Two years ago at Bennington College, I taught a course on the work of Sylvia Plath. I created the course in response to student requests and also because I had been thinking about Plath and talking about her with other poets and readers for years. In almost every conversation, the matter of her suicide was inevitably mentioned. I first read her poems while in college. Like many of my students, I was swept up in their drama and entranced by the persona speaking in registers I did not associate with the more measured, reasonable poems to which I had—up until that point—been drawn. In developing my class, I posed a question: Was it possible—even for a short time—to read and study her poems independent of her life story? How was it that we had come to see her creative work as a sort of extended suicide note, rather than as the work of an emerging poet whose career and output had been cut short by a tragic, early death?
The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich
"It seems as though Mark has done nothing but refine his poems since his first dark and moving book, The Anchorage. The Earth Avails is that trim, that loaded, the words so scrupulously chosen. There is an ancient quality to Mark’s whole body of work—The Earth Avails is Virgilian in its pastoral attentiveness, Romantic and German in its epistolary prayers. Throughout the poems, speakers orient themselves through humility to the forces of time. Such humility is expressed as erotic tenderness, as self-reflection and self-judgment, as attunement to the natural world and to the familial. The body finds its metaphors in a garden. The garden stands against fields of loss. The loss is deeply personal, it is recognized in others, in otherness (a vixen alone in a den) and it is global. The Earth Avails sounds the depths of our involvement in each other—in our lovers, our parents, our world.”
Excerpted from A Beggar’s Book, Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest Notable, forthcoming
So far I have warded off the worst of things
that can happen to a brain and to a body.
I have loved my self and the world more than I have loved you,
with your unknowable face in the firmament,
and the world ripe with detail.
What is it you wish to teach me?
My life has been one of tasks, listed
and attended, materials curried and weeded and laid by.
I have been diligent and have done my work.
Then, a day came when I could not answer
the letter of a friend, could not offer my help,
read to the end of the sentence. The phoebe
tossed from his nest was broken on vulpine teeth,
spirited into the undergrowth in the dark,
then the six fat wrens in their house hung in the arbor
disappeared and their parents stopped their singing.
Weeds grew, and I ignored my chores,
while the cat worried her tail of its most plumescent fur.
I saw my body, white as tallow,
my face framed by colorless hair,
noted my appetites, then put them aside,
walked and walked to wear it all away.
In the bin, last year’s potatoes grew their eyes
without benefit of soil or sun,
and I spent another night awake and unrested,
knitting a cap for a child come too early
into the world. What lies on the other side?
What do I need to know that will keep me anchored,
admired as I am from a distance—
an image false as a tin star?
I yearned to be cast up on an arctic island, bare of trees,
populated by the recalcitrant
and their flocculent, half wild beasts,
the air dry and howling, cliffs exposed, the wind
stirring its cauldron of birds. You have written
each of my days into your illumined book,
though I believe this portion will remain unread,
a page torn out and stuffed into a crack
to keep out the winter damp.
I was built by the love of my mother,
then let go. She is now old and sleeps much of the day
like a cat, eats small meals in her chair,
bakes for funerals or dusts the small museum
visited only by accident.
And so she serves the ghosts of our town
and does not believe in you at all.
* * *
At summer’s end, I traveled north,
crossed the sea, to the salted rim of the Arctic.
From a rented room, I watched revelers wend in arcs
bound by the corrugated street,
breakfasted on liver paste and beets,
rode tinted in the light of a city bus
as it ferried me to the national attractions:
a heroic past reconstructed in wax,
diorama of a seeress wearing cat skin gloves
dining on the hearts of dogs,
spidery manuscripts chilled under glass,
and the rusted nails and altarpieces
standing in for an architecture
long effaced by the wind’s hand.
* * *
A young man named for a god of fucking
rode his palomino next to my dun.
His face was chapped and his hair
was combed by the wind from underneath
a helmet of foam. We passed the named steadings
roofed in turf, the pyramids of hay
while our horses muscled like athletes
on paths cut through knee-high grass,
over lava and hill crest, past geyser
and sulphurous marsh, horned sheep
wandering wild through wind and rain.
Hours went by and no one spoke
as our animals huffed and pushed
against the reins. My thighs tightened
on my gelding’s furred back, hands
learned his mouth like that of a husband.
Your hold on this island is tenuous,
broken as it is by the core of the earth
seeping its sulphurous reek and sanding the air with ash.
The inhabitants live amongst the greatest powers
visible to their water and ice colored eyes.
You, our Maddening Abstraction,
You, the Triangulator, the Great Confusor, take note—
for centuries this populace huddled in the earth walled halls,
smeared black butter on dried fish, spun wool in the dark,
washed their hair in urine and fermented their meat in whey.
How could you ever conquer a land that didn’t know bread?
You have left me here to wander, far from friends,
my family shuffling about their small farm
your absent gaze pressing them toward the grave
the night numbing me to the evident good
I might do or understand or receive.
There is a bruise on my brain that does not heal,
nor does it spread, walled in as it is by pills.
Your name is nowhere to be found
in my future, treeless and tasting of salt.
Here I stand at the estuary
My horse cropping grass, no sounds of men
save the one next to me
as he pares dried mutton with a knife.
Geese conduct their exercises nearby
the tide’s green hair recedes, pulled backward
by the blue-skinned moon. The wind lifts,
sun flickers, guillemots trim the horizon with their wings
as your great thumb pushes against my lips
and you click the snaffle past my teeth.
- See more at Anomolous Press.
It looks as though the little polemic I wrote for a program at Dixon Place has found an audience in Turkey. You can see it here.