If I’m feeling gloomy, trapped by the confines of daily life, I like to read Sylvia Plath poems. For some reason it makes me feel better to read them. I have no idea why reading such angry and angst-filled poetry does so. Maybe it’s like listening to sad and beautiful music.
Her poems “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are well-known for a reason. They temporarily crack open the bell jar we all live under. But there’s another poem from that same period, the fall of 1962, a few months before she died, that I love. It uses similar techniques to “break glass.”
The poem captures the feeling of being ill with a high fever: “Fever 103.”
Just count the amazing images used to describe feeling so heated from fever that the speaker is no longer purely human. Below you will find both a video version and a text version.
One thing about poetic images. There are a lot of wonderful 20th century poems that use images of pop culture that are remembered by fewer and fewer people. It’s a sad fact that what makes the poetry immediate and vivid can also be what ages it. For readers who don’t know what Isadora’s scarves refers to in the poem, let me share this before you listen to the poem.
Isadora Duncan was an American modern dancer–very famous– who bought a new open (like a convertible) car. She was given to dressing dramatically, so she wore a long scarf that blew out of the car, trailing after her. Unfortunately, it caught on a wheel and killed Duncan.
Without further ado, listen to Plath’s marvelous voice reading this exquisite poem. Be sure to listen for the movement from Hell to Paradise.
by Sylvia Plath
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. In capable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,
But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.
Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water makes me retch.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern–
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise-
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him
Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)–
20 October 1962