Sylvia Plath: 10/27/32-2/11/63
Sylvia Plath was the original hot chick of American poetry. Tall and leggy, blonde, fearfully intelligent, Plath quietly changed the poetic landscape of America from under the shadow of her philandering husband, future British poet laureate Ted Hughes.
When Sylvia Plath committed suicide at age 30 in William Butler Yeats’ old house 45 years ago today, she left behind a body of work that increasingly resisted analysis because of its intensely personal nature. By 1966, when the collection of her final book of poems Ariel was published, Plath had somehow become an icon of women’s suffrage and women’s suffering, a designation and iconic status that no doubt would’ve perplexed her as much as the anti-war hippie movement perplexed her contemporary Jack Kerouac, who could never understand how they’d been inspired by his own canon.
As with Yeats and many of the great British poets, Plath was obsessed with the idea of the poet as mythmaker, an obsession that would last until she wrote her final poems in that cold flat in Chalcot Square. One of the most visceral screams of rage in the history of American letters, written roughly around the same time as this final phase of her life, is the often-anthologized poem, “Daddy.” Plath, at least in her myth-making, constantly associated her father with the Nazi party and the concentration camps, even though he was a professor at Boston University and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on bees. However, Plath perhaps suffered from the Electra complex and perhaps never forgave her father for dying young and leaving her and her mother and brother alone.
It would be amusing to think what George W. Bush would think of this poem and if he could glean any relevance or irony between Plath’s turbulent posthumous relationship with her father and his father with whom, by many accounts, he’d had his own share of run-ins and differences stretching to this day. Or if he could ever recognize the irony of Nazi imagery and how much more readily and appropriately it could be incorporated in his own family history.
Daddy, by Sylvia Plath
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
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.
Daddy, you can lie back now.