Thursday, May 26, 2005

SALT's final issue / Part 3 [Rosmarie Waldrop, John Mateer, Chris McDermott, Susan Bradley Smith]

[edited by John Kinsella]

Rosmarie Waldrop


What goes on in my mind? A hidden music? Not yet audible. Or only with large gaps. The winds imprisoned in the bag drown out the sirens.

When I expect you to come does the whole system vibrate? Does your entrance show dust moving, phosphorescent nothings in the light of dream? I’ll watch your lips as if I were deaf.

Embedded in Christianity is the view of woman as either mother or whore. The idea of a Pagan goddess produces an electric difficulty to integrate. A well poisoned by a dead animal?

The expectation of your kiss seems like a shadow of feeling your mouth just as this sentence seems like a shadow of love is never what we expect, but like pain makes no detour.

If we exchange smile for smile and a stare for the hypnotist is an explosion likely to follow?

Can I spotcheck whether I’m in love? In the temporal lobe? In Anna Karenina?

Psychology has neglected the role of elbows in a woman’s identity. Unlike the wings that are removed at birth. Or the sense of death that music arouses even as it forms.

It seems we want to exhibit our love. As if it were something outside us. A wolf come out of the forest whistling? A tune we need to translate tongue to tongue?

If I am asked, do I understand its long drawn-out arcs all promise? I have to say, Not yet.


John Mateer


3. Nanzen-ji

The crouching amateur photographers, with that enthusiasm,
have set up their cameras, telescopic lenses tilted skyward targeting
the small maple, that one branch overhanging
the canal of white noise that's streaming down from the mountain.

Its leaves are a vermilion incandescence,
blood vessels in a blushing, transparent face.

The colour of the momentary,
that's what they're fixing out there in the blinding world.
Could you do that?

Behind my eyes,
         a geisha in the crowd at the Saturday night traffic-lights,
her kimono a golden brocade landscape, her skin a primal white.
The sexual is a binding, a garden behind thick stone walls.

         And also behind my eyelids,
kidnapped by the visible--a strobelight's staccato,
the ochre-white Aboriginal man
         stamping in the talc dust.
You are nearing the Place of Nothingness,

         (the Ancient Capital before its fires,
a world floating on the canals and rivers
that pull our images away)

Go further--

4. Shijo-dori

The crouching amateur photographers, with that enthusiasm,
have set up their cameras, telescopic lenses tilted skyward targeting
the small maple, that one branch overhanging
the canal of white noise that's streaming down the mountain.

Its leaves are a vermillion incandescence,
blood vessels in a blushing, transparent face.

The colour of the momentary,
that's what they're photographing out there in the blinding world.
Would you dare do that?

Behind my eyes,
         the geisha in the crowd at the Saturday night traffic-lights,
her kimono a golden brocade landscape, her skin a primal white.
The sexual is a binding, the garden behind ancient stone walls,

a place of emptiness,

         (the Ancient Capital before its fires,
a world floating on the canals and rivers
that pull our images away)

5. Ponto-cho

She's refilling my glass with Jinro while the proprietor is mashing
the raw egg and spicy sauce into the rice for me. Outside
the neon signs are looking for their reflections on the sides of polished taxis
and the unlit shrine for a beheaded family withdraws from street-side conversation.

She's talking to me: 'Kampai!' The quiet proprietor returns my
bowl. She's saying: 'This is her way: from Korea . . .'
They nod, would say other things.

         The two men at the counter speak better English.

An everyday thing, how to eat your food.
They would have said--.

With the metal chopsticks, with restful deliberation,
I eat as though

         (the Ancient Capital had never been on fire,
had always been that world on the canals and rivers
pulling our images away)


Chris McDermott


Throughout Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and Howls & Whispers, his subsequent collection of eleven poems about his relationship with Sylvia Plath, Hughes struggles to understand whether or not Plath's death could have been prevented. That Hughes had pondered, for decades, his role in her death came as a surprise to some readers who saw Hughes as a callous and domineering prison guard, responsible for driving Plath to her suicide yet unwilling to admit culpability. However, many such critics were by no means appeased by Birthday Letters, which overwhelmingly suggests that the ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of fate. With Howls & Whispers, Hughes does little to challenge that view. In fact, he addresses possible inconsistencies or ambiguities in Birthday Letters, revising them to bring them more clearly in concert with the rest of the volume.

A telling example of this effort appears in both manuscript and published versions of “The Minotaur 2,” the Howls & Whispers sequel to “The Minotaur” in Birthday Letters. Hughes, who often wrote about the poet as a kind of shaman or witch doctor, and about poetry as a medium for achieving healing, changes his view of Plath's potential to cure herself through her art. As such, he no longer portrays her as a failure in this regard, but as a victim, helpless to alter her destiny. Poetry as catharsis was an important concept to Hughes throughout his entire career. His 1962 essay, “Primitive Song,” for example, compares poetry to “power-charms, tools and practical agents in the business of gaining desired ends, or deflecting the spirits of misfortune from planting their larvae in the psyche . . .” (Faas, 168). Near the end of his life, in a Paris Review interview published in the spring of 1995, Hughes gets asked his opinion of the label “confessional poetry,” and gives his view of the damaging consequences of avoiding the confessional:
. . . Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of…The real mystery is this strange need . . . Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe, if you don't have that secret confession, you don't have a poem--don't even have a story. Don't have a writer . . . [Plath] had to write those things--even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life, but she had to get them out. She had to tell everybody, like those Native American groups who periodically told everything that was wrong and painful in their lives in the presence of the whole tribe. It was no good doing it in secret; it had to be done in front of everybody else. Maybe that's why poets go to such lengths to get their poems published. It's no good whispering them to a priest or a confessional. And it's not for fame, because they go on doing it after they've learned what fame amounts to. No, until the revelation's actually published, the poet feels no release . . .

The statement that Plath “died before she knew what [her later confessional writings] were going to do to her life” suggests that they would have been damaging for her, “against her most vital interests,” but that she might have been “released” if she had survived to see them published. If one were to look for evidence in Birthday Letters to support the claim that Hughes believed Plath was responsible for her death--due to a withholding of what she should have confessed earlier--“The Minotaur” offers an excellent place to start. The poem describes Plath's outburst after Hughes arrives “Twenty minutes late for baby-minding.” She smashes an heirloom of his mother's--a mahogany table-top--to which Hughes answers, “'Marvellous!' I shouted. 'Go on, / Smash it into kindling. / That's the stuff you're keeping out of your poems!'” Perhaps, Hughes suggests, such violent acts could be made unnecessary if poetry can intervene and shift the impetus for violence out of the realm of the repressed. Hughes further suggests that once one creates the walls of one's own labyrinth, similar to William Blake's “mind-forg'd manacles,” death at the hands of the Minotaur cannot be far behind.

In “The Minotaur 2,” however, Hughes absolves Plath of the responsibility for creating the walls of the labyrinth. This can most clearly be seen in the revision from the manuscript draft to the final published version. In the draft, Hughes tells Plath that she was led by a skein of blood “To the centre of your labyrinth,” whereas she was never out of the labyrinth in the final version, which says she was led “Not out of the labyrinth / But to the very centre.” The distinction is crucial and consistent with other revisions Hughes makes throughout the poem. The draft version contains the phrase “Our secret quarrel,” which suggests that the couple shared private knowledge of its origins. This, however, becomes “The surreal mystery of our picnic quarrel” in the final version, where presumably only the gods know the cause. This is consistent with “St Botolph's” in Birthday Letters, for example, where Hughes refers to “That day the solar system married us / Whether we knew it or not.” Whether their relationship takes a turn for the better or for the worse, Hughes indicates, neither the beneficiaries nor the victims of fate can do much about it, and in fact might not even sense it happening. In draft, Hughes has also crossed out the phrase “Your opening performance,” which could be interpreted as suggesting that Plath was merely an actress in a display of inauthenticity. The final version, however, tells her that it was “The surreal mystery” of their quarrel that “Opened your performance quietly.” Plath thus becomes the recipient of the action, and not the originator. The line “That was how your whole tragedy opened” is also crossed out, and it does not seem a stretch to assume, in light of the other changes in the poem, that Hughes probably felt uncomfortable with the omniscience assumed by such a statement.

In the third stanza of the draft, “For a while I never even noticed” replaces “That first night,” which Hughes has crossed out. Just as with “secret quarrel” becoming “surreal mystery,” Hughes continues to revise toward a state of less knowing. In fact, Hughes has entirely omitted the line in the published version, offering the possibility that he may never have noticed. The same stanza has the word “twisted” crossed out, most likely because of its extremely negative connotation and association with a state of mind that could be untwisted, if only through an act of will.

In the final stanza, Hughes makes a critical revision in verb tense. The draft reads “Where the Minotaur / Which waited to kill you, would kill you.” In the final version, this becomes “Where the Minotaur, which was waiting to kill you, / Killed you.” It appears as if Hughes wanted to avoid an interpretation of “would kill you” that would focus not on the future subjunctive, but on the conditional. If Plath's fate were already waiting for her, like the Minotaur, and if she was helpless to take down the predetermined walls of her labyrinth, then there were no conditions under which she might be saved. It was not a question of if, therefore, but only of when.

The final version of “The Minotaur 2” revises not only its manuscript draft and not only its predecessor in Birthday Letters, but also statements Hughes made about Plath on numerous occasions after her death, and even statements Plath herself made about her own inability to free herself of what she felt were unbearable constraints. As Erica Wagner quotes in Ariel's Gift, Hughes wrote the following regarding Plath's method of writing:
Nothing refreshed her more than sitting for hours in front of some intricate pile of things laboriously delineating each one. But that was also a helplessness. The blunt fact killed any power or inclination to rearrange it or see it differently.
(Wagner, 21)

And this helplessness was also apparent to Plath, who wrote the following in her journal in 1959:
I shall perish if I can write about noone [sic] but myself. Where is my old bawdy vigor and interest in the world around me? I am not meant for this monastery living. Find always traces of passive dependence: on Ted, on people around me. A desire even while I write poems about it, to have someone decide my life, tell me what to do, praise me for doing it. I know this is absurd. Yet what can I do about it?
(Plath, 523)

Ultimately, Hughes appears to view his role not as someone who might have been a catalyst for Plath's suicide, but as someone who believed he might have had the means to prevent it, only to determine, ultimately, that there was nothing anyone could have done.

Hughes' interest in mythology often led him to search for parallels in human lives, and he strongly believed that Plath's life resembled the story of the Minotaur. In his 1976 essay, “Myth and Education,” Hughes writes about how people throughout the world have developed mythologies incredibly similar at their core. He says, “They are as alike as the lines on the palm of the human hand . . .” (Faas, 193). This statement has a stunning connection to the final poem in Howls & Whispers, “Superstitions,” which concludes
                   Let them laugh
At your superstition.

(Remembering it will make your palms sweat,
The skin lift blistering, both your lifelines bleed.)

The two lifelines, it appears, could be the facts of Plath's life and Hughes' attempts to understand them in terms of mythology and fate. They are both part of the same hand, with inseparable destinies.

“On all points of uncertainty, we give the Universe the benefit of the doubt,” Hughes writes in an essay titled “Superstitions,” published in 1964, the year after Plath's death. That essay includes Hughes' belief that “a purely electrical Creation is one without walls, where everything, being an electrical power, can have an electrical effect on every other thing, and where electrical effects are vital effects” (Faas, 172). It may be that Hughes came to understand Plath's life in terms of the prohibitive walls of an inescapable, preordained labyrinth as the one explanation that would absolve both of responsibility and a sense of failure to allow such vital effects to keep her alive. Perhaps that allowed him, in his dying days, the release he sought in poetry.


Faas, Ekbert. Ted Hughes: The Unaccomodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.

Feinstein, Elaine. Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. New York. W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Heinz, Drue, “Ted Hughes. The Art of Poetry LXXI.” In The Paris Review, Vol 37, No. 134, Spring 1995, pp. 54-94.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
---. Howls & Whispers. Northampton: Gehenna Press, 1998.
---. Manuscript draft of “The Minotaur 2.” Emory University Special Collections & Archives.

Myers, Lucas. Crow Steered Bergs Appeared: A Memoir of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Sewanee: Proctor's Hall Press, 2001.

Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.


Susan Bradley Smith

Four poems


On her beautiful, betraying hands
twist twist twisted
are her husband's rings
soapy still from the rushed bath
remnants all
from last night.

Trophies, she twirls them.

The traffic has stopped at the Strand.
They are late, the colleagues, for an important date.
She is sick,
he is very, very sorry beside her
in their black taxi coffin.

Suddenly they are speeding along Waterloo Bridge and with a
dirty nimbleness
they manage to hold hands.
Sweet liberty sparks anew,
the twenty seven hundred bottles of wine
the husband wife and children certain to be
But not now.

Now, since the gods sent them their storm,
he has three women he kisses
(lucky lonely man).
She, on the other hand,
loves her daughter with a foreign surprise
and has no need to recall the duties of contracepting.

Until now.
Until too late.
Until the heavens delivered the sewer swelling in her heart.
For this is the taste of love that must first destroy before it can irrigate.

They turn a final corner.
The eyes of the knowing will do
nothing to stop her,
for she is her own sleepwalker
and has chosen her bed to lie in.
Whether or not he
will choose,
will be there when she awakes,
will require surgery,
may even undo them,
may after all bring the same old sorry end
That she was always planning.

they will walk towards home,
back across the mighty Thames,
completely insane
with the late summer night and what is it about London anyway?
But for now
(and perhaps forever)
they travel through a filthy place.

The whole world is falling
They sit,
without touching,
the two of them going nowhere.


I know I'm in trouble.
This has happened to me once before
is still happening.
With the clarity of ice I can recall the bed,
the hand, the question
'Do you know what you're doing?'
barely heard through the trail his finger
on my back.
I was away from home,
away from love.
We had spilt it, ours, my husband and I,
and there he was, that man,
mopping me up.

There is a corner on a country road
leading out from Lismore to the beach
that I am forced to travel past often,
that is well-covered with blood.
It was a Thursday night and
was coming to get
when suddenly I was seventeen and he was dead and
who wants to hear that old story now
the one that, still,
twenty years later
tells me how to love?
He's OK now, I know, but I am not.

It is as if
the man who knows everything,
the one who showed me peace and took me there to be his wife,
is to be rewarded not in kind but with the currency of the gutter.
He, who deserves angels,
husband of a wolverine.

When my daughter was born he held her for five hours straight
and I,
I forgot to ask.
It is impossible to ever recover from such a sin.

For nine long years since the first betrayal
I have practiced love and am
So scarred from the trying that
I gave up.

Imagine my surprise, then,
To be taken back to that ugly place
By you.
Love swamp.
As I said, I am in trouble.
And you are not even fit to save me.


In seventy three days
we'll be in Denmark
being smart together at some conference
phoning spouses and singing lullabies to children.
I hope to be doing this
from the epic grief of you having
first taken me in your arms
then never forgetting me.

The thing about you is this,
(stop looking at me like that to start with),
it is, and I know this to be true because
I've never read your book and even though king tides
can thrash three hundred seasons long between like finding love
and sweet charity letting us visit each other once a decade until we can finally see
the gift, delayed,
It is not destiny
It is not lust
It is just the impossibility of
Touching you.

This morning
You showed me your new coat, uncertain
(She doesn't like it)
I promised (you laughed) to embrace you
each time
in every corridor
of every university
I saw you wearing it. Cheek.
(Is it time, now, to tell you?)
I touched the cloth.
You were so
still and then I said
Maybe I like different things about you than she does.
'Maybe you do'.

The thing about me is this.
When my baby died last year I cut a hole in my breast and willed it never to heal.
And when I came back home from grief I was nobody's
So if it is sad for you that our affair would harm
small worlds
then it is a tragedy
for me
to return
to love
so badly.

The first time we kissed
It was your birthday
The gods had put our small children between us
to stop me from spilling blood,
for without them,
risk would be an ancient memory
and we would both
be well slaughtered with love.
It was your decision to trespass me with your lips.
Thank you, you said, for the present.
My hand was on the back of your neck, solid desire.
I walked away.

We're on the radio, in the newspapers,
current affairs,
doing our job and changing the world
yet I am paralysed, unable to say the one thing I know:
That once upon a time in Surry Hills I passed you in a crowded pub
and shuddered perhaps but saw no reason to
turn around
nor suspect
the long black thread of surgery that unites me
forever putrid
to you.
And the band played on, and the moon shone down,
last Friday night, my friend,
in Bloomsbury.
It caught me, in love, on the footpath, sharing a cigarette,
your family's groceries at our feet.

I dare to ask you out.
No, you said. You won't come.
My sentence will never finish.

And now
You're out to lunch. With your wife.
Somewhere in London.


Fuck you I say
Drink all day
Piss your life away
Unhappy forget you're with me
Read my smart books
Kiss me back with stale
Me query you query every fucking thing
Make me late for my lectures
Make me hum
Good one
That night cost four hundred and fifty pounds
Who couldn't come
I do your washing
You're home with your wife
This is the twenty first century
Where are the Gods to deny
Can you read me back home
To metaphysics
To a new metropolis
Where lipstick and women are both
And the talk is forever
Can you convince me that all the truths that beguiled our old worlds
With that greatest of heroins
Have not limped back to the losers shed
Nil all for eternity
But for now
You stroke me to sleep and
Write an entire book on my back
It enters my blood
(Knowledge becomes me)
I glow I deliver I quiver with the memory
Of you
As I talk theory to babies
They are (fuck) the future and I am their trust
In you
I aint no feminist fuck theory
Kiss me better
Monograph me
Let me write my lies
Do your own fucking washing
Too late
I have already sucked your collars clean leeching
Memory from inanimacy
Meanwhile, you talk divorce in the city of dark tides
And me,
(Southern desire)
I wipe my baby girl's bum
And whisper to her
Love love love love
(The promise of)

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