Mitochondrial DNA is a profound, primeval truth. As far back as all the creatures we can see with our naked eye, ourselves included, it’s meant that the blueprints for the energy of our lives are passed only through the lines of mothers. Poetry is all about such profound truths. Sometimes those truths possess lives in cruel ways. Sylvia Plath is known as a writer and a woman who killed herself. Her daughter became a writer. Her son has just killed himself. A tragic purification of the mitochondrial line. It so happens that Sylvia’s imagined rival, mistress of her husband Ted Hughes, and Sylvia’s rival to the dramatic (but not poetically) minded, also killed herself, and her daughter with Hughes. But that is soap opera, not poetry.
The power of that popular drama is pretty compelling. Masses of inferior poetasters (OK, I’ll say it—like Anne Sexton) were mostly interested in Sylvia’s reflected notoriety, a notoriety, I think, that also raised sensation over the sort of solid poetical talent that, say, Denise Levertov had on offer.
I’ve always been keen to look past all that. I don’t know Sylvia nor Ted nor their children personally, and there is plenty of drama to be found among people I do know. The universe, however, has perhaps never seen so much poetry concentrated in one phenomenon as in the union of Ted and Sylvia.
That’s why, when I heard of Nick’s suicide yesterday, the first thing that flooded my mind was not “Oh, that sad, tragic family”. No. The first thing was the poetry.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch
That line was for Frieda. The one who writes. The one who lives. It has that Sylvia-line quality of leaving you gasping. It beautifully illustrates her mastery of stress (in prosody, of course, which is why we must leave aside that the stress of life led her to the oven). tick…tick…BANG!BANG!BANG! I love reciting this “Morning Song” to my children at bedtimes. When Osita was about four years old he interrupted me at
I’m no more your mother…
O: Hey, Dad. That part’s all right for you.
Of course it is. I don’t share mitochondrial DNA with Osita. I stand under the golden bough, and wait for him to come and kill me, and to stand in my place, waiting for his son, if any. And what is the poetry of a son killing his father? It’s in the very name of my father’s home village. Umunakanu, which is Igbo for: “May my children be greater than me.” I don’t remember what I replied to Osita. But I do have what I wrote later, in “Rooting Reflex”, for Udoka.
I’m no more your mother
Than the nervous squibs of smell, sight and sound the brain balls
(And yes, I know how foolish it is to put my own lines down in the same article as Sylvia’s and Ted’s, but poetry tolerates even foolishness where it faithfully seeks meaning).
Sylvia has also been there for Lori and me. When she was pregnant with Osi, and we took winter walks in Ft. Collins, I would often recite “Metaphors” to her.
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
L: You know. That wouldn’t come off flattering to a Cosmo girl.
U: Good job you’re not a Cosmo girl, what?
L: And what’s that supposed to mean, anyway?
So even though I’ve never been interested in any hint of a truce in the battle between the sexes, and certainly no such weak-kneed pap for my own marriage, I’ve shared with Lori some of the feminist’s loud indignation of Ted, if only (again) because of irresistible poetry.
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.
Oh you did. So bring it, sister! What?!
I fell in love with Sylvia’s words in college, when I thought I could never reconcile myself enough to women to marry, all the while knowing I wanted a family, and pouring the energy of that contradiction into my reading and writing. I always knew that when I had a family, I’d have to share Sylvia with them. But not Ted. Ted is mine.
I awoke to a shout.
“I am the Alpha and Omega”
Rocks and a few trees trembled
Deep in their own country.
(Off-head, so may be off a bit. I looked on-line and can’t find Ted’s “Gog” anywhere. I’ll probably seek it out in my books and post it myself). Ted has always expressed perfectly the distance that I know is one of my own most intrinsic qualities. The distance that was always obvious with my father, and that I already see in my three young sons—maybe I’ll have to share Ted, after all. It’s a distance I’ve become pretty good at closing when it suits me, like Ted striding across a crowded party, seeing Sylvia for the first time, to seize her, and to pound a kiss into her face. The soap opera says some salacious things but truth is in the poetry. The distance was the “rack and the screw”.
I awoke to a song jarring my mouth.
Where the skull-rooted teeth are in possession
I am massive on earth
My feet-bones beat on the earth
Over the sound of motherly weeping
You can read right there where love electrified the colossus like a cavity punched through the dentin. Love maddened him with pain, and yet it never closed the distance to the object of that love. Because it’s not supposed to. The point of an all-consuming presence is that distance doesn’t matter (or shouldn’t). Closing, weaving, stitching, cinching—that’s not how the colossus works. He doesn’t gently spin the strand of mitochondrial DNA. He sharpens his sword and strides off to the golden bough to cut something. Indeed sometimes what the father doesn’t want to share, the son takes by force. I think Osi was closer to five when I was reading from Crow to him.
God tried to teach Crow how to talk.
“Love,” said God. “Say, Love.”
I got around to:
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched and
Man’s bodiless prodigious head
Bulbed out onto the earth, with swivelling eyes,
And Osi chuckled. It was my turn to gape. And to fume a bit. I recite all sorts of poetry to the kids. I want to give them a chance to enjoy the texture of language well before they become preoccupied with the drama it conveys. But Osi was chuckling at Crow. It seemed a bit too early for the duel under the golden bough.
Indeed sometimes what the father doesn’t want to share, the son takes by force. It’s too pat to draw a direct line, because poetry best conveys truth in intricately woven strands, but Nicholas did meet an untimely end in some form of struggle, and his mother’s poem still does echo, in a way that I cannot get out of my head.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
✄ ✄ ✄
7 Comments copied from the archive TNB site »
Powerful post, Uche – gave me much to think about. I enjoyed the shared dialogue btwn you and Lori – good stuff, that. Osi has very big shoes to fill before he meets you under that tree.
Good to read you, friend.