Monday, December 30, 2019

The haunting by Sylvia Plath: dreams, blood, fire


‘“Very bad dreams lately. One just after my period last week of losing my month-old baby: a transparent meaning. The baby formed just like a baby, only small as a hand, died in my stomach and fell forward: I looked down at my bare belly and saw the round bump of its head in my right side, bulging out like a burst appendix. It was delivered with little pain, dead. Then I saw two babies, a big nine-month one, and a little one-month one with a blind white-piggish face nuzzling against it; a transfer image, no doubt, from Rosalind’s cat and kittens a few days before: the little baby was a funny shape, like a kitten with white skin instead of fur. But my baby was dead. I think a baby would make me forget myself in a good way. Yet I must find myself”.

Besides dreaming about dead babies, Sylvia Plath also dreamed about men, with violent associations:

“Lousy dreams… The other night it was men in costume, bright cummerbunds, knickers and white blouses, having a penalty given them, and not carried out, and suddenly forty years later they were lined up, I saw them small in the distance, and a man with his back to me and a great sword in his hand went down the line hacking off their legs at the knees, whereupon the men fell down like ninepins with their leg stumps and lower legs scattered. I believe they were supposed to dig their own graves on their leg stumps. This is too much. The world is so big so big so big. I need to feel a meaning and productiveness in my life.”

Then there is this one, quite complicated, and about betrayal. Ted Hughes who left her for Assia Weevil, and she sometimes feared, potentially other women as well, and her father who she always felt a sense of betrayal over, for dying on her when she was only about ten:

“I dreamed the other night of running after Ted through a huge hospital, knowing he was with another woman, going into mad wards and looking for him everywhere: what makes you think it was Ted? It had his face but it was my father, my mother. I identify him with my father at certain times, and these times take on great importance: e.g., that one fight at the end of the school year when I found him not there on the special day...Isn’t this an image of what I feel my father did to me?...Images of his faithlessness with women echo my fear of my father’s relation with my mother and Lady Death.”

Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes found dreams fascinating and often recorded them, and placed great significance on them. For both of them, their experience of dreams were especially vivid. I don’t know why some people have more vivid dreams than others. Perhaps you need a great imagination to dream well. Or a restless nature. Virginia Woolf said ‘It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ Clearly Plath enjoyed interpreting her dreams.

The reason I speculate about this is because recently I had the most fantastic dream about Sylvia Plath. It is hardly surprising that I dreamt of her. I think about her often. She is a regular part of my wandering thoughts. I feel kinship of some kind with her, as a sort of affinity or obviously one-sided spiritual connection. It is a little embarrassing to admit this. Me, along with thousands of other impressionable people around the world. My feelings about her have existed for about 30 years or more, and sometimes it intensifies, especially when there is a new book, or new information about her. An example is the new collected letters of recent times, two thick volumes.
We are, effectively, a very short time apart. She died in ’63 and I was born in ’64. Yes, I am thinking about the possibility of reincarnation. Why not? We all have to fantasise about something. You may laugh, in fact I know you will. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t allow your incredulity to affect my enthusiasm for the idea. At any rate, I had this powerful dream about Sylvia Plath. It affected me to the core. It is the strangest dream I have ever had. I wish, more than anything, she could hover ghostily next to me, at my desk, breathing on me in her ghostly closeness, and marvel at what I am about to tell her. I know it would astound her. It would probably find itself into a new poem, possibly a part of her Ariel 2 collection, called ‘D’s bloodthirsty dream.’

‘It is night time, but light. All lit up by a bright, white moon. There is no yew tree in sight. I am in the front yard of old neighbours, Frances and Ralph. It is next door to where I once lived less than ten years ago. I have illustrious company. A few undefined friends, or maybe family, and Sylvia Plath, in her latter shorter-haired days. She is lingering in benign fashion at my elbow. The whole group is talking passively about the bottom of the fence and the fact that there are weeds growing up under it. The juxtaposition with what is about to happen is hilarious in a black, black way.
Suddenly there’s a change. I am transfixed on Plath. The rest of the world disappears. She is wearing an expansively malevolent grin. Her eyes are bright red as though they are on fire. Not bloodshot, but deeply troubling and alien. I knock her onto the ground in one punch. Something compels me to want to overtake her. Urgently. It is the look on her face. Have you seen The Exorcist? She is Regan-esque. Sylvia Plath is desperate to possess me. I am straddling her on all fours and banging her head onto the ground. Her mouth roars. Her skin is bright and her breath is sour. She wants to sit up with her red hair.

Somehow, I have a knife nearby. The situation is desperate. It is a long knife with a curved blade, perfect for gutting fish. I plunge the knife into Plath’s abdomen time and time again. The blood comes in thick waves. It is not Duncan’s ‘multitudinous seas’, nor is it thin and watery. It is like a thick crimson heavy soup. Naturally it disturbs the hell out of me. I am doing it out of necessity as I don’t wish to be possessed, but it doesn’t make it any easier.  I am not thinking of my literary hero, Sylvia Plath, rather this evil thing is more like evil Regan to me. She just happens to be Ms Plath, Ms Plath incarnate and at the same time inhuman and wanting desperately to possess me.’

Plath wrote about dreams a lot. She also wrote about blood a lot. I am thinking of the poem ‘Cut’ where she accidentally slices the top part of her thumb off and refers to the incident in this slightly macabre way:

‘What a thrill -
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.’

Well I am getting this ‘red plush’ myself here, the same blood it seems that she found when chopping an onion in 1962. But no ‘thrill’ for me. I don’t want to see it but I have no choice.

Plath famously referred to the writing of poetry as ‘the blood jet’ which cannot be stopped. She had miscarriages (and children) and heavy periods. Blood of course can symbolize life but it can also symbolize death. When she met Ted Hughes she reportedly bit his cheek so hard after he kissed her neck that blood ran down his face. This would mark the start of a new life-changing relationship. Then there is ‘Daddy’, her most famous poem:

‘If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you   
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.’

Well this is certainly getting closer to what I experienced the other night outside Frances and Ralph’s.

The next stage of this horror story which fills me with dread as I relate it as accurately as I can, is the fire. Somehow there was a box of Redheads at my disposal. Killing by knives wasn’t happening. It must be this supernatural thing. I distinctly remember that a knife was not enough to repel Dracula. So, in a frenzy, I started scratching match after match and applying them to Plath’s torso, in the same area where her deep and bloody gashes were. I don‘t remember having any access to petrol or anything flammable, but I remember her stomach lighting up and a rigorous fire scorching her, licking away, feeding upon her.

As in the case of blood, fire also interested Sylvia Plath. In ‘Burning the Letters’, she seems to be erasing the part of her life that is associated with her adulterer husband, Ted Hughes:

‘So, I poke at the carbon birds in my housedress.
They are more beautiful than my bodiless owl,
They console me--
Rising and flying, but blinded.
They would flutter off, black and glittering, they would be coal angels
Only they have nothing to say but anybody.
    I have seen to that.’

Fire can be devastating and it can be beautiful, or both at the same time. There is little doubt that it can annihilate. In ‘Fever 103’ Plath writes of ‘the tongues of hell’ and makes reference to ‘Hiroshima ash.’ In an interview she did with the BBC towards the end of her life, she remarked that:

‘… I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn't be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

These ‘bigger things’ thus include concentration camps, bombings, annihilations, killings, torture. From her own experience as a mental health patient in the 50’s, electroconvulsive therapy as described biographically in The Bell Jar:

'Doctor Gordon was unlocking the closet. He dragged out a table on wheels with a machine on it and rolled it behind the head of the bed. The nurse started swabbing my temples with a smelly grease. As she leaned over to reach the side of my head nearest the wall, her fat breast muffled my face like a cloud or a pillow. A vague, medicinal stench emanated from her flesh. "Don't worry," the nurse grinned down at me. "Their first time everybody's scared to death." I tried to smile, but my skin had gone stiff, like parchment. Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite. I shut my eyes. There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath. 

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done. '

As horrific as this experience is, I can’t help feeling my attempted murder (or mercy killing) experience of Sylvia Plath was worse- that is, SP and the Devil combined. I can’t remember if her eyes were still of a scorching red, possessive appearance, but I do know that the fire didn’t work. I tried my best to scorch her after trying to disembowel her with the knife, and at first I thought I had won.

Our small group of whoever it was left Frances and Ralph’s driveway and began the short walk to my old front entrance next door at number 63. Something made me glance up and take in my company. Here I was, reasonably confident that I had dismantled and destroyed Plath moments earlier, only to see her walking with the rest of us. Straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, and it must be said, The Exorcist, there was tall blonde-haired Sylvia walking along the fence, looking across at me, a malevolent grin of triumph spread across her face, number 63 bound, ready to resume her possessive torturing in my own house.

I shivered involuntarily with terrified expectation, and began screaming, enough to awaken my wife and thus end the most gorgeously thrillingly fearful dream of my entire life.        

No comments: