Originally published in 1960, the version I have is copyright Ted Hughes, 1967.
A contemporaneous review by A Alvarez, of The Observer, published on the inner leaf begins, “She steers clear of feminine charm, deliciousness, gentility, supersensivity and the act of being a poetess. She simply writes good poetry…with a seriousness that demands only that she judged equally seriously.”
Anything to do with Plath is so loaded these days, it is really hard to see through to the black ink words on the plain white sheets. I don’t believe that I had read any of these poems before, although of course there may have been to odd one in some exercise or anthology. So this was a first collection. I found it patchy, some utterly captivating and urgent poems sitting a page or two away from straining, unremarkable pieces: pieces that would struggle to get magazine space today. As an aside there are a whole host of pigs, spiders, snakes and frogs in these pages…as well as the word “borning” that I had never come across before – apparently to be in the process of being born.
But when she hits her stride, oh boy, witness the closing lines of the second poem in, “Two Views of a Cadaver Room”, “In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow./ He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.” Or of the third poem, “Night Shift”, “…Men in white/ Undershirts circled, tending/ Without stop those greased machines,/ Tending, without stop, the blunt/ Indefatigable fact.”
“Hardcastle Craggs” with its “dark, dwarfed cottages” and “the humped, indifferent iron/ of its hills” is unashamedly elemental and wrapped in night. It is an echo of one of Cathy’s fevered dreams where before “the long wind ”pared “her person down/ to a pinch of flame.” The final stanza tells:
Enough to snuff the quick
Of her small heat out, but before the weight
Of stones and hills of stones could break
Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light
She turned back.
The title poem tells of 30 years of labouring by the poet to get a grip on her own image of her father. “Point Shirley” revisits the seaside home of her dead grandmother, “Whose laundry snapped and froze here, who/ Kept house against/ What the sluttish, rutted sea could do.” And wonders at, “The planked up windows where she set/ Her wheat loaves/ And apple cakes to cool. What is it/ Survives, grieves”. While “Suicide off Egg Rock” is haunting, clear-eyed and bleak, that she has written it in a third person ‘he’, doesn’t mitigate much against what we know of Plath’s own history.
All of the above mentioned poems come in the opening 40 pages (out of 88) and they are a dizzying rush of brilliance and daring, startling images and startling honesty. Thereafter, to my eye the pickings get thin, with the exception of the very fine “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour”. “Mushrooms” is long-winded and less funny than that joke about being kept in the dark and fed fertilizer, “Snakecharmer”, “Maudlin”, “Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows” to pick just a few, really shouldn’t detain us.
I haven’t made much of a study of her poetry – I was impressed with “The Bell Jar” – and from what I can gather from this collection, when she was good she could stand toe to toe with anyone, but there were also lapses. It’s hard to be too critical I suppose, she was young. And there’s the sadness.
The dedication reads “For Ted”.