Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick”


The Poem Stuck in My Head


Collage via Flickr.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

I am writing this while pregnant with my first son, just as Sylvia Plath was when she wrote “Nick and the Candlestick” in 1962.

I wanted him: he was no surprise or trouble at all; he was passion and biology. But I am not happy. No one in smiley U.S.A. is supposed to say this at the news of a baby. An expectant mother is supposed to be ecstatic, full of promise and life. It is true, I marvel; the last thing I ever expected to be good at was creating a small person, that my body could nourish him both inside itself and within the world. He’s evidence that something inside me might work, even if other, less visible things do not.

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

Before him, I would read Plath quotes from one of those ubiquitous Twitter feeds, feel recognition—and feel like a cliché. I do genuinely love her work, but it’s so expected, so reductive—even if, with him, it feels newly vital for me. We all know the narrative: marry a handsome, destructive man, go from one to two, three then four, and then kill yourself at thirty. Like so many girl-readers, I worshipped her and selfishly romanticized the tragedy. As a young woman, Plath sought the whirl and illusion of enchanted, swift New York, painfully unprepared for adulthood, and like so many others, I recognized all those standard youthful Manhattan dreams, darker when you feel everything twenty-fold, when you’re unsure of having any talent or worth, paralyzed by sensitivity, maybe a little weak, easy to dismantle. A cliché, yes, but the mythology, and the work, remain captivating and solid. As a writer and a reader and a human being with dark tendencies, I have great empathy for everything Plath. There is a reason she has endured. We may all fail miserably at love, family, and living, but we can try to be brave, especially in our work. As Plath says of her own womb, my stomach was always crawling with white newts and calcification, a gut that betrayed me, even when I tried to convince it of happy otherwise.

2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Plath’s death. Working in magazines, I was always taught that birthdays and anniversaries were lazy journalism pegs, cop-outs, though useful for marketing. But maybe this is as good a time as any to speak outloud about something I’ve so far heard admitted only with embarrassment by the intellectually sophisticated. To Terry Castle’s sharp, insightful criticism of about Plath’s polarizing existence, I counter with compassion. To me, the early lines of “Nick and the Candlestick” explain the frightening duality—and affirmation—of a baby for someone with innate, perhaps genetically transmissible, sadness.

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Since falling pregnant (a Britishism that I think makes sense) I have loved more deeply, and at the same time fallen darker and harder than ever and almost not recovered, and all of this sounds terrible to a culture that embraces nesting and blue and pink things and “showers” that are really parties. This is the last thing I want. If anything, I need time not to stockpile goods on a checklist, but to take inventory of my life and make peace with a kind of biological inheritance, the sort that’s hard for tests to detect in utero. The fact that Plath’s son Nick too killed himself is not something to be written about with flippant disregard and blame; rather, a sense of urgency and compassion. Nurture yes, but nature also has rules. It is a risk to try for the future.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—

He’s here now, just as at length Nick came. And I am horrified that he looks just like me; everyone comments on the resemblance. In some Darwinian sort of lore, it’s said that a newborn baby is supposed to look like his father to prevent being thrown off a cliff or similar early demise. “You sure he’s mine?” he asks, joking, solid. Let’s hope. In an interview, Plath herself explains the poem: “a mother nurses her baby son by candlelight and finds in him a beauty which, while it may not ward off the world’s ill, does redeem her share of it.” I might be content living with this little man in a cave, but it’s his existence that will keep me away from that selfish fantasy, and any other, darker one, that would deprive him of motherly care.

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.
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Stephanie LaCava is the author of An Extraordinary Theory of Objects.