Veils, shimmering like curtains

by Sylvia Plath

A still life for Easter

This was Plath’s final volume of poetry, published two years after her death, and I could not separate the knowledge of what shortly followed these writings from the words themselves. It was not an easy read.

Death is everywhere in these poems. I got shivers down my spine on almost every page. Yet these are not obvious musings on death but rather word collages. For the most part the poems are constructed of a series of images, with no clear story or scene, but there are a few exceptions. “Gulliver” describes Swift’s character in the scene in Lilliput when he is tied to the ground:

“You there on your back,
Eyes to the sky.
The spider-men have caught you,”

“Daddy” explores her feelings about her father, a complex relationship despite his death early in her life (“I was ten when they buried you”). And “Wintering” is actually the last part of a series of four poems about her new-found vocation of beekeeping:

“Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.”

But these are exceptions in-between the darker poems (and even those were not entirely free from comment on death). Her depression is ever present:

“I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” [from “Elm”]

She refers to her previous suicide attempt many times over, making it clear her only regret about it is that she didn’t succeed:

“After all I am alive only by accident.
I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains” [from “A birthday present”]

But the poem that moved me most was “Years”, where Plath’s pain and anger seem to be at their peak:

“O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.”

First published 1965 by Faber & Faber.