Winter dawn is the color of metal,
The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.
~ Sylvia Plath
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks –
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.
~ Sylvia Plath, born on this day in 1932
While conducting research for a current essay project on identity and self-definition in the works of Virginia Woolf, I keep stumbling over the roots of Sylvia Plath’s trees – the shriveling figs and ancient yews, black pine and seeding winter trees, the diseased elm, and Polly’s dream tree, a “thicket of sticks” with a larkspur star. With their multifurcating branches of options and opportunities, decisions and offshoots, Plath uses tree imagery to portray stages of self-consciousness, inner chaos, confusion, isolation, and desolation.
Obviously, these are not the sort of cheerful trees under which you would spread a blanket and picnic. However, they aptly convey the paradoxical desires and inner conflict Woolf’s characters (and many of us, I would venture) encounter on the journey to consciousness and self-definition.
My favorite Woolf tree is the one Lily continually moves in her painting in To the Lighthouse. Each time she is beset with self-doubt, bowing “like corn under a wind” (usually at the hand of Charles Tansley, who insists that women can neither write nor paint), she rights herself by shifting the tree in her painting: “She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else.”
Lily’s spontaneous urge to make a shift in her drawing conveys her need to put order to the swirl of emotions and conflicting desires in her mind. She begins to realize that her vision requires balance and fusion. Plath’s trees, conversely, are tragic and dark, representative of the deepest recesses of our thoughts before reconciliation occurs. And I keep tripping over them.
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
~ from “The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
~ Excerpt from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, born on this day in 1932.
While conceived originally in 2009 to chronicle my journey through Chapman University’s dual MA/MFA program in English and Creative Writing, Archetype has evolved to reflect my deepening involvement in and commitment to literary pursuits. If you’re interested in literature, poetry, the process and angst of creative and nonfiction writing, literary figures and events, submission opportunities, books I’m reading, other literary blogs I’m following, conferences I’m attending, and demons I’m wrestling, I invite you to visit often.