This week, Canadian-British author Alison MacLeod mixes fiction with fact and memoir with metaphysics in a short story about a visit to Sylvia Plath’s grave. At Lit Hub, “Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld” takes what could otherwise be an item on a tourist’s agenda or an assignment in a ninth grade English class and transmutes it into a piece of writing that walks the edge of beauty and darkness as it pays homage to one of literature’s most mysterious and tragic celebrities.
MacLeod threads allusions to and images from Plath’s work throughout the story (making for a nerdy delight for Plath fans), but even those not as familiar with the life and writing of Plath can gain entry to the story through MacLeod’s darkly evocative prose. In one of the story’s most excellent passages, MacLeod describes the village in which Plath’s resting place in located, detailing the modern changes that Plath, gone since 1963, would not be familiar with. In the story, MacLeod blends the shiny and orderly newness of modernity with the rich, ancient darkness of the English countryside forever pushing in at its edges:
Down the church path and through the gate, this bit of the village greets modernity with unexpectedly wide, perpendicular streets. Lawnmowers drone and dog walkers genuflect, their hands ritually sheathed in plastic. Somewhere a mobile incants ‘The Birdie Song’. Wild roses blow. The foxgloves rise, their pink mouths electric with bees. In suburban-esque gardens, clumps of forget-me-nots insist as delicately, and as forgettably, as they do every year. (They are pale things compared with the wild alkanet that has colonised your grave.) Near the start of the footpath, ferns uncurl, tentative as new foetuses, while a man in long shorts and socks is, even here, on the blunt edge of a dark valley, washing and waxing his Ford.
If you watch carefully, you’ll see the scenery of this village shake when the wind blows too hard. The symmetry of the newer streets is a hard-won make-believe.
In passages like the above, MacLeod taps into a dichotomy much more complex than man versus nature, hinting at the futile attempt the living make to create order and meaning while all the time a wild truth is slipping closer. The alkanet that grows on Plath’s grave becomes a metaphor for the late author herself, referencing her fierce work and her immortality through it: “Though classified as a weed, it is not so coarse that it lacks a Latin designation. Pentaglottis– ‘five-tongued’ –sempervirens–’always alive’.”
The story is set at the location of Plath’s grave, and as such the specter of her suicide and the domestic abuse allegations against her husband Ted Hughes can’t help but loom over the story, coloring and informing it with their weight. But MacLeod resists speculation and sensationalism, and one of the story’s remarkable qualities is how MacLeod takes Plath, literature’s patron saint of depressed girls, a writer overshadowed and defined by the nature of her death and the scandal of her marriage, and addresses her as Sylvia the woman, the ex-pat, the mother, the person who loved another person and was just as clueless as the rest of us about what her life would bring her, just as caught up in her “hard-won make-believe.” In one powerful scene, MacLeod imagines Plath in the landscape she loved best, back home in New England, with her husband at the beginning of their marriage, and the duality of her happiness here and the mournfulness of what we know is to come is haunting:
This is not the place for you. You need sea level. You’re a long way from the Cape Cod trance of Nauset’s crashing rollers. Right now, there’s no imagining you–wishing you–up to your elbows in rock pools, your hands rising with sand dollars, starfish and fiddler crabs. At night, you won’t don your red bikini for a swim in the flashing phosphorescent surf. The sand dunes and their long grasses won’t be disturbed by your body holding fast to his.
“Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld” comes from MacLeod’s new story collection All the Beloved Ghosts, out this month from Bloomsbury.
Logo art by Max Winter.