Your Own, Sylvia

h1 May 8th, 2007 by jules

Jump back, ’cause Stephanie Hemphill has poured her heart and soul and many years of research and hero worship into this fictionalized verse portrait of Sylvia Plath, entitled Your Own, Sylvia (Random House Children’s Books; March 2007; review copy). It’s quite daring and ambitious (“to imitate Plath’s form to tell her story could be bold-hearted courage, the sincerest form of flattery, or foolhardiness; perhaps all three by turns,” wrote KLIATT), telling us about Plath’s life through Hemphill’s own original poetry, many re-imagined in the style of Plath’s poems, and with Plath’s imagery scattered throughout the novel as well. But Hemphill pulls it off and passionately invites the reader in to get to know Sylvia; these are meticulously-crafted poems — and in many forms, from villanelles to rhymed couplets to lots of free verse and even one abecedarian — that serve as a wonderful introduction to Sylvia’s life. But even ardent Sylvia fans who need no convincing will enjoy this portrait and glimpsing Sylvia anew through the eyes of those who surrounded her in her short life.

It might be a tad confusing, so let me clarify right off the bat: The poems are based on the real, live life of the real, live Sylvia Plath, but they are fictionalized. Hemphill, though, did her research and did it well (she includes an extensive “Source Notes and Bibliography” at the book’s close). Unobtrusive and pithy prose footnotes in pale grey and smaller print are provided at the bottom of most pages, giving us insight into Hemphill’s source materials and further explicating what the poems reveal to us — in terms of Plath’s writings and life events. I found it all terrifically spellbinding and hard to put down. No matter what adjectives you apply in your mind to the near-mythical Sylvia Plath (even Hemphill herself states here, commenting upon the first time she was introduced to Plath in the classroom, “Sylvia’s work seemed difficult, purposely obtuse, and so I dismissed pieces of hers as remote and even cold”) and even if you can dismiss Plath with ease, you might find it harder to dismiss this compelling page-turner of a novel.

The poems are arranged chronologically, beginning with a poem about Sylvia’s birth, imagined as Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, might have told it — but after an opening poem entitled “Owning Sylvia Plath” (“Something shimmers out of your chasm. / Your language feels like words / trapped under my tongue / that I can’t quite spit out on my own”), as a nameless reader would have written in Spring 2007. This is a beguiling way to start off the novel, placing us — as readers — squarely in the path on our journey into the life of, arguably, America’s most famous confessional poet. During her childhood and teen years, we meet Sylvia’s best friend in grade school (“Sylvia sees a door/ where other people see a wall, / but where will it lead?”); we learn that Sylvia, at the age of eight, was terribly burdened with guilt over her father’s death (Hemphill imagining Plath’s mother writing, towards the novel’s close, “Sivvy has been a child of the graveyard, / haunted by ghosts, since the day / Otto died”); we are privy to the countless number of boys she led on during high school (most notably portrayed in Hemphill’s “Demolition,” in which she shows us that Sylvia struggled with “how far should she go?” through an overriding metaphor about Sylvia’s teasing and the stock car races she attends with a high school flame); and we read about the hefty perfectionist demands she placed upon herself (“the curl of her hair / her argument against nuclear / disarmament exact”). When she heads off to Smith College, we are given glimpses of her via her roommate and best friend, Marcia Brown (“No one knows that Sylvia / straightens her sock drawer / four times a day, her sleep light / and infrequent as an infant”) and her many suitors. And it’s when a nurse at the Smith infirmary tells us “there is a blue violence about this patient,” though she only sees Sylvia for sinusitis, that we get our hints as to Sylvia’s known struggles with mental illness. Myron “Mike” Lotz, one of Sylvia’s college boyfriends, is imagined as writing, “She fascinates and enchants me / but something seems amiss, / like the low murmur of clouds / moving in before it storms.” After missing one semester at Smith — due to her hospitalization and electroshock therapy at a private mental facility — her friend at Smith, as Hemphill imagines it, writes, “{s}he types her way back to health, / click-clack of keys, composing her own words,” eventually confessing “that she took the pills to erase tedium — / that precursor to depression’s quicksand” and that “{s}he says she killed her father — wished him dead / when she was a little girl . . .”

At Cambridge, she continues to reject suitor after suitor (“a silent queen of the bees, / she understands her import / in the hive, produces well / to retain her status. Sylvia charms / us mortals with her poems / and her ball gowns”). But it’s Ted Hughes, a British poet, whom she marries, eventually putting her work and writing second to Ted, their home, and their children (Hemphill’s poem about their meeting, entitled “Theodore” and written in the style of Plath’s “Ode for Ted,” is unforgettable); indeed, “{s}he sees Ted / as the larger talent / and herself as the vessel, / cargoing his work to the world.” Thinking “birth will save her,” she has two children with Ted, but eventually they divorce when he finds another woman. His rejection too much to bear and having failed as the perfect wife and mother, she commits suicide at age thirty-one:

. . . She opens the window to dawn,

Wedges a towel under the children’s door.
Righteous, happy as a rose,

She knows her place in the garden.
Her black petals curl underground.

She tidies her desk, leaves her manuscript,
Ariel and Other Poems, to the moon,

To the world of bone. The sun breaks
Like yolk. It is time.

She unlatches the oven door. The gas
Fills her nostrils, sweet as blood, pungent as a sword.

{from “Winter’s End,” imagining Sylvia Plath in the style of “Edge”) . . .

What I love best about this anthology is that the reader is led on their Sylvia-journey by reading the perspectives of her family, friends, colleagues, doctors, therapists, and much more (“{d}istinct, skillfully crafted character voices,” in the words of VOYA); this, the school librarian in me must say, is an effective way to introduce teen readers to perspective (as KLIATT put it, readers will be interested “in questions of perception raised by the author’s use of many voices to tell Plath’s story”). Needless to say, the book also serves as a highly accessible introduction to Sylvia’s life and can serve as a sturdy launching-off point for those readers wanting to delve further into Sylvia’s work (they can get their feet wet on Hemphill’s poems before facing Plath’s sometimes more abstruse works) and, in particular, those young, would-be poets interested in confessional poetry.

In a “Dear Reader” note at the book’s close, Hemphill tells us of her great love for Plath’s words (“a revelation”) and that each day, she took a line from a Sylvia Plath poem and journalled in poetry about Plath’s images and ideas. She also wrote to her mother daily, as Sylvia often did, writing about her writing and her life. Trying to “channel Sylvia,” she began writing the poems for this anthology. It worked and worked well. Hemphill’s passion for the subject is almost palpable. Sylvia’s story is at turns agonizing and heartbreaking, but Hemphill ends it on an encouraging, hopeful note (“the memory of her light blazes / Our dark ceiling”).

Kelly Fineman has posted about this novel here and here (the latter being her redux version). Kelly writes, “Good poems have a way of conveying emotion through imagery, and Hemphill’s poems do just that. The mental image I have of college-aged Sylvia, presumed missing, found wedged behind the woodpile where she’d attempted suicide, stays with me because of Hemphill’s poem, which describes not only the scene, but also how Sylvia’s body betrayed her — she’d taken the pills, but vomited.” Kelly provides two excellent posts on why this novel worked for her. So, go now. Shoo. See ya. Out the door, you. Go read Kelly’s review(s). (And give Kelly your undying support, too, since — even though she adores Hemphill’s novel — she’s “a bit mopey that someone else has published ‘a verse portrait’ of a famous female author in period verse, since that is precisely what I’m working on for Jane Austen”).

{Also, Mary Harris Russell reviewed it on Sunday here at The Chicago Tribune. Thanks to Big A, little a for the link} . . .

‘Til next time . . .

9 comments to “Your Own, Sylvia

  1. Excellent review (as always!), Jules. And bonus points to you for using the word “abstruse”!

  2. Kelly, you might be the only person who reads this novella of a review, since you love the book, too. I really need to write some short reviews. I promise I can. I can even do those one-paragraph journal-like reviews. I should challenge myself and write some of those on our blog one day. I should limit myself to, like, 20 words. Ah screw that. I might just die if I had to do that.

    Anyway, thanks. Can’t wait to read your verse novel.

  3. Hi Jules (and Kelly):

    Here’s the question I have when reading your reviews. This book sounds truly great, but what if you don’t like Plath’s poetry or her lifestory? (Guilty, obviously, as charged.) Will you still like the book?

    Jules, keep on writing your reviews. I always read them 🙂

  4. I think you might find it compelling, appreciating Hemphill’s poems as their own skillful creations. For instance, even if you don’t care for Plath’s imagery, you might appreciate how Hemphill weaves it into her story. And I’d say, even though Hemphill has an obvious love for Plath and her poetry, there is still balance: There’s one footnote about how Anne Sexton said in her memoirs that Robert Lowell liked Plath’s poems, and she said “I didn’t agree . . . I told Lowell that I felt she dodged the point and did so perhaps because of her preoccupation with form . . . Those early poems were all in a cage (and not even her own cage at that).” And I remember another criticism that made me think, ah, Sylvia dissenters might agree with that.

    So, yeah, you might appreciate all the different points-of-view — from those who loved her and those who didn’t.

    Thanks, Kelly!

  5. Sylvia Plath influenced a lot of the poetry I wrote at the end of my freshman year. Some of it was good, and most of it was written for shock value. I’m intrigued by this book, but I’m also a bit cautious simply because of my embarassment of having identified with her intensely earlier in my life. It’s a bit odd now to be older than Plath was when she died.

  6. Jules, I am so mad at you. You know what a huge TBR pile I have and yet you throw this out there and make me add another one. Argh.

    Akelda – I kinda know what you mean. I was a very angsty adolescent who also identified deeply with SP and wrote a lot of painfully bad imitative poetry. And sometimes I’ve felt that embarrassment you describe, because I was exactly the sort of young SP fan that people roll their eyes about. But I’ve moved on, and I feel like I can appreciate her as a poet much more now that I’m past all that angst. Seriously, she had a real gift for form. Which I think is why Anne Sexton was so jealous she had to say that thing about the cage.

  7. Have you read the version of Ariel that came out about 2 years ago, with all of her edits and notations? Very fine…

  8. Nope, not read that one, Liz. Thanks for the note!

  9. […] high school I have cherished the work of Sylvia Plath, and 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast highlights a new poetry collection about her — through her childhood, through her years at […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.