to that Plath tree, fill me ample,/ make me bleed plateau. Psst, Quiet now,/ Plath me in half, grammaticized” (from “Picnic at Gobbledygoo”).

Elsewhere, this conversation is pathetic—pathetic as in unspeakably sad—particularly when the speaker juxtaposes a contemporary landscape with that of Sylvia’s epoch, showing the two to be much-unchanged. From “Sylvia’s Honey”:

Sharon, hiding naked on Christmas Eve behind a car wash, her doctor
husband searching for her with an army-issue flashlight and shotgun.
Valerie, stabbed to death in broad daylight while jogging with her
baby. A rage suppressed comes soaring and creeping out in ugly ways . . .

Occasionally stripped down to archival essentials (“Things to Do, 1953”; “Dimensions”) the list poems center Sylvia in the reader’s mind, imagistically: other poems parody Sylvia’s vatic sensibility. “Things to Do, 1944”: “ . . . paint an arch-backed mermaid, proclaim desire/ to be God, make cream puffs in foods class,/ learn how Nature protects her animals.” And many of the strongest poems in this poetical homage politicize Sylvia, showing her to be less a victim than a citizen of her time, whom history can misrepresent but not silence.

From “Sylvia’s Passport”: “She is a Jonah. Milk van. A milk vat . . . She’s got surveillance training/ from the gods. She can decode/ clouds, vestibules—wrapped as she is/ in capsule, in vessel . . . She is No. 796203. She is in/ sequence . . . She wants kingdom.”

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →