The American Journal of Poetry
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Julia Gordon-Bramer

Revisiting the Brave New (Mystical) World of Sylvia Plath

All I have learned from poetry, I learned from Sylvia Plath. Through her loaded imagery, her doubled meanings and reflective homonyms, and her visceral structures and voice, Plath’s work encompasses the mystical, the historic, the mythological, the celestial, and tributes to other works of art. For instance, the first poem, “Morning Song,” from Plath’s collection Ariel, begins with: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” Juxtaposing the date Plath wrote “Morning Song” against her world events, we see the new element Lawrencium was discovered on Valentine’s Day, 1961, using a gold cyclotron, a giant spinning “watch.” Her third line “Took its place among the elements” now has new clarity.


Yet, “Morning Song” is also full of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Huxley’s Brave New World, titled from a line from The Tempest. The Tempest was the first of Shakespeare’s plays Plath saw as a young girl, and it made a lifelong impact upon her. Likewise, Brave New World was a favorite novel of hers as a teen, read and re-read. The characters of Brave New World seek a Dionysian mindless joy, happily swallowing their dull white pills, as Plath’s line reads, “Whitens and swallows its dull stars.” Too much soma causes respiratory paralysis, Plath’s “slow / Effacement” by wind. Plath’s “I’m no more your mother” becomes Huxley’s Linda character coldly denying her motherhood of John Savage. As beautiful as “Morning Song” is, it never gets soft or too sentimental. The goal is alchemy, the creation of golden perfection seen in Plath’s second line. Brave New World’s genetically-designed citizens are shallow and often stupid, as naïve as The Tempest’s Miranda, and so the government, as Plath’s poem reads, “Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”


The reader chooses how to read Plath, and too many have closed their minds to interpreting only her autobiography. How tragic. Plath’s staying power is that the work moves us to new levels of understanding, perhaps not even consciously.


In “Morning Song,” Plath manipulates the symbol of soma, good and bad, for literary power. Like the magic potion of “love-in-idleness” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a baby is Oberon and Titania’s focus, with the goal of intoxicating Titania to give it up. The baby is a changeling, another “I’m no more your mother” reference, as Plath’s narrator speaks this to her own child.


Plath likely approached soma’s mystic and historic relevance from her work in Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Behind the “Morning Song” surface story of a gentle mother nursing a baby is the curtain of soma’s enticing spell: golden aspects, hallucinogenic echoes, drafts, milk, distillation, and clarity. Soma was harvested and flattened like Plath’s “flat pink roses” and considered the way to “wake” to understand the world, becoming reborn like a baby. A real-life candidate for the fictional soma is psychoactive mushrooms, found in one of Plath’s favorite botanical books and part of shamanic ritual that obsessed her husband, Ted Hughes.


I could go on. It hit me like a lightning bolt when I first realized, as a tarot card reader myself, that Plath not only read tarot (think of her poem “Daddy,” with her line “And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack,” Taroc being another name for tarot), but had built in tarot symbolism and imagery to every Ariel poem, unlocking its meaning. Tarot scares a lot of people who are too afraid of the weirdness of the occult, and so my work has not been too quickly received, and not always taken seriously. Yet, it’s all there for the readers, as beautiful as “Morning Song,” with its nakedness, elements, and white stars.


Aligned with the tarot, “Morning Song” corresponds to the Fool card, the first tarot card, the beginning of everything, with its number zero as a bag of wind. It represents the newborn baby, innocent and savage, aligned with the Greek god Dionysus. Through the tarot, all of Plath is reinterpreted. Sylvia Plath no longer has to be read as merely that depressive, suicidal, angry woman. There is now great joy to be found, spiritual and intellectual revelation, passion for human rights and environmental preservation, and a knowledge of the oneness of humanity. Those latter qualities, I promise you, are in other Ariel poems. It was as if someone handed me the keys to the kingdom; the soma to awaken. I hope you’ll try it too. 

 

 

 

JULIA GORDON-BRAMER is author of Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, volume one (2014, Stephen F. Austin State University Press). She teaches graduate level creative writing at Lindenwood University and is also a professional tarot card reader. In 2013, The Riverfront Times named her St. Louis’ Best Local Poet.

 

 

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