Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Reading Sylvia Plath is an experience, turbulent is an understatement. Her poems show her wild and repressed thrashing against her circumstances and on one occasion, I was moved to an extent that I had a nightmare - I cannot remember the last time I had a nightmare - and on many other occasions to pen my own (bad) poetry.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
I knew nothing of her, her life, her work, her suicide at an age I find myself in now, and I took disproportionate interest in learning more of her. And each subsequent poem was another step downwards at night into a deep step-well, a well with some promise of water at its furthest. There is water at the bottom, yes; murky and unstill and with unrepentant poison.
The poison first came into view with the ‘The Jailer’:
He his been burning me with cigarettes,
Pretending I am a negress with pink paws.
As revulsed I was by the word, I was disgusted as I interpreted the dehumanising sense in the use of the word, almost to the extent of denying that very excruciating physical pain she felt to another human - a person of colour.
This was matched by many other lines, some as hard to digest for me as the one I quote above. Here is what I ask myself - how do I feel for a person who I know , if given a chance, would not do the same for me? In this case, because of a certain property of my skin.
There came a point where my mind switched from flailing with her - a fellow human - in her pains to being apathetic observer, almost sadistic. I suppose she is as much a ‘product of her times’ - the defense raised by her ardents - as I am of mine.
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The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Historical fiction can work at such disparate levels; an era as a backdrop for the narrative, familiar textbook history unraveling as background score to the symphony of the lead characters’ life, the idiosyncrasies of the bygone era pictured in contrast to the era of the writer. The Blue Flower has everyone of these devices used to perfection, but it is so much more.
It is a purported biography of the early life of Novalis, a romantic poet & philosopher from 18th/19th century Saxony. It is an unusual love story. I do not use ‘unusual’ as moral judgement for love across an uncomfortable age-divide, but to mean the stark contrast between the lovers in (for want of better words) their levels of intellect & emotional range. To highlight my point, let me present my favorite exchange of words between Novalis and his ladylove Sophie:
`Should you like to be born again?’, asks Novalis, expecting a conversation on the philosophy of transmigration.
Sophie considered a little. ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.’
Such an unbridgeable divide, but Fitzgerald convinces us of the irrational sway of love (love of the truly, madly, deeply variety).
In addition, the book is an account of the lives of Lower German nobility; a comical sketch of the reaction of this landed gentry to contemporaneous French Revolution, the epochal ideas of liberty & egalitarianism that it espoused, and the subsequent march of Napoleon.
Lastly, but foremost for me, the book’s thin underlying veneer of (Fichtean) philosophy makes you want more & know more of it.
Why should poetry, reason and religion not be higher forms of Mathematics? All that is needed is a grammar of their common language.