October 12, 2012 | by Belinda McKeon
Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.
—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962
They were “dawn poems in blood,” those lines stormed onto paper while the children slept; several of them were written through fevers, and the heat seared onto the pages, those old memorandum sheets marked Smith College, or the back of a manuscript marked The Calm. That had been a radio play, drafted by Ted Hughes in their flat in London early the previous year; now Sylvia Plath was in the Devon farmhouse they’d bought soon afterward, and Hughes was back in London, banished, their marriage over. It was late 1962, and in the space of eight weeks, it brought Plath forty of what would become her Ariel poems. They were, she wrote to the poet Ruth Fainlight, “free stuff I had locked in me for years,” and now they were out. And they were astonishing. Only pain could have released them, only fury and outrage and jealousy and panic of the sort into which Plath’s daily universe had plunged. “I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write when peaceful at heart,” she told Fainright, “but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now Ted is gone.”
All of these poems would be in the black binder found in Plath’s London flat following her suicide just three months later, on February 11. They were poems so extreme they would be turned down by several magazines (only to become suddenly suitable for publication after the sensation of her death). Look how they came, one after the other, during that ferocious fall. September 26: “For a Fatherless Son.” September 30: “A Birthday Present.” October 1: “The Detective.” October 2: “The Courage of Shutting Up.” From October 3 to 10, Plath wrote her five bee poems, including “Stings” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” On October 10, “A Secret.” October 11 brought “The Applicant” (“It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”). And fifty years ago today, on October 12, Plath sat down at the writing desk Hughes and her brother had made for her from a plank of elm, and she wrote her most famous poem. She wrote her father, and she wrote her festered grief, and she wrote her maddened Electra, and she wrote the unforgiving child who still ran riot in her veins; she finally got it down, so much of what had been propelling her from the moment she wrote her very first poem. “You do not do, you do not do”—what a line. What a spiel. What a fit of incantation. Whatever you think of “Daddy”—wherever you stand on the question of whether its tirades are transgressions, whether its swoop into Holocaust imagery is a mere looting and parading of angers not the poet’s own—there is no denying its extraordinary power. It stops the breath; it bothers the heart. What must it have been like, that morning, beneath the quaint thatch of that Devon farmhouse, for Plath to find herself writing this fireball of a poem?
July 9, 2012 | by Belinda McKeon
Sit in a theater for a Tom Murphy play and I can guarantee you one thing: you will come out of that theater rattled, and throttled, and staggered, in the best of all possible ways. It might take a long moment, afterwards, to catch your breath; use that moment to listen to the torrent of marvelous language that will still be surging through your head. That tussle of starkness and poetry. Murphy doesn’t give us lyricism the way that Irish writers, apparently, are meant to do; he gives us blunt and beautiful rhythm. He doesn’t give us laughter in that way either, though audiences will inevitably seek it out, and connect, in the sting of that laughter falling wrongly, with the defiantly dark intelligence of Murphy’s vision: guffaw at all the drinking scenes, if you will, but these are broken lives, and there’s no joking that away.
Tom Murphy is Ireland’s greatest living dramatist. We say things like that in Ireland—Ireland’s greatest this, Ireland’s greatest that—as though it means anything in the greater scheme of things. Who cares what Ireland thinks is great? Tom Murphy doesn’t. But it’s true of him, that accolade, I promise you. Read More »
June 12, 2012 | by Belinda McKeon
Joyce Carol Oates called her one of the finest short-story writers of the twentieth century, and there’s much to love about the work of Mary Lavin, whose centenary falls this week; there’s the brilliance with which her fiction gets at the stuff of human interaction, in all its awkwardness, in all the ways in which, muddled and mortified, this interaction will have to do us, because it’s all we’ve got. There’s the immense power with which she depicts the inner lives of women, particularly mothers and widows, women who have no reason to be anything other than honest with themselves about the realities of their situation. Lavin evokes those situations with sympathy and with candor and with, in many cases, a frank and delicious comedy.
Lavin was an Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that Catholic Ireland is present in her work, but there’s nothing predictable about her portraits of the people who lived in its grip, because what her fiction always looks to are the marvels and the strangeness of individual lives, individual territories carved out regardless of the directives handed down from on high. These lives, mostly rural, could be described as small; they could be described as provincial. Mary Lavin would never stoop to either of those descriptions. They were lives rich and secretive and complicated and contradictory, and for her there was no form suited to them more perfectly than that of the short story, the form she described as being like “an arrow in flight, or a flash of forked lightning: you know the way a flash of lightning appears to be there all in the sky at once? Beginning, middle and end, all there at once.”