Friday, October 15, 2010

Thinking of the Chilean miners...

...this poem came into my head because of the opening:

Nick and the Candlestick
by Sylvia Plath

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb
Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,
Cold homicides.
They weld to me like plums.

Old cave of calcium
Icicles, old echoer.
Even the newts are white,

Those holy Joes.
And the fish, the fish—
Christ! they are panes of ice,

A vice of knives,
A piranha
Religion, drinking

Its first communion out of my live toes.
The candle
Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

Its yellows hearten.
O love, how did you get here?
O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses,
With soft rugs—

The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

This is one of my favorite Plath poems. The occasion is the poet nursing her infant son Nick by candlelight. The creepy conceit is that she's nursing him in a cave.

I must confess that I have always loved caves, the fairy-tale premise of some hole in a hill, a muddy rabbit-run behind a boulder which leads to another world--a world with trees of gypsum, perfectly quiet weather, and a stone dome of its own, eerily devoid of stars. So the gothic ickyness of the cave in this poem is weirdly fascinating to me. What does make it horrible is that the miner seems to be trapped in the cave, with piranha-like fish nibbling on her toes. I love the way Plath smudges the lines between the physical room she's sitting in--a drafty room in an old house in the Devonshire countryside, I think--and the desolate mind-cave she takes with her everywhere. The cave isn't total fantasy--the blue light might be from the moon coming through the window, you can imagine cold draughts of air, and the candle of course is a physical candle, in a brass candlestick with a figure of Hercules kneeling at the base (she writes about it in another poem). I love how she feels her way into the poem, moving from assonance to assonance, hand over hand, like someone groping through darkness. ("Waxy / stalactites," "Drip / thicken," "womb / Exudes," "Black bat / wrap / raggy"...) It's musical and kinetic. At one point the musicality goes too far, when she says the black bat airs weld to her like plums, which is sort of baffling. I take it as a tactile expression. She is like the pit of a plum, with the plum-flesh vampirically glomming onto her. Think of trying to cut open a plum and pry the pit out, and you'll feel how hard it would be to pry off the black bat airs.

The candle gutters and shines out again, and she "finds" a baby. Here the poem begins to turn from ghoulish to poignant. This is Sylvia's own description of the poem: "...a mother nurses her baby son by candlelight and finds in him a beauty which, while it may not ward off the world's ill, does redeem her share of it." The woman may be trapped in the cave, but she can still exercise her free will within it: she has a job: she is a miner, and miners are searching for precious ore. Her great find is a ruby, the living ruby of her child. Sylvia Plath was often a disturbed and unhappy person, but she loved her two children and mothered them as best she could while suffering from depression. "O love, how did you get here?" She is amazed that this luminous, pure child could be born into the cruel "cave" she lives in, which is her personal darkness, yes, but also this fallen world under the rule of its dark Prince. (I don't know that she would have used these theological terms, but that's how I understand "the world's ill.") There is gratitude along with pity in her voice. The cave is no place for a baby, and so she tries to make it more homey. The roses and soft rugs are expressions of her love, but what soft and perishable items they are--"the last of Victoriana," she says wistfully. Those last four stanzas make my hair stand on end. Somehow the roses and rugs generate a real air of coziness which begins to glow stubbornly in the grim cave, warming the woman along with her child, although intellectually she doubts that her new decor has made any difference. Comfort me with chintzes, sustain me with teacups! You can set a Victorian armchair down there and put doilies on all the rocks, but those blind fish are still in the water, waiting to snack on you. Your attempts at domesticity are useless. You can make cheesecakes and sing nursery rhymes, but it's all a figleaf...

But no. Your love makes a difference. The roses are bright and fragrant, the rugs are deep and soft. The candle's yellows hearten and it "recovers its small altitude"--the candle is at least as real as the cave. Something about the delicate balance of the words--the brave, rough 'r's in "rugs" and "roses" contrasted with their possibly ineffectual prettiness, and the unscornful sadness of "last of Victoriana"--makes them seem like tiny facets of some ambivalent jewel. The two fierce provocations that follow are splendid: "Let the stars plummet to their dark address": who knew that the plain word "address" contained a latent glamor waiting to be unlocked by the word "dark"! I think she transcends her usual technique of serial assonance in this line. "stars" and "dark" share an assonance, but the secret alchemy of the other sounds seems inexplicable, and therefore miraculous. She keeps going, pitch-perfect: "Let the mercuric atoms that cripple drip into the terrible well": what are "mercuric atoms"? In a literal sense they are poisonous radiation, or the atomic bomb... "Mercuric" seems to widen the circle from radiation poisoning to mercury poisoning... really, they could be anything that is hostile to life. (After thinking some more, I see that "mercuric" can mean "liable to splitting into smaller balls, the way spilled mercury does." She has a vivid description somewhere of mercury from a shattered thermometer.) There's something Audenesque about the "terrible well," the cryptic allegory of it. And the assonance of "cripple...drip" forms a faint tether with the stalactites at the beginning that "drip and thicken." Whatever, she says, let them drip. No one can deny the beauty of my child.

The last stanza affirms the child completely, ending with a serene nativity scene. The phantasmagoria of the cave image has retreated, and we are back in the bright, solid narrative of the stable and the manger. Although if we think a little bit, we quickly draw parallels between the desolate cave-scape in Plath's poem and Christian themes surrounding the Nativity. You can go to the Holy Land and see a cave that is the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and carols always sing of the bitter cold and dark on the night he was born. Herod tried to kill the infant Jesus, and he succeeded in killing others. There is something of the Coventry Carol in Sylvia's bittersweet poem. In this poem, though, she holds up her hand to the melancholy and says Stop. This far, and no further.

Well! It looks like "Nick and the Candlestick" is slightly relevant to the rescued miners after all. Coming out of the mine into the daylight must have been like being born again.


some guy on the street said...

That line about plums... In my prune-eating days I did encounter those tightly-bound fruit, and even peaches so coherent that the pit stone broke up before you could get all the pulp off it. Very evocative indeed!

A much more tenuous connection, if you will --- it's just something the line drew out of my head --- I'm reminded of the tale of a young lady masquerading as a knight, who scares off an ogre by squeezing "blood from a stone" with her hand: the red juice of a mouldy ould plum; and the thought reminded me of how sticky and apt to stain any of those red juices can be. And that echoed with welded binding, as well as the gruesomer pictures here.

It's not much, I realize, but I wanted to share that.

Meredith said...

Ogres, blood, welding... I like this! Nice and creepy! I think you really got into the Plath Spirit there. ^_^