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.

Sylvia and kids

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
into love.

(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,
Jabbering protest—

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 »

2009-03-25 10:15:07

Yes, I found the news of this latest suicide fest fairly devastating. For utterly different reasons, really, than those here. I love Plath, though have never been interested in blaming Hughes for her death. (Unless you lock someone in a dungeon and starve and torture them daily in a windowless room, but provide them with a cyanide tablet should they choose to use it, I don’t really buy that anyone “causes” another’s suicide.) I heard this news of Nicholas’ suicide rather as a mother, and it has knocked me on my ass. The way your blood and your choices impact your children is staggering. The weight of that. Oh, if only Sylvia had known. If only depression didn’t make such incredible Narcissists of its sufferers, which is, of course, exactly what it does, exactly its horrible curse.
Had she only known.
Or maybe it would have turned out this way anyway, even if she had forced herself to live. Maybe it was in his DNA. Who knows?
That baby whose mother loved him and immortalized him in poems. The man he became: dead now.
It’s harrowing.
A very close friend of mine’s father blew his brains out in their home 30 years ago to the day this Friday. To say that their family has continued to suffer the mad (and not at all Poetic) impact of this would be the understatement of the century.
And poor Frieda. I keep thinking of that Faulkner line, something like, “I’m afraid that you and I are among those who are doomed to live.”
She is the only one so-doomed now.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-03-25 13:41:58

Hi Gina,

I just want to touch on on one thing. This tragedy can only mean anything to me in a poetical sense, not in a visceral sense. I’m just human. There is only so much we can take into our viscera. World Health Organization (WHO) estimates are of 2-3 suicides per minute worldwide, with at least 20 times that many attempts. We cannot feel all that pain. I think there is an impulse in the modern West to pretend we can. In my opinion the true result of that is grotesque. We end up obsessive and grieving over the cases that media selects for us. When Madeleine McCann disappears (I had to look her up, and the ease with which I found it was illustrative) or baby M gets lost down a well, it’s a national tragedy. But children are murdered, kidnapped, abused, etc. every minute, and in indulging our sensitivities about the celebrated cases, we too often reinforce our insensitivities to those who have not been elected to our attention.

In the case of Nicholas Hughes, I do not know him. I do not with to pretend that his should be a personal tragedy for me. But I do know and love the poetry of his parents, and I’m trying to be honest and forthright about the only real reason his suicide has had a particular effect on me. It’s the tangle of relationships and phenomena interwoven from their poetry to my life. Clearly the effect on that family of the biographical details behind the poetry are not poetical. They are visceral. If, for example, one day I were to meet Frieda, that would probably increase the degree to which it’s a visceral matter for me. I do think that’s just normal and healthy.

2009-03-25 16:05:32

Well, this has a lot to do with the impact of art vs. media, I think. I think I know the Madeleine McCann case, that she was the little English girl who was stolen from a hotel (though I may be confusing her with somebody else), and yes, what you’re talking about has to do with a media engine selecting (basically at random, though perhaps due to certain sensational details) individual cases of tragedy and assigning–for the general public–a greater Meaning to these cases than to the dozens, hundreds, thousands or millions of other cases very similar in nature. Who is that filter and how is it controlled, and is the public even aware of the way our emotions are being manipulated, etc.–these are all huge questions.

I do think to many (most) people, there IS some sense of awareness that emotional manipulation is involved, and that these cases selected by the media serve less as visceral and personal than as somehow, yes, poetic or symbolic in nature, touching off awareness of larger things in the culture or perhaps echoing things that have happened in one’s personal/family life, etc. People are “reminded” of other, larger things, and they have feelings about those things, and those feelings are transferred onto the individual thing being thrust into their faces on TV.

For a smaller group of people (and these people get a lot of attention in the same media that randomly selects the cases of tragedy to focus on) the tragedies of total strangers become an obsession or a cult or “personal” to them in a way that borders on pathological. This happened with the Jon Benet Ramsey case (am I spelling that correctly?), and yes, it also happened with the feminist obsession of and idolization of Plath and demonization of Hughes.

I’d venture, though, that Plath/Hughes and their children ARE quite different from arbitrary media cases in that art–truly powerful art like the kind they both created–genuinely touches people in a highly individual way. If anything, the “folly” of people feeling so intensely about Plath and Hughes is more akin to the folly of falling madly in love with and identifying with a character in a great work of literature: Madame Bovary or Oliver Twist or Holden C. or Gatsby–or a character we ourselves are writing about who for a time consume our lives. Such characters truly deeply impact people in a timeless and personal way that is qualitatively different from the way we’re impacted from reading about a tragedy in People magazine. There is folly, yes (and perhaps worse than folly) in “reducing” Plath or Hughes or Nicholas to the role of “character”–for indeed they are real people, or were, and not people we “know” in the flesh. But we feel we know them through their use of art, which I would venture is in great part what art is all about, right? That connection across time and irrespective of meeting in the flesh. We truly feel we know their minds, and they stay with us as “friends” of a sort. No, it isn’t mutual (they don’t know us!) but this is the kind of intimacy art/poetry tends to foster, I guess: a one-sided intimacy that is both real and not-real at once. I’m not sure that, with the best art, there is that much of a difference for many readers between the visceral and the poetic. (Though certainly an argument could be made that there should be–and an argument could be made that there should not be, and that could go on and on.)

So yes, you’re right in that for most of the people grieving the Poetic Fate of Nicholas Hughes, this is not a personal tragedy, and there can be something obscene in trying to pretend that it is. Yet it’s also very true and real that a few generations of lives now have been touched by Plath and Hughes and their work in a way that is very different from the way people are impacted by a case like Baby M. (Which is not to say that such cases don’t genuinely sadden people, or that people should feel ashamed of being sad about it, as though it is somehow a politically incorrect Westernism to feel bad about a baby falling down a well, etc.) It is all very complex. People feel a sense of the vastness and commonplace nature of death and suffering, and yet no one can hold all that knowledge at one time or touch it with their own life, and so everyone has a filter, and for some the filter is the media, and for others it is art, and for still others it has to do with actual action like volunteering or working with battered women or a relief organization or a hospital, etc., in the sense that even a doctor grieves his own individual patients without full and total consciousness of how cheap death really is, how many people worldwide are ravaged by the same disease. The personal makes it feel bigger. And art, I would venture, is genuinely (if not fully) personal.

I thought 3 things when I heard about Nicholas Hughes. I thought first of my own 3 year old son, and the way that all parents–through suicide or simply the natural passage of age and time and death–must leave our children to their own fates and are rarely there to see them through the end. Then I thought of the Nicholas of Plath’s poetry and the illusory sense of his “realness” to me as a person. And finally I thought second of my friend whose father killed himself and who is herself going through a depression right now, and I hoped that somehow the news of this suicide might not reach her (which is, of course, impossible–she already knows of it, clearly, the media being what it is) because it might give her ideas: that the Poetry of it can be dangerous, if you are in a place like where she is.

And all 3 things did, and still do, make me sad.

Beautiful piece. And a lot to consider.

Nice meeting you at AWP, btw!

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-03-25 19:51:50

Gina,

I do think that when it comes to the nuts and bolts, we have a pretty large difference in how we reacted to this tragedy, and I can sense that it’s all bound up in philosophy, personality and circumstance, and I think it’s a very healthy and respectable difference.

But never mind all that. You’ve expressed something very striking to me. You’ve touched on the complexity of the fact that poetry about Nicholas–poetry bound in his life story–brings him very close to those of us who cherish that poetry. Despite that, and partly because of that there is a further tragedy in his illusory self. Poetry that nourishes you and me represented a very real danger to Nicholas. The Times article I quoted I think made similar points, but in a sort of ticking-off-points way, as expected of journalism, or–dare I say–soap opera. You, on the other hand, write very clearly and urgently about the continuum of dramatic and real tragedy, and how it affects those near and distant. You’ve really given me something to think about. Thank you. And out of gratitude I won’t gush about how you made my thoughts spin to Pygmalion, and to consideration that the same tragedy that in drama brings catharsis offers no such benefit in real life. I guess there’s no reforming someone who has become addicted to poetic truth.

One thing I want to clarify: I’m no knee-jerk detractor of Western values and tendencies. Living in Boulder, I find myself defending those far more often that I’d expect. But there are a few things that I’ve never become used to, and one of them is the extent to which the sensational gets translated to the personal through agency of the media in the US and Europe. You say this is probably mostly affectation, but from my personal observation, I’m really not so sure. I think an easy test of it is how often such impressions and prejudices get turned into public policy, from unequal definition and application of penal code to disproportionate spending of public funds to address whatever cause may be in vogue. Prejudice, distorted interests and judgments happen everywhere, but the excessive effect of sensationalized individual cases does seem to me far more common in the US and parts of Europe.

Speaking of Boulder. I can’t believe I was reaching for examples in Portugal, and such, and I completely forgot the Ramsey case. Well, then again, I guess it fits. The Ramsey drama peaked before I moved to Colorado, and I’ve studiously ignored all the drama.

Finally, I wasn’t at AWP, but from your page you’re in Chicago? I used to live in Mt. Prospect. I sometimes go back to Chicago, and next time, we just have to meet for tea.

2009-03-26 05:59:33

Your point about the penal system is so enormously true that yes, it does rather belie any optimism of my interpreting those media sensations as largely affectation, yes.
Crap–you weren’t at AWP? Hmm . . . who do I now think is “you,” I wonder? This is so sadly typical of me . . .
Please do signal if you come to town!

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-03-25 20:34:24

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.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-03-26 08:55:23

Thanks. Of course that was 9 years ago, so the dialogue isn’t exact. She might have thrown something like “punk ass” into her response.

I’ve been absolutely eaten up by work since the new year. We’re busy so we’re making hay while the sun shines. In this economy who knows how suddenly it might set. The Nicholas news did startle me back into my moth-eaten creative clothes, and I hope I can keep them on a while.

And I haven’t seen you in ages. The way it’s dumping snow right now it might be a few days more, but let’s plan something.

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards.

To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

3 responses to “Slender Mitochondrial Strand”

  1. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Another discussion of Plath, triggered by discussion of “Daddy”:

    http://copia.posterous.com/quotidie-49

    And notes on “Morning Song” and “Metaphors,” touchstones upon the birth of my third child.

    http://copia.posterous.com/quotidie-8

  2. […] for pound, he enjoys contemplating poems about economics and the death of Sylvia Plath — although poetry sometimes makes him nervous (though not as nervous as Elizabeth Alexander must […]

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Just mentioning that “Rooting Reflex,” a poem I quote in this post, was published last year in The Lake, UK. You have to scroll down on the page.
    http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/november/

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