"I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between."
It was Sylvia Plath’s ricocheting that first intrigued me. Perhaps her life dance, a momentary movement between light and dark.
Plath’s passion towards writing was a fixation that continually collided and grew momentum with her depression–she was tortured by her mind, and trapped in introspection.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath– it’s a big book and the font is small. It becomes a companion...an extension to our selves. I read a few more passages then look up at Christina, her delicate face shadowed by the trees. She smiles sweetly, she understands.
"Is there no way out of the mind?"
The ones we gravitated towards die by their own hands, writers of magnificent literary talent, all plagued by the pain of being alive. In a world of veneered personalities, these writers make us feel less alone. Their minds were jagged, holding secrets behind every crevice. We found the impossible task of trying to uncover these secrets intoxicating. Perhaps this is why Plath was a welcomed obsession, and why Christina is my friend.
People say when you’re obsessed with something, anything—a number or a word—you see it everywhere. It’s not because it is everywhere but because it’s in your head, and you subconsciously look for it. I had to wonder if the universe was feeding my Plath obsession for a reason, and why with every page turned, my life seemed to be veering closer to hers.
Much like the number phenomena, numerous articles on Plath began to catch my attention. One of which was a review of Sylvia: the spoken word, a recording of her poetry for BBC in 1961. Of course I wanted to play the recording. It was a way to get closer to her, view her as a human and not a concept in my mind. Plath’s voice mimicked my own in my head, and I liked it that way. Maybe I wanted her to remain voiceless. Would the sound of her poetry break the allure? I couldn’t resist, I played ‘A Birthday Present’.
"If you only knew how the veils were killing my days."
Writer Jennifer Romolini describes the recording, “But more than anything…no matter how intense our literary obsessions – we would never really know her at all.” In an attempt to become closer to Plath, she was distanced further from us. The sound of her voice became an elusive veil over her mind.
"Why is it that I find it so difficult to accept the present moment, whole as an apple, without cutting and hacking at it to find a purpose, or setting it on a shelf with other apples to measure its worth or trying to pickle it in brine to preserve it, and crying to find it turns all brown and is no longer simply the lovely apple I was given in the morning?"
I had shelves filled with brown apples, rows and rows of them. It was yet another day and I sat on the train, the river either side of me, and Plath’s journals on my lap. A life of introspection doesn’t bode well for a ripe fruit basket, I thought as the train careened through the shadows. I wondered why we couldn’t just see fruit as fruit, devouring them sweetly as they were. We always managed to find the crooked tile on the shiny floor.
"Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted."
Throughout her life, Plath “attempted to cast herself as a female Iacarus, desperately aspiring upwards towards perfection—an abstraction—that she knew impossible to achieve” says Andrew Wilson author of Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. Plath wanted to experience everything and her attempts enriched her, albeit made for a hard balance between studious solitude and social interaction.
"I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited."
We felt these limits and impossibilities too. We wanted to know everything. We wanted to do everything. Christina and I made incessant lists of all the beautiful things we wanted to see, all the important books we had to read. Sometimes it felt like a futile attempt at achieving an impossible horizon. Every time we failed at reaching our own expectations, we fell face first into disappointment.
"I am a victim of introspection."
We lived mostly in our heads, and we felt things deeply. Although our sensitivity was at the root of our pain, it made us creative. We noticed things. Creativity is often connected to sensitivity, and perhaps art is a way for creative people to express the darkness of human existence. Intense introspection, self-criticism, narcissism, and isolation is said to drive writers towards insanity.
Creative people in artistic professions are more likely to have a mental illness than those in more pragmatic careers, says Arnold M. Ludwig. Were writers attracted to the art of writing because of their melancholic affect? Did the art of immersion and self-reflection perpetuate their illness?
Writer of The Savage God: The Study of Suicide, A. Alvarez says “the more directly an artist confronts the confusions of experience, the greater the demands on his intelligence.” Art is a way of reorganising life and interpreting experience, which is of course a comfort in many ways, but it’s also at great risk because as the artist commits to exploring the truths of his inner life, an acute discomfort proceeds. In other words, the deeper we look the sadder we become.
I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.
Along with sensitivity, dangerous distractions seem to be synonymous with writers. It masks suffering and discomfort, or at least, distracts us from depth of thought. I, too, like a moth to a flame, seemed to be incessantly attracted to things that would damage me. Despite my urge of crawling into a ball and never unfolding myself, I thrust myself into temptation once again. I was house-sitting my boss's house in the city, and being near so much activity electrified my veins. Distractions, distractions, all I needed to do was engage.
So, S came over. We had a drink in the courtyard. I became fuzzy, relaxed. I felt myself open—open to an experience, any experience. Like Plath, I wanted to “feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience"–so the wine blurred my edges, my restrictions faded and I was suspended in air. I was a shapeless form.
“Let’s get on the roof”, S said.
“The roof” was the roof of the apartment block that overlooked the courtyard of my boss's house. We were high up in the sky, and it was quiet. There was something about looking down, observing without partaking, as if we were leaving "the game" for a while.
“Someone said to me yesterday, ‘What do you think you’ll be like when you’re 70?’, I said ‘I don’t want to live until I’m 70. I’m done with this shit already.’”
S said this while looking above the maroon tiles to the sky, an omnipotent character, wise but pessimistic. I looked down along the map of roads below.
“It certainly gets tiring down there.”
We were still for a while then.
“Let’s promise not to take anyone else up here. It’s our place.”
“Okay, it’s our place” I said.
I took Christina up the next night. Again, I was blurred by red wine, my outline beginning to fade. We listened to Plath’s recording again. The words held more weight up there, and Plath’s voice clung to the air. It felt like some candlelight vigil, and an expression of life’s sadness.
"Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it, or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to."
There are moments I will only be able to reflect through my senses, unable to express through adjectives. Subconscious plights in escaping my inevitable dissent; the slow dance between contentment and despair.
"Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow."
I walk home, beaten and defeated. A shell of my former self, exhausted from feelings of elation. I am everywhere and anywhere at any given moment. I don’t have the clarity to dissect it all. I doubt I ever will.
I get to my front door, and lying against it is a paper bag. There’s a photo clipped to the side of Christina and I, standing together with our backs to the camera watching a fairy light sculpture in King’s Park. “Our inspiration, not our fate” is written on the back. I slowly take a book out — Sylvia Plath: Drawings.
"The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence."
I start feeling nothing. I start feeling disconnected. “I am terrified by this dark thing. That sleeps in me”, Plath wrote in her poem Elm. I can feel it rise up in me, a deep silence gnawing at my skin.
"I have been, and am, battling depression…. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching and constricting my heart."
Plath’s owl clenches at my chest, as I sit outside in my usual chair with the morning coffee I used to enjoy. There is an unidentified carcass sitting beside me, something the cat must’ve have killed, and I move as to not see the ants feeding on its sagging skin. I knew it was there this morning, waiting for me, rotting in its own self, becoming something ugly, a fleshless mound of insides.
"Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil"
Every morning I spin the wheel, and how do I feel? How to describe this feeling? It’s shapeless and abstract, a void and a vacuum sucking the life out of me. I fought hard to stay in the tide but I’m flailing now. There’s a veil over my eyes, and everything is grey. Is this the Plath parallel? If only I could let down the veil.
I walk, and I walk to get better. I listen to Plath’s recording of Tulips, “The vivid tulips eat my oxygen,” she says. I see vivid colour too, and the brightness that surrounds me has a mocking air. “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here” and it’s winter inside me, and all of Plath’s words echo my own. I, like Plath, suck at the paps of darkness, starving, and it all seems dissatisfying.
“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today.”
“There, there,” said Piglet.
“I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
I go back inside and make tea and honey, sipping slowly and hoping it will fulfill me.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well"
Writer Kate Moses says that Plath’s journals uncover a “maddeningly fragmented woman as an integrated being.” I disagree; to me they uncover no such thing. Despite the beauty of her words, Plath’s journals only highlight the brokenness of her, and the pieces of all of us that seem to lay on the floor unattended to—the unfixable.
"The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it."
It’s those tiny little pieces that become unbearable, I think. All those pieces, tarnished and broken. Endless examples of how we were less than whole. Reasoning through positivity, always pointless and obsolete.
“If I commit suicide, it will not be to destroy myself but to put myself back together again” said poet Antonin Artraud. In Plath’s poem Edge written in the last few days of her life, Plath wrote, “The woman is perfected. Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment.” Suicide seems to reach wholeness, and an escape of the broken pieces they cannot mend.
"Flew off like the hat of a doll
When I fell out of the light. I entered
The stomach of indifference, the wordless cupboard."
“The world doesn’t stop does it? It just keeps on going…”
“Did you say that because of the cars passing on the bridge?”
I look ahead, following S’s eyes towards the cars, like little shots of activity overhead. I can almost feel the people inside each vehicle, their thoughts entirely their own, worrying about things they can’t change, trapped in their own little bubbles.
“Yeah, and the lights.”
We could see the lights across the river. I couldn’t help but wonder who was working late in those offices high up in the air. I had always wondered that, and I tell S so.
I can feel the heat of S’s body. It’s like a mist, fighting against the cold air reflected off the river’s edge. I feel a pang of “living”, which is more than I’ve felt for a while.
I’m glad we came here. The river is an idiosyncrasy of “Perth” I take for granted, a kind of landscape that is just there, always, and never changing. But it does change, and I begin to realise that I prefer it at night; the blackness, a shade of Perth I’m not used to; ominous, mysterious, a foreboding which calms me.
“How long will it take me to get better?”
“Two steps forward, one step back. It takes time.”
I sigh frustratingly, but I know he knows. He knows what a pain this all is, and tonight the river is a witness, trying its hardest to swallow the jagged edges.
"I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address."
I have an invisible rope connected to the inside of me, pulling me to the floor. It’s the heaviness I can’t accept.
“Go to your letter box, I left something there for you.”
I sit for a few moments. It’s awhile before I stir. The night sits in the aftermath of rain, dampness clings to the air, and the socks I have been wearing for days are now wet.
In the letter box there’s a note, “Love Christina.”
A bracelet is in the fold. I look inside, and something is engraved.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart…”
I am, I am, I am.