The Plath Resolution
For the past year and a half I’ve been going to yoga every Friday morning. Before this I’d done maybe a handful of classes and every one had left me in a barbed, mutinous mood. It was uncomfortable! And crowded! And on a couple occasions a little like being in a relationship where you end up shouting things like, “Don’t tell me to calm down.” Then, last year, a friend of mine started to teach classes. She’s an old friend, very smart and accepting, and when she started teaching, I was especially creaky from laptop-hunching, and it seemed like a good time to re-try. At one of my first classes, she arranged me in mountain pose — if you’ve never done yoga, mountain pose is basically standing up straight, really, that’s it — and it hurt. I should probably add right up front that I remain near this beginner level, so this isn’t going to be a story of amazing yogic transformation, although it is with some triumph that I report that after a year and half of diligent attendance, I can kind of sort of touch my toes.
The class is held in a little donation studio near downtown. It’s a morning class and a lot of nice sunlight comes in through a big window at the front of the room. There are other regulars, and once in a while someone new and glossy will swoop in like a beautiful migratory bird that’s landed in the wrong lake. I’ve gotten attached to the sign in the bathroom that says, “Please be mindful when using paper towels,” which in this particular studio comes across less like New Age passive-aggression and more as if whoever made it was at a loss to say, in a non-harsh way, STOP USING SO MANY FUCKING PAPER TOWELS.
I think about Sylvia Plath a lot during yoga. I think about her during cat-cow stretches, which you do on hands and knees, arching and then rounding your back, cow to cat and back again, because of the line from “Morning Song”: “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral.” I think about her when it’s crowded and I have dickish thoughts about where other people put their mats. (Imagined journal entry: “His feet were too close. Broad, encroaching, pale peach.”) And I think about her sometimes during shavasana, or corpse pose, when I’m lying under my blanket, eyes closed, trying to touch nothingness. A long time ago I was a turbulent young woman, and, like so many other turbulent young women, the way I learned to express that — the violent unhappiness, the desire to throttle forward toward some Big Nothing — was through Plath. So it’s funny sometimes to be forty-three and lying in yoga class, under a nap-time blanket, in a roomful of people under their nap-time blankets, everyone snug as mice and thinking about being corpses.
Sometimes, of course, I don’t think about Plath. I’ll spend the entire time fretting about what I’m writing that week or if where I parked was okay. Not long after I started, I went through a two-month period of being plagued by the Hamm’s Beer jingle. In case you didn’t grow up in the upper Midwest in the ’70s, this is how it goes:
From the land of sky blue waters (waters!)
From the land of pines, lofty balsams
Comes the beer refreshing
Hamm’s the beer refreshing
Hamm’s the beer refreshing (Hamm’s)
We’d get near the end of the class, the teacher would dim the lights, I’d lie back on my mat and close my eyes, thinking, “Don’t think about Hamm’s don’t think about Hamm’s don’t think about Hamm’s,” and it’d work as well as it ever works when you tell yourself to absolutely not think about something.
In her excellent essay “Black Girls Don’t Read Sylvia Plath,” Vanessa Willoughby writes about how her “environment and my fuzzy state of mind drove me into the waiting arms of Plath. We didn’t talk about depression or mental illness in my family.” She continues: “I needed a patron saint of suffering, of potential cruelly wasted. The public library wasn’t going out of their way to stock Toni Morrison or bell hooks or Angela Davis or Nikki Giovanni or Alice Walker or Lorraine Hansberry or Zora Neale Hurston by the truckload. … Why Plath? Why not? She exposed a dirty truth about depression: Sometimes it never got better. Sometimes you could be brilliant and have the world open its mouth to reveal a pearl and you still crumbled.”
I have my own Plath stack that I re-read whenever I’m feeling especially stuck and unhappy. So once, sometimes twice a year? The routine goes: Journals first, then some Plath biographies, while looking up the different poems mentioned in The Collected Poems. (The Collected Poems is arranged by year so you can jog along with her development.) There are many other things that could be rotated in too — Ariel Restored, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” “Ocean 1212-W,” and The Bell Jar (duh) — but I usually don’t hit those. The current biography line-up is the Anne Stevenson one, Bitter Fame; Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (which deals with how Bitter Fame got written and is perfect), and Diane Middlebrook’s amazing Her Husband. After Her Husband I sometimes flip to Ted Hughes’ poems and letters, with maybe a little sleazy Google work thrown in. It’s compulsive, this ritual, and, because I’ve been doing it for so many years, ridiculous. It makes me feel like one of the poor guys who write into Dan Savage because they’ve masturbated with a death grip too long. “Dear Dan, this started when I was a teenager and now I CAN’T STOP.” But it’s also the only thing that always works to get me going again.
I feel a lot of love, affection and gratitude for Plath, mixed in with the admiration for her work. I’m not sure if I’d known her if I’d have liked her. Sometimes I think “yes,” sometimes “no.” She occupies such a central place in my mind, though, that the question mostly seems beside the point, like worrying about whether the planet Jupiter is likeable or not. (“Jupiter ate all the foie-gras in Dido Merwin’s fridge and didn’t even say thank you once.”)
There’s a lovely section in Anne Stevenson’s biography where she talks about “Poem For A Birthday,” That’s the poem that has this bit in it:
I housekeep in Time’s gut-end
Among emmets and mollusks,
Duchess of Nothing,
It’s a seven-part poem, and Stevenson shows how its sequence goes in a horseshoe from death back to life. The part I quoted comes in the swamp-y tail of the poem, where, as Stevenson writes, “a process of self-’borning’” is taking place.
This is the Plath poem I relate the most to shavasana. You sink down, you bubble back up. The Duchess of Nothing in yoga pants.
One Friday last spring, I woke up in a foul mood. No reason. I just woke up a human gargoyle. I considered skipping yoga because there was going to be a substitute teacher but talked myself into going anyway. (“Those toes aren’t going to touch themselves you know.”) It was a grey, stuffy morning, and the entire drive I was thinking a stream of fuckity-fuck-fuck gargoyle thoughts. At one point I drove past a line of Bradford pear trees in bloom, and got offended by how ugly and dirty-snowball-looking they were, and thought, “FUCK BRADFORD PEAR TREES.” And then I marched into class and my two usual mat buddies weren’t there, but it was still crowded because of a teacher training thing and everyone had their mats in random sideways positions even though staying in rows clearly allows more people to fit and the studio smelled like a lunchroom for some reason and who was that gargoyle woman with her freaking undies in a bunch about how other people arrange their mats OH THAT’S ME. (That’s part of what’s so terrible about that kind of mood — knowing you are the most hideous person in the room.) Then the teacher started class and she didn’t cue how my friend cues and she did things in a different order and she had a kind of sing-song hippie drawl and my body felt especially creaky and so I was taking the improvisational nature of her cuing as a sort of personal attack as well as a general affront against beginning yoga students everywhere. And sometimes I was sliding around my mat, and other times I was sticking to it, and at some point we were in downward facing dog and it was super uncomfortable and I thought, “FUCK GRAVITY. I mean, seriously, FUCK GRAVITY.”
Right after this, she looked up and said, “You need to make friends with gravity.” Then she looked significantly in my direction. (I continue to hope this was simply a good body-read and not ESP.)
Later we were doing cat-cow stretches, and she was asking us to add a lion’s breath with it, where you stick out your tongue and roll your eyes up in your head as you exhale, and I liked how she let herself look bizarre when she did this, just going for it, with her eyes zoink-os, and as we continued with the cat-cowing, she arched her neck up and said, in her stretched-out hippie voice:
“Sip the NECTARRRRR.”
It was really wonderful.
There’s that famous part of The Bell Jar where the character Esther says: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor…” And so on, down the figs.
And then there’s this, from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom were in the branches.” A few pages later, Janie’s lying in her backyard, looking up at a blossoming pear-tree and watching the bees dip in and out: “From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snow virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why?”
Then a couple decades go by and next thing you know you’re speeding past a row of trees in bloom on your way to morning yoga, thinking, “FUCK BRADFORD PEAR TREES.”
Probably my favorite things in Plath’s journals are the resolutions and to-do lists. God, I love those lists! If you chopped me open, I’d be half made of them. Here’s one:
Try a first-person story and forget John Updike and Nadine Gordimer. Forget the results, the markets. Love only what you do, and make. Learn German. Don’t let indolence, the forerunner of death, take over. Enough has happened, enough people entered your life, to make stories, many stories, even a book. So let them onto the page and let them work out their destinies.
In the morning light, all is possible; even becoming a god.
So that’s what now? Oh yes!:
• Learn German.
• Don’t let indolence, the forerunner of death, take over.
The resolve to learn German crops up for the first time while she’s an undergraduate at Smith and debating which classes to take. (Her father, dead a decade by then, was German, so it was always a loaded resolution.) During the next few years, “learn German” disappears, then re-surfaces, disappears, re-surfaces. (Diane Middlebrook points out that it comes up most when Plath was feeling stuck.) During a residency at Yaddo — where she wrote “Poem for a Birthday” but was otherwise stalled — it gets mentioned again and again:
“I haven’t done German since I came.” “Either draw or do German.” Then: “German and French would give me self respect, why dont I act on this.”
A week later: “Worked on German for two days, then let up when I wrote poems. Must keep on with it. It is hard. So are most things worth doing.” Admirable! Followed by this tumble down: “If I can’t build up pleasures in myself: seeing and learning about painting, old civilizations, birds, trees, flowers, French, German… what shall I do? … To give myself respect, I should study botany, birds and trees: get little booklets and learn them, walk out in the world. Open my eyes.” (I love that desperate little “study botany, birds and trees: get little booklets.” Get little booklets, also maybe look into enrolling in Earthsea Wizarding Academy so you can learn the true names of every flower, herb, animal, and pebble.) The entry continues with a few other ideas of how she might improve herself before she winds up at the inevitable: “Take German lessons where I am, and read French.”
Four days later: “Take hold. Study German today.”
I have my own versions of “learn German.” Resolutions and resolves I keep rattling around with, magical transformations I keep hoping for. Or, to go to Hurston’s formulation, looking at the “things done and undone” in my life and flogging myself over the “undone” column. Sometimes I can see that better self — she’s never awkward, and she somehow managed a couple babies in her thirties and wrote a couple brilliant books, and she has friends over on weekends for wonderful dinners, and she knows the names of all the birds and trees. Etc. etc. So far in this essay I’ve been trying to keep the Beginner Yoga Student thoughts to a minimum (you’re welcome!), but I’d say the most helpful thing that going to class each week has given me is a sense that a) it’s okay to have these kinds of thoughts and resolutions and b) it’s also okay to let them go. It’s going to be a New Year soon. You don’t have to learn German.
Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.