Why have I not read Sylvia Plath before? I rented the movie "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the next day I ordered both The Bell Jar, her novel, and Ariel, a collection of poems.
The Bell Jar took me right off guard. The narrative is deceptively simple, almost childlike; devastating similes such as "to the person in The Bell Jar, black and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream" added up to create an atmosphere of suffocation and morbid distortion. It's very disturbing and highly relevant. I loved it.
Here's a poem from Ariel:
Poppies in October
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly--
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
This poem reflects the mixture of beauty, morbidity, and suffocation that I see over and over in Plath's work. The speaker is awed by the gorgeous red poppies that have sprung up so late in the year, and even refers to this phenomenon as "a love gift." She finds this more beautiful than the colors of the morning sky or the blood seeping through the coat of an injured woman. That is how Plath gets me; from sky to bleeding to death in one brief stanza. In the third stanza, the sky is described as "igniting its carbon monoxides," creating that trapped, suffocating, poisoned-air feeling that exists in the bell jar. Finally, the speaker can't help but compare her own sense of insignificance to the poppies: "O my God, what am I," she asks.
Perhaps it is too glib to suggest that this question was the fundmamental question posed in Plath's work--the "what am I" juxtaposed with all the goodness or beauty she felt separate from--but in the context of the poem, it does illustrate her persistent feeling of separation from her environment, her sometimes distorted view of herself and her surroundings, and frustration at finding a wall between herself and her world that she could never knock down. The speaker can't properly enjoy the poppies, because even that ends up being about her own insignificance; not in a big/small way, or a nature/human way, but in a worthy/worthless way.