Personal Essay: Looking For Sylvia

I think I first met her in a dream-she, a teenager and I, a child. We must have sat in the park, among the narcissi and azaleas, or on a beach, soaking up the sun, with a picnic basket filled with half-eaten sandwiches between us.

Both of us must have been wearing black—she, a flimsy sleeveless number and I, a frock. Strangely enough, we weren’t sweating. We were laughing that careless way, sisters do. She was telling me all about her life, her first suicide attempt, her boyfriends and I was devouring her every syllable like gossip.

“And I’ll put it all down, all the details in a book,” she was saying, “so that even if you forget this dream, you can still read the book and remember it.”

I think we smiled at each other, before we dissolved in color and light beneath that strange, summer sun.

Later, when I’m a teenager and I recall her or reread the same dog-eared pages of her roman-a-clef novel, The Bell Jar, I feel almost too powerfully that I’m remembering the details of a past life. I feel as though I was born somewhere else and an evil magician cut my soul in two, and put one half into this vessel and sailed me away to a different century, while my other half, shattered with the hopeless longing, finally stuck her head, inside the oven, gasping for air (the play turned tragic).

True, inside this cosmic bell jar, the air indeed is putrid. Asphyxiating. I recall her words, spoken in a dream or written over half a century ago, and I can sense her beautiful white fingers fumbling on a rusty typewriter and her tear-muffled voice whispering, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”. It is in moments like these that I wonder, which of us is real,-that genius poet who committed suicide or her other shadowy half, trapped in me?

When I told my friends about my secret soul sister, they were unimpressed. I had trouble translating the metaphors and dreams into coherent words and sentences. “It’s like,” I explained, “someone took my anger, my angst, my life, sucked the very spirit out of it and transmuted it all into poetry.”

“You mean she can read your mind?” one of them asked.

“It’s the way sisters can often anticipate each other’s reactions and understand each other,” I replied.

“Oh, empathy,” another concluded.”That’s the mark of any good author.”

Ignoring my crestfallen look, the conversation moved onto about how I discovered her. Everyone has their special story about how they discovered their favorite author, they said. In that half-lit, half-empty classroom, shimmering in February sunlight, our voices sounded strangely distant. The tulips on the teacher’s desk were rotting, as though some invisible canker was sucking the crimson from their hearts.

But, I never had a special story, I never discovered her. I just instinctively knew her the way I know that the people in the photograph on my bedside table are my parents and the person in the mirror is me. Though sometimes I’m slightly unsure about the latter.

You must have come across her in a book, is the general conjecture. But I did not. I have known her since childhood almost like an imaginary friend, and I have checked all the books, all the illustrated encyclopedias and none of them contained any of the alarming details of her personal life that I knew by heart. My dad wasn’t that fond of poetry and my mum swore she didn’t take up American literature for her Master’s, and in those strange internet-less growing up years, I never had that circle of brothers-sisters-uncles-aunts who could have told me the life history of a Confessional Poet.

“The life history or the untimely death?” asks a small voice inside my head. It was the naked truth about her suicide that I was most, inexorably drawn to.

A cold February morning. Her children asleep. Sylvia locking the kitchen, sealing all the cracks with torn scraps of cloth(The air mustn’t get through and poison her children). Then, the carbon monoxide from the oven ensnaring her veins and lulling her to sleep. Finishing her off.
There was a certain irony to her death, almost poetic. She had never wanted to be a housewife (like me).

The woman who styled herself as Lady Lazarus never rose again though she prophesized she would. (Out of the ashes I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air) Her husband meanwhile, burnt her last two journals, and became the Poet Laureate. Some claim it was he who killed her.

The loneliness of the abyss (this dark ceiling without a star) killed her, I tell myself.

I can reach out to the child who played the piano and loved watercolors. I can reach out to the girl who almost drowned at ten. I can reach out to the girl who won a writing contest and went to New York to work as a guest editor for a fashion magazine. I can reach out to the girl who was heart-broken because she couldn’t meet Dylan Thomas. I can reach out to the girl whose boyfriend cheated on her. I can reach out to the girl who filled “page after page with villanelles and sonnets” in a dull chemistry class.

I can even reach out to her in the darkness of a dirty, dusty basement, where she lay, like a mutilated puppet, as the sleeping pills and the earthworms wove their magic somewhere beneath her skin, somewhere beyond.

But I cannot, I can never reach out to Sylvia Plath in those last moments, because she’d sealed herself from me, from everyone, from herself, in another parallel dimension, a terrible underworld of sorts, as though she was buried deep in the bottom of an ancient well, and I,was at the edge, holding out my hand  to the icy, frigid darkness.

A veil, a veil always separated us.

I can’t describe the veil.

Imagine if you can, “the diaphanous satins of a January window.”Or imagine Death. Or imagine the Bell Jar, with myself inside it, looking for a crack in the glass to slip through. Or waiting for the moment it will hang suspended and I can breathe the air from beyond. And she, with her blonde curls and shining eyes, having escaped via a secret passageway she discovered herself, and waving at me, from the other side.

It’s her, really, I’m sure, outside the bell jar, because I’ve looked for her, everywhere else, in all the rabbit holes and basements and I never found her as though she was there, lurking in the shadow of the azalea bushes or just behind me, but disappearing every time I turned to look.
It’s like chasing a shadow.

Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.

Poems cited:
i. Conversation Among The Ruins
ii. Lady Lazarus
iii. Child
iv. A Birthday Present
(All from The Collected Poems Of Sylvia Plath)

Other italicized quotes from The Bell Jar
Previously published in Quail Bell Magazine



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s