The final words, the final lines, of the final poem of Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poetry, Ariel:
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable, hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Language, as Blanchot says, is the basis of being, the ground, which is nonetheless dark and voiceless. Poetry becomes nothing more than a “dispersion that, as such, finds its form.” Plath is now and was then already six feet deep. Language is not so much stood upon as communed with. The other side. It is excised; spelling, incanting, disinterring. Literature may be evil, as Bataille would have it, but poetry is the devil incarnate.
At times, Plath seems to let language take possession of her, her poetry evoking tongues, glossolalic; at other times, she is the destroyer, the disintegrator, burying meaning in sound and leaving it there to rot and flourish anew in decay.
In The Colossus, the poem “Ouija” takes on the quality of a lord’s prayer, albeit one devoid of rhythm, mantra and devotion, brimming instead with the awe and terror of words. It is an ode to old testaments carved directly on the air by forces unseen.
She fills the night of writing not with ghosts but moths, fluttering towards any source of light; towards us, the reader, the interpreter of demonic hoof-taps. The night that, Blanchot writes, “is a vanished presence.” The writer takes notes, nothing more. It is reading that “transforms into light that which is not of the order of illumination”, he argues.
How to read a Ouija board? Steadily, one letter at a time. The planchette on the board of letters, left to glide, becomes a conduit. It is an automatic writing, an automatic spelling, through which something unspeakable speaks.
The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.
The old god dribbles, in return, his words.
The old god who “writes aureate poetry”, an alchemical gold, passed through any medium who might believe, who might give a shit. A poetry produced
In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes,
Fair chronicler of every foul declension.
The old god is a bastard god who “hymns the rotten queen”, the “bawdy queen of death”. After Plath’s death, Hughes, that other devil, still communes. She remains the planchette. In “Poem for a Birthday” she writes, “I am all mouth.” That same glass mouth? Or a mouth housed in glass, in a bell jar? A mouth restricted, tongue lolling and lollygagging in a room of its own, not all mouth but all tongue, clashing against a cage of teeth.
Mother, you are the one mouth
I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness
Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.
The old god, the true “all-mouth”, devours everything. “He’s a fat sort.” The mother is an oral void birthing voids.
Ted Hughes sets forth a tradition, a rhythm, a mantra, returning devotion to the lord’s prayer, writing his birthday letters to his dead wife.
His “Ouija” is a consolation, an apology, a reckoning with possession and disease. “Always bad news from the Ouija board”, the poem begins.
We can imagine this poem to be the other side of that same night, and the nights that followed; another perspective on the ritual. The spirit communed with, however, is already in the room. She is the one who writes the first poem.
She nudged out her name. And she was
Despairing, depressed, pathetic. She concocted
Macabre, gloomy answers. Every answer
Was ‘rottenness’ or ‘worms’ or simply ‘bones’.
Possessed of language, of night, of spells. Never the same after tongue and finger enter into an unholy intercourse, a coursing-through.
She left a peculiar guilt — a befouled
Feeling of jeopardy, a sense that days
Would be needed now to cleanse us
Of the pollution. Some occult pickpocket
Had slit the soul’s silk and fingered us.
The ritual is repeated nonetheless, this time with firm intention and a honed intuition.
Not the mother evoked this time, but the old god, who “preferred to talk about poetry. He made poems.” “He liked jokes” and Shakespeare too. He is an artist in his own right, he communes but does not possess. The mother lingers, however. She haunts, making Plath “ambitious” — an ambition, Hughes seems to believe, that would be the death of her. It is a poem of regret, as if he wishes the glass mouth had never inspired his wife to write.
But Hughes himself still made poems.
“I hate your mom.” Phoebe Bridgers refrains still circle around my head days later.
The journey to the concert cuts a dogleg over the English north. We stop at Huddersfield, which I have not returned to since I left in March, but do not disembark, continuing instead to fly through West Yorkshire on the way to our final stop in Manchester.
The Yorkstone used everywhere holds memories but there are no ghosts here. In Newcastle, I already lurk at corners, anxious about seeing people I’d rather not. In Yorkshire, I knew too few people to fear an encounter of any kind. It is the place itself that is charged.
From the train window, I see Stoodley Pike and know, although it is unseen, that Heptonstall is passing overhead, where I spent my 30th birthday by Plath’s grave, the “-Hughes” of her legal name erased from the granite, like the planchette is returned, not gliding but chastising, used to gristle and grind.
H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, it spells and spells and spells, fading the letters that lie before it.