Blog 2015

Radio Leigh: Reconsidering Plath's Black Shoe

 

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On March 6, Jimmy Carter was a featured speaker at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis.  Carter reminded “the number one most serious human rights violation on earth” is against women and girls: “It’s a discrimination against women and girls.” 

 

On March 8, Women’s Day, Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network, spoke on women and extremism and links to peace-building

 

That’s a little background as preface.

 

A couple weeks ago I was visiting friends, one of whom shared new poetry.  There was an old-guard influence lingering around some of the lines, and in the reading, and after a couple poems I said how much he reminded me of a poet I once met.

 

     “Wait…You sound like….”   

     “Really?  Well, he was a big influence….”

 

Okay.  There’s nothing wrong with influence…

     …except when influence is wrong.

 

I had to sit at the table with Big Influence once, years ago.  An incident occurred that I’ve never forgotten.  I was part of a group of students gathered for dinner instead of class.  I was the only student of Literature, the outlier witnessing the philosophical and theoretical divisiveness that existed at the time between the Literature and Writing Departments.  That was a real problem for me.  A second problem for me was that I was accustomed to classrooms where women could actually speak their minds without fear of getting trumped or rejected.   

 

At the dinner we ordered our food, and most at the table sat in silent reverence, listening to Big Influence’s egocentricity.  He’s a familiar sort.  He is the voice of privilege.  He talks over you, and criticizes for criticism’s sake alone, relishing in his accusatory habits.  He has an answer to every opposition, and is resourceful when it comes to opportuning the energy of women which he uses to self-aggrandize. 

 

Don’t get me wrong.  Such a person of influence supports his supporters, loves them, in fact, as long as they don’t resist shaping the landscape of acquiescence to him; as long as they don’t resist his usurpation of their vitalities.  If they do resist, in any instance, he proves himself.  He proves he is a comrade under pretense, a masked comrade ready to sabotage camaraderie.  Shakespeare knew the type.  He may not be a “smiling, damnèd villain,” but his “proud man’s contumely” is always on exhibit.  To challenge such a person is to guarantee insults to your integrity.  Enter the ring with him and you are condemned to futile rounds lacking any purpose beyond satisfying his joy at contemptuous expression. 

 

Such was the world.  So much of it remains.  Such was the influence of one I sat next to, never suspecting he was poised to strike at my youthful, irreverence, dismissing my interest in female practitioners of craft.  So it was, in the middle of a comment I was making about Sylvia Plath, he cut me off with a decided blurt:

   

     “Sylvia Plath was a Bitch!” 

 

(Carter: It’s a discrimination against women and girls.)

 

I told my friends this story, adding “My only regret is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell this guy rape makes women bitchy.”  My woman friend laughed.  She understood the power behind the remark, the Take-Back-the-Night of it.  Her spouse was more serious; he nodded in agreement, saying simply, “Yeah.”  They both know these days I wouldn’t hesitate.  These days there is no mistaking my intolerance of exploitive people and misogynists, even as I continue to evolve in my response to them.

 

So this is where I leave that negative memory behind to pick up on the ever-problematic Sylvia Plath who serves in this purpose to challenge, once more, and especially as we near the end of women’s history month, the machinations of attitude in the wasteland of non-egalitarianism; of sexism and misogyny. 

 

In the high school anthologies of the seventies, there were two women who made their way through the male-dominated lit world of white poetry: Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. Of the two, I continue to prefer Rich, but Plath’s poem “Daddy,” with that pretty red heart bitten in two, still speaks a resounding truth when it comes to the oppression of women and girls.  My own father was violent, patriarchal, and a misogynist.  And yes, women loved him.  The double-wound was my mother’s rage, an outcome of oppression.  So imagine, at 17, my reading:

 

You do not do, you do not do   

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot   

For thirty years, poor and white,   

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

 

Yikes.  My life had just been named. 

 

As I read the poem now I find present in it signs of the times, no doubt, and I can’t help but feel the world of Freudian, Jungian and Gestalt therapies all tied up in a tell-all poem that could have been both Martha’s and George’s anthem in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Still: So what?  Does that make the honesty of it somehow more at fault, its power easier to dismiss because it’s personal (read: confessional)?  Is the personal-as-political only interesting in circumstances of male circumspection?

 

What happens if a variation on this poem was penned by Mahmoud Darwish?   

 

You do not, Israel, you do not do

Any more, Banked Shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For sixty years, poor, Palestinian,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo

 

 And if this was a poem by Saadi Youssef?

 

You do not do America, do not do

Any more, Soldiered Shoe

In which I have lived life a foot

For fifty years, poor Arab

Barely daring to breath or Achoo

 

What if it was written by June Jordan or Amiri Baraka or Langston Hughes or Jayne Cortez?

 

Say WHAT?  IT DO NOT!  IT DO NOT DO

Any more, White Shoe

In which I’ve lived, clubbed foot

All these years, Jim-Crowed & poor

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo!

 

How much does one’s own, internalized oppression (often making us oppressors [Freire]) prevent us from valuing the contribution of any person, of any group, of every human attempting a literal and figurative escape from the ravages of exploitation and violation—as from the arena and landscape where human rights seem to belong to everyone but women and girls?    

 

The personal aspect of Plath’s defiant complaint made against the immediate, familial oppressor is no less important than any political assertion posited by other poets against the varying players competing for land and power within the World Patriarchal Order. 

 

So what is it about Plath?  What is it that she encroaches, getting so close to it that someone calls her bitch, closes the conversational book and keeps her at bay?  Easy to say, “It’s about him,” but women reject her also.  Mention Plath as part of the canon and some women will roll their eyes at you.  This also happened to me, in the first decade of the 21st century. 

 

Okay.  I know.  I can hear it already: Come on, she’s all Eliot-wannabe!  She never did much that was great, and so what if she’s a suicide, feeling sorry for herself, all white and privilege and by the way, have you read her letters?  She was a snob!  Yeah, Boo-Hoo!  She’s just SOOOO sixties.  She can’t possibly mean anything….

 

In the same way, the reportedly gossipy Frost, with those lovely woods, dark and deep, rumored to be abusive, was he a bastard?  Was Amiri Baraka sexist, as Black Feminists called him out?  Does Plath exhibit racist language while we overlook Heart of Darkness?  Maybe so.  Maybe yes to all.  And maybe Plath didn’t live long enough to evolve with society, and in her poetry.  She is at risk then of being the woman twice-condemned to her era.  

 

For any of these people, for all of us, the woods remain the same.  They are still the woods, still lovely, dark and deep, and they are filled with the reaching of many imperfect people who are nevertheless dedicated to evolving toward varying mercies. 

 

Juan Gelman, “Clarities”

…sad!  enraged!  beautiful!  oh my country facing the firing squad! / …who has seen the butcher marry the tender calf / tenderness marry capitalism?

 

Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”

I thought every German was you. / And the language obscene / An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence

Nothing new, then.  Nothing new in this solid break with time.  Nothing new except your past crawling out of you and then back toward you….

 

Jayne Cortez, “You Can Be”

You can be / what you want to be / you can act / like you want to act / but this does not mean / that you loose / the fever of the scheme / that makes you you….

 

Amiri Baraka, “As Agony.  As now.”

I am inside someone / who hates me. / I look / out from his eyes….

 

Marjorie Agosin, “Night”

…the women travellers prepare themselves… / insist upon that sweet, peaceful / question: / Have you seen my son? / They search, sing, weep / and ask the rosaries / and the witches of the district, / …and return…to the home without a voice, / to the austere language of absence.

 

People writing their way out of oppression are worth a nod of remembrance if for no other reason than the simple recognition that their efforts added further possibility to the lives of those who benefited from those efforts.  You might dismiss a writer for being outdated, but you have certainly internalized the benefits of her struggle even if that struggle was at the periphery of the larger, collective struggle for change—particularly change for the benefit of women and girls, as Sanam Anderlini reminds: Change that is still necessary throughout the world.

 

Unfortunately, Plath didn’t get to grow old, so nobody knows what might have been.  But there is her poem, standing in absolute resistance to that which is recognized as symbolic of a paradigm: Daddy.  I will never forget how young I was and how her words rang out for me at just the right time.  And that’s all it takes.  In such an instance, when words change thinking toward release from oppression, their power can never be diminished.    

 

And maybe, just maybe, some young woman from Appalachia or Mississippi, or Houston, or maybe some transgender youth in Wyoming, or a bisexual in Utah, or a field hand in California, or a student in Wisconsin is going to come across that poem, or another, and realize what it means to resist those things that turn any person’s life into a compassionless negation of existence.

 

And maybe, reading, a light will flicker across the new possibility and something will be understood about what it means to say you do not do.  You do not do, any more….  Maybe in every such moment taking place for women and girls we head toward the egalitarian future of non-extremism and non-violence, a future where women are important participants, not subjects of control but contributing members of humane societies. 

 

It’s hard sometimes to deal with or even love those who rub us the wrong way: parents, friends, neighbors, old poets of old systems.  Surely there are instances when we do best to quietly quit the table, knowing the evolution of human compassion is a slow and often-distorted process.

 

After that, maybe we work toward another table in another time.  Maybe women will make up the center of that table.  Maybe it’s a table of acceptance, respect, and support—of knowing how to do better, of finally saying, together, “Let’s return balance to the inequities of human life.”

 

That is the only Way worth working toward.  It is the better path in the woods, filled with many voices.  I write, knowing them both—woods and voices.  And through them I understand I have never written alone.

 

I highly recommend listening to Plath reading her poem, DADDY.  For those of you who can’t, here it is:

 

DADDY

by Sylvia Plath

 

You do not do, you do not do   

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot   

For thirty years, poor and white,   

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

 

Daddy, I have had to kill you.   

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,   

Ghastly statue with one gray toe   

Big as a Frisco seal

 

And a head in the freakish Atlantic   

Where it pours bean green over blue   

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.   

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

 

In the German tongue, in the Polish town   

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.   

My Polack friend

 

Says there are a dozen or two.   

So I never could tell where you   

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

 

It stuck in a barb wire snare.   

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.   

And the language obscene

 

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.   

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

 

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna   

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck   

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

 

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

 

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.   

Every woman adores a Fascist,   

The boot in the face, the brute   

Brute heart of a brute like you.

 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,   

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot   

But no less a devil for that, no not   

Any less the black man who

 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.   

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

 

But they pulled me out of the sack,   

And they stuck me together with glue.   

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

 

And a love of the rack and the screw.   

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,   

The voices just can’t worm through.

 

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you   

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

 

There’s a stake in your fat black heart   

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.   

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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