Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Staring from Her Hood of Bone

Death and Ceremony in Sylvia Plath's Edge
Brendan Owen Keenan
by Sylvia Plath

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

One of Sylvia Plath’s final two poems, the other named Balloons, tells of the end of a journey, an end free of sadness and darkness, instead calm and neutral, almost content.
The Defiance
It is also defiant. At a time of tremendous medical advances, to be perfected in death, and not in life, is anathema. Feared and hated, death is to our culture the final failure, the moment when the natural world has defeated our wisdom won across the ages.  We work tirelessly against it, unwilling to embrace finality but unwilling to despair, and evermore we find ways to slow its relentless advance.

And we hate with equal fervor those do embrace it, those who take it for themselves, unsympathetic as we are to the questions of why. We need the answer, of course, objectively, but we only resent the act; perhaps it is in envy, “taking the easy way out;”  perhaps it is in vengeance that we feel wronged, as is the case with the common Abrahamic beliefs that a person who takes her own life commits herself to Hell; still further perhaps in pity, mourning the life that might have been with a little help and protection; maybe simply in surprise. We title her "Victim." We are fighters.

Here we find a darkness not to be scorned or feared; rather, it is the apotheosis of the traveller’s journey.

The Perfection
Perfected, without flaw in death. The possibility for errors is past. Ancient and civilized as the Greeks, Christian-pure in her white toga, a body smiling to invoke a grinning skull. The age grants authority and gravity to the eternity of quiescence; on the scrolls of her toga are written the last chapter of the woman’s life.

Lifeless, the imagined room is soulless, for nothing lives there. The body is here but not the person; the life is spent, not only in the woman but in the children; perhaps in literal terms these are hers: one at each breast, but dead for the lack of milk in them. It might be a horror were it not for the white serpents, dead evils of a dying Garden of Eden, by death free of the sin it birthed. Life was the horror, not death. Back into her she reclaims them, and like a dying garden that once flowered and bore fruit, the body offers no more gifts.

She smiles defiantly that these gifts, her dead children, are at her dead breasts; she of course should be smiling only at the birth of her children, the true demanded accomplishment of a woman. The reclamation of them into her as dead, white serpents furthermore tells that the woman’s Death is feminine: the asp at Cleopatra’s breast is the perished one here, undulating as it does with her curves. Slain by Woman, head uncrushed under the heel of Man; instead dead by the lack of sin to nourish it in the way these pitchers of milk once nourished her children. Passionate, corrupt Woman is gone, and in Her place is a pure, amoral statue barren of temptation, unrisen and unfallen.

Even the statuesque, stone burial, in dispassionate repose, suits itself. Bare footed, white robed, but without ascension; no rebirths need follow. She is passionless and devoid of sadness, like the moon made from bone. And why should the moon be sad? She is the light in the night sky, in turns accepting and rejecting the dark but always predictably; on time, we can set our calendar by it, and we do. She is, like death, a watcher who always arrives to dispel the surrounding black of emptiness; a white comfort, the moon together with the stars dresses the somber earth like the toga the perfect woman wears on her funerary bed.

Here lies neither a glorification of death nor a condemnation of it. Here lies the total neutrality of existence. Here lies the body hardened in rigor mortis but draped under a soft robe; she is the stiff, dead stem of a still-beautiful flower whose soft petals follow her. And when bare feet, callused skin worn away in empathy with a weary, heavy heart, finish a sojourn forced upon them, the rest is welcome, dolce far niente after the pain and horror of life.
The Cold Embrace
Would that the rest of us envisioned such an end in concord with the inevitable future, one with no soul to cheat a harvester, no carving of a name in stone to cheat oblivion. To live without the terror of the end or even the simple anxiety of failure is enviable in its way, and simple ceremony, kind respect, and a warm regard of the beauty that always is and was suffices.

Special thanks to Nicole K. Miller.

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