[APPLAUSE] JOANIE MACKOWSKI: Thank you for coming this evening. I'm Joanie Mackowski. I'm part of the creative writing faculty at Cornell University. And I'm a poet. And I'm the opening act for our symposium on the arts and mental health. I'm going to read some poems and speak about Sylvia Plath, speak a little bit about myself.
I don't usually tell people, actually, but I just happen to have bipolar disorder. And I'm lucky, I think, in that my poems-- I'm lucky in that most people don't know these days. My poetry is not explicitly about my trials with bipolar. For me, poetry serves as a way to escape and to distance myself from unbearable feelings. Poetry also provides a way to transform chaos into a lapidary construction.
It transforms internal and chimerical energies into what's external and real. And also a poem, if it's going right, I think it leads me out of myself and what I think I know toward some new insight. I think poetry is generally a health-seeking, truth-seeking endeavor.
I'm going to read some of my poems that bear particularly on mental and emotional issues and imbalance. In some cases, though, these poems are about imbalance for me only. Because I remember what I happened to be going through when I was writing the poem. But the end product maybe seems coherent or balanced or composed.
The first poem is View from the Bluff. It is a description of the view from the Olympic Peninsula, actually, in Port Townsend and the natural park there, national park. And it's describing the pleasure of becoming small and insignificant, which is something I find through poetry.
View from the Bluff. This view's too big to see. Far below, the scrap of beach looks like a pillow. The breakers and uneven white fringe on a blue bedspread topped with an orange bell buoy and also see a schooner there gliding from the outer seas to inner, its sails set on the ripples like a tooth-- and all rimmed by the cascades made smooth by distance watching the ducks fly v's, the shifting hackles of the waves and feeling one's idiosyncrasies dissolve. Those inconvenient edges growing soft as that band of cirrus stretching over the San Juans.
And a great blue Heron unfolds from beneath a brier. Awkwardness part of its gracefulness, it flaps away and dwindles to a dot against the mountains, becomes the period to close the sentence of its own complex compound loveliness. Wouldn't it be nice to fly off into the distance, to shed the body's tinsel and disappear while a speedboat pulls open a long wake like a zipper on the water. And then the waves zip it up again. To blend, each ear, an eddy, each thought some floating clumps of kelp, and the eyes a million glances of sunlight refracting irregular argyle patterns across the waves while a gull catches a fish. To be immense and minuscule.
The breakers roll themselves up between my fingers like cigarettes knocked swirls of agitation from swirls of calm while the mountains jut from the horizon like torn newspaper, their jagged peaks crumpled against the sound as if someone could set it aflame. Kindle, its deep blue cool and white tipped lizard skin checkered with light and seaweed.
Peace is oceanic, vulnerable, oddly giddy, and not easily distinguished from chaos. But seven islands crouched in a terrible green secret arranged over the water like rocks on a picnic table to anchor the tablecloth, to keep it from blowing away and toppling the paper plate bowls, and cans of beer as the Earth and its irregular perfections are pressed in the swirling palms of our hands. The means absentmindedly fondled by the ends. All kinds of truths are anchored by these islands.
And I'm going to read out-- these are older poems. This is from my first book of poems. It's called the Zoo. And this next poem I'm going to read is called The Beam. And it's a crazier-sounding poem. It's fun. One thing that for me is fun with poetry is to play with sound effects. And I've been reading Sylvia Plath all my life. And what a wonderful worker of sound effects she is. So here's a poem that is trying out those sounds.
The Beam. You love when the oak leaves shimmer like silver. And you love the emergency man. You hear him running, the blood in your veins and the cold dawn. He's on the highway then at your doorway. Now his face and the frame of your window, hand on light switch, foot on stair, foot on shadow. A medical tickle, he's come to repair your no, no, no, the base blot in your brain, your ganglion briar, your stumbling pulse abuzz with dirty frequencies, your kisses, wrinkles, and bloody gills.
Ailing, alien alone, are you ill in your ear or in error? He presses his stethoscope to your hand, pulls a pill from the air. He tastes your tears, taps the burl of your breast. And he feels the cool curls of your bones. His fingers press through your skin where the ground opens. And every moment's emergency, all your atoms singing his name. What a wonderful crisis?
Crickets sing in the grasses. The clock goes numb. The stinking weed he uproots from your lungs, the snail from your skull. Aphids, he plucks from your liver. Your thick blue, black, your little fits of minor thunder. He takes you away and leaves you limp, your head full of light, the beam of his lamp.
Well, the next poem I'm going to read is called Vision. And nobody knows this except you all now. But it is pretty much a verbatim description of an hallucination that happened a long time ago. And so writing the poem, it was interesting to externalize it, to turn it into something coherent and humorous even.
And so it's Robert Frost also who said that poetry begins in delight. And it ends in wisdom. And the wisdom that came out of this poem, for me, is-- as well as at the end-- is about bringing together-- I guess is courage-- actually now that I have largely bipolar behind me is actually to say that I have dealt with it. Hopefully, well, when I do meet students who are dealing with it, it can be helpful to be a role model as someone who has it under control.
Vision. I walked down Pike Street and saw myself walking up. Pike's a steep hill. I first saw myself from three miles away, so small I fit on my fingertip. This wasn't just someone who looked like me. This was me. It was I.
The rain had folded back. And the mountain's tectonic shards rolled in. The men in sequined aprons threw marlins back and forth.
The other eyes saw me too and clearly was uncomfortable. We exchanged glances. Rather, we exchanged the same glance. Then I sped up but barely-- never deigning to let slip a twitch that my existence that day walking down Pike Street ruffled me one iota. I was more like the prow of a schooner cutting the street, the dolphins arching and arresting the wave crested Hill with indifferent grace. I looked better than me-- I mean I.
I walked with a clear grasp of truth and personal responsibility. We crossed and diverged. I would have preferred another vision, say of the gossamer fissure and the corneal membrane that guilds us together, to peer out through that.
I'll read two more poems-- first a short one called Prayer. That the hole in my skull never quite grows over with mosses or brick, that no lover on a ladder can patch it, no permissive meadow can fold its field over. For there's too much to know. There's too much to want never to contain.
That the backbone beanstalk shoots up through the tiny roof that I stand for, that I'm never too cluttered with mud to reflect. For the tongue grows tired of holding up the sky. That the flood never fails. Each puddle and ocean, each rise a falls, each salt breath coaxing new oxygen from the deep's own lungs. That the skull bones join together as clouds first easing out the storm then breaking apart.
And the last poem I'm going to read is called The Larger. And this is a poem, actually, that was inspired by thinking about Sylvia Plath in that her person, as it were, her story has-- is larger than her poems it seems to me. And she has-- well, she has quite a few poems. If you've seen her collected, it's about that thick. And her poems-- some who don't know her poems so well are often surprised to learn about her humorous poems, her insightful poems, her poems that are not the extreme ones.
So I think of her as a writer, a woman who did mine her art for insight. But it's these poems that her life story, it becomes the most famous thing about her. And that's just-- oh, well. This poem is called The larger.
I don't know how it happened, but I fell. And I was immense, one dislocated arm wedged between two houses. I felt some ribs had broken, perhaps, a broken neck, two. I couldn't speak. My dress caught bunched about my thighs. And where my glasses shattered, there spread a sea coast. Where my hair tangled with power lines, I felt a hot puddle of blood.
I must have slept a bit, for I woke. And a crew of about 50 was winding a stairway beside my breast and buttressing a platform on my sternum. I heard as through cotton, the noise of hammers, circular saws, laughter, and some radio droning songs about love. Some ate their lunch on a hill of black cypress all blurry. From the corner of one eye, I saw my pocketbook, its contents scattered. My lipstick's toppled silo glinting out of reach.
And then waving a tiny flashlight, a man entered my ear. I felt his boots sloshing the fluid trickling there. He never came out. So others went looking with flares, dogs, dynamite even. They burst my middle ear and found my skull, its cavern crammed with dark matter like a cross between a fungus and a cloud. They never found his body though.
Now, my legs subdue that dangerous sea, the water bright enough to cut the skin where a lighthouse perched on the tip of my great toe, each eight seconds rolls another flawless pearl across the waves. It keeps most ships from wrecking against my feet. On clear days, people stand beside the light. They watch the wave's blue heads slip up and down and scan for landmarks on the facing shore.
So now when Sylvia Plath took her life in February of '63, she left on her desk, two groups of poems. One of these was a completed manuscript. It had a working title, Ariel and Other Poems and a table of contents and was in a black binder. Plath had said to friends that this new book started with love, the first word in the book. And it ended with the spring, the last word.
And this manuscript and its narrative arc describes a creative rebirth chronicling the breakup of a marriage with Ted Hughes. The manuscript concludes with a series of poems about beekeeping, which in the poems emerges as Plath's initiation into a female-governed virginal process of industrious making. The bees are, in Plath's words, these women who only scurry, whose news is the open cherry, the open clover. And she continues, "I am in control. Here is my honey machine. It will work without thinking, opening in spring to scour the screaming crests as the moon for its ivory powers scours the sea."
And the final stanza of this book and Plath's plan is this-- "Will the hive survive? Will the gladiolus succeed in banking their fires to enter another year? What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring."
And I think the implication is, yes, the hive will survive the winter. Spring is coming. And Plath's manuscript leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope and endurance. Near this completed manuscript, however, was the second thing on her desk. It was a sheaf of newer poems, very new poems written in the very last weeks of her life, which she did not choose to put into that concluded manuscript.
These newer poems often seem eerily to be written from the point of view of one already dead as in the poem, Hanging Man. "A vultures boredom pinned me in this tree. If he were I he would do what I did. Or in the poem Words, "Words dry and riderless, the indefatigable hoof taps. While from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars govern a life."
These riderless words pronounce their author dead. Her life fixed in time. And when Plath's husband, the poet Ted Hughes, edited the Ariel manuscript prior to its publication in 1965, he placed some of this group of newer poems at the end of the book changing the book's trajectory.
These lineated poems are electrifying. And likely it was unthinkable that he not publish. Them they've become among Plath's most famous poems. And three of the five that Ned Rorem set to music are from this newer separate batch. But these poems create a different ending to Plath's book. And they portray a different relationship, it had always seemed to me in the past between Plath's art and her health and personal strength. As it was published, Ariel, the book, portrays a woman authoring ultimately her own suicide.
I think it's important to remember that while Plath, of course, wrote these poems, she didn't place them at the conclusion of a narrative arc. She didn't make them the end of the story. And setting these poems to music, Ned Rorem took these poems as beginnings.
And I think that's what these poems have needed. When I first heard these intense, beautiful settings, I appreciated the poems more than ever before. Abstracted for me-- the poems abstracted from their usual associations, the poems seem less personal, more expansive. And to hear these electric, wonderful settings is to remember that art opens us up to a collective sharing of experience and pain. And it opens us to health.
Pain makes those who suffer feel alienated and isolated. Through writing poetry, Plath transformed her pain into poems that reach beyond their author and speak to the experiences of diverse readers. Setting these to music, Rorem widened the sphere still further. Thank you.
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A reading by Cornell creative writing professor Joanie Mackowski. The event was part of "The Arts + Mental Health: The Impact on the Human Spirit," a two-day exploration, through conversation and performance, of the roles that the arts play in mental health, June 2-3, 2011.
Hosted by the Cornell Council for the Arts in collaboration with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.