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                Tulips by Sylvia Plath

                The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
                Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
                I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
                As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
                I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
                I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
                And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

                They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
                Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
                Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
                The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
                They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
                Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
                So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

                My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
                Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
                They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
                Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
                My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
                My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
                Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

                I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
                stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
                They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
                Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
                I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
                Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
                I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

                I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
                To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
                How free it is, you have no idea how free——
                The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
                And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
                It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
                Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

                The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
                Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
                Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
                Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
                They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
                Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
                A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

                Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
                The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
                Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
                And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
                Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
                And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
                The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

                Before they came the air was calm enough,
                Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
                Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
                Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
                Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
                They concentrate my attention, that was happy
                Playing and resting without committing itself.

                The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
                The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
                They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
                And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
                Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
                The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
                And comes from a country far away as health.

Sylvia Plath, “Tulips” from Collected Poems.   Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath.

                                              ——~ O ~

                Tulips by Sylvia Plath

I read this with a big stupid smile on a long flight from Gran Canaria.   It is the third or fourth time I have read it. Some poems open like pockets when read additionally, enfoldingly.   And make you smile, stupidly, because you hadn’t realised how much there ever is in the very same journey being made in the reading.   How much more beautiful can something become: I am beginning to understand why Seymour Glass suffered from the utter-ness of beauty – how beauty can demand your respective and perspective extinction in its unfoldment if you are not too careful.   And Seymour Glass and Sylvia Plath were not too careful – what beauty they saw, how shocking (for us) to behold … if we are not careful.

              “The tulips are too excitable …”

ah, it has started, too quick, too late for me to define myself ‘perspectived’ from it – go with it, go with it, trust Sylvia, she went with it, she had no choice, she was ill (emergency appendectomy, recent miscarriage) it will be alright, she coped, she made … Beauty

                                                                     “… it is winter here.
                Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
                I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
                As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands …”

She let her self go, with the season and the walls and the quiet.   Relinquishing.   Liking it.   Finding a more stable existence than all of the rough contingency that perpetually leaves her off-balance. Being it: …

              “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
                I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
                And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.”

This is not morbidity or illness, this is rest (‘I have nothing to do with explosions’ – beautiful self-humour, the past tantrums and anger dressed as sophistication).   This is relief.   This is healthy: this most wonderful, laconic humour; she lets her self go then turns to look at what is left with a detachment and indulgence that you would have for your own child:

              “They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
                Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
                Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.”

This is so funny, and not merely because of the ‘pupil’ pun, a beautiful acceptance of how earnest those poets can be, looking at everything to take in its significance.   And having accepted herself in all her tragicomedy, what else to look at but the rest of the world:

              “The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
                They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
                Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
                So it is impossible to tell how many there are.”

‘… doing things with their hands’, having accepted the endearing stupidity of one’s own doings, then looking at the impersonal world, but with that same love – impartially, freshly, benignedly, resignedly.   So, what have I got in my thirty-year life so far?

              “My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
                Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
                They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
                Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
                My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
                My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
                Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

                I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
                Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
                They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
                Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
                I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
                Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
                I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.”

Watching all the emphemerality is where it gets uncomfortable – we’re not supposed to think this, are we?   Surely this is by what we define our value – you can’t renounce this, you can’t be born-again from this, you can’t give this up, that’s going too far!   But the realisation is implacable: you can’t lose one without the other (… the Tao that can be named, is not the eternal Tao).   If you fall short – one without the other – you lose the both.   If you grant your own lack of exigence, but not others’ lack, you lack compassion for them and your realisation is selfish and isolated.   If you grant the lack of exigence of other, but not your own, you are lost in pointlessness and your realisation is mad.   If you lack either compassion or wisdom you are foreshortened, even when whole release was so close.   This is where the carefulness is so crucial: calculated openness (which begs its own opening), or complete opening which takes no prisoners.

              “I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
                To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
                How free it is, you have no idea how free——
                The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
                And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
                It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
                Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.”

This is not morbid, this is not just what she is about – don’t foreshorten her.   This is a great yearning for the peace of not being entrapped.

This is where Sylvia falls short.   She can embrace her own extinction as escape from her painful world (the whole universe come to a single point of bright tulips in a vase), but she cannot pervade her realisation into the world; it keeps snagging her, they keep snagging her.   Nevertheless she is so beautiful in the candour which whimpers, ‘I can’t’:

              “The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
                Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
                Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
                Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
                They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
                Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
                A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.”

The others (her family, the world) are hooking onto her like Velcro; she cannot accept their non-exigency, only her own.   And to the extent that she cannot accept theirs she is losing her own self-realisation in relief, and becoming paranoid:

              “Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
                The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
                Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
                And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
                Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
                And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
                The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

                Before they came the air was calm enough,
                Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
                Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
                Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
                Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
                They concentrate my attention, that was happy
                Playing and resting without committing itself.

                The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
                The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
                They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
                And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
                Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
                The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
                And comes from a country far away as health.”

You can’t help but love the head of someone that glimpses beauty but is frightened by its implications, seemingly chained by the very things she is enamoured of in the belly of a dark cave.   I would hold her dear cranium, feel all of its connected weight …

 

 

 

————w(O)rmholes________________________________|—–

air & pointlessness wormhole: tag cloud poem VI – anyone’s eyes
beauty wormhole: old age
being & identity & poetry & shadow & thinking & world wormhole: the precision // the gentleness // and / the letting go
books & Sylvia Plath wormhole: ‘like a piece of ice on a hot stove / the poem must ride on its own melting’
breathing & love wormhole: our life
child wormhole: on
compassion wormhole: ‘n’
death & family & life wormhole: letters to Mum III – ongoing-term // eventually
eyes & reading & time wormhole: the air of architecture
faces & hands wormhole: city-centre-coffee-shop / talk
green wormhole: cold wind
light wormhole: St. Ludwigskirche
others & sun wormhole: movement
realisation wormhole: I will eventually drift tectonic
red wormhole: the poppies / of van Gogh
river & seagull wormhole: a riveral
silence wormhole: the Buddha head in an antique shop
sleep wormhole: my fidgety self
smile wormhole: no biggie:
tulip wormhole: honest
walls wormhole: deepening with each step
white wormhole: time
windows wormhole: waiting room
winter wormhole: no hat