LITTLE SMILING HOOKS: For Plath Fanatics (not to be read with your head in the oven)

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It’s cold outside. Another winter presses down on Pineapple Hill, my beach house in a cow pasture in rural South Carolina. The sky is pale gray, despondent, ragged where bare branches of a forest reach up like claws tearing, scraping, leaving scars.

Usually, it’s summer when I read and review. Mid-morning in the sunny hot tub surrounded by banana trees and bamboo. Or late afternoon in a hammock on the porch where Honeysuckle has come in through the screen, a ceiling fan barely moves and, down below, looking out across the pasture, deer leap like children in tall grass.

Yet here I am, hunkered down against the weather same as the cow standing motionless in my field way out on its own like a package left out in the rain. I have come to my office with black-as-evil coffee very hot in a hard brown mug carrying also Virginia Aronson’s latest work, Little Smiling Hooks, a collection of poems about Sylvia Plath.

Plath the poet and novelist. Plath the confessor. Plath the diagnosed, drugged, suffocated, bathed in ice, wrapped in wet sheets, hard jolted, shot up, prodded, discussed and analyzed, written about and studied, gossiped about and feared, lyricized and revered, made into flesh and poetry. The Plath, as Aronson says, “married, beaten, baked in an oven…served cold.”

Plath the suicide reborn as a thin, wan waif with long stringy hair refusing to come away from the corner. The corner is safe. The corner is time eternal. A coffin and a vault. Serene. Aronson coaxes her out poem by poem, step by step. Out to where the light is better albeit still dark, still sad, angry, and even hideous at times.

If you know Plath well, these poems carry the full weight of Plath’s truth. Aronson clearly knows the Plath biography. And , as important, she is able to present it through a Plath-like filter. Aronson has wounds of her own and she has written about them in her book J’Adoube: Stories (previously South Florida Spin). For this reason, I think of Aronson’s poems about Plath as like clay pots spun with Plath-like hands.

For instance, the title Little Smiling Hooks alludes to bees, a steady presence in Plath’s world. Her father Otto, a German, was an entomologist who made a study of that insect and Plath, with her abusive husband ,Ted Hughes, kept bees when they lived in England. Bees, with their stingers, were all around Plath. And she was stung. A lot. All of her life. Hurting her. Making her bitter. Plath’s poems and semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar were about those stings and how vicious they were though disguised as benign. Of The Bell Jar, Plath said, “What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add color—it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…”

Plath is all about self-reflection and, it seems, attempts to exorcise her demons. Such a deep diving venture is dangerous enough when pursued on one’s own. Deadly when encouraged by a dark-natured soulmate. In Plath’s case, the prodding came through her relationship with fellow poet Ted Hughes. Numerous Plath scholars believed he pushed her to descend too far—to suicide, actually.

In a poem called Wintertime, Aronson writes this in empathy:

…Mr. Face-the Wall

will teach her to

dig bare hands in his skull

and he in hers

prying open the trapdoor

to self-expression, rage.

The Plath-Hughes relationship was passionate, competitive and, ultimately, toxic. In the beginning, it ran red hot, centered on writing and writers. However, in time, Plath finds herself housebroken and uninspired.

In Flat Life, Aronson puts it this way:

The woman drags her shadow

around the room in circles

nothing stinks like a pile

of unwritten verse.

Aronson channeling Plath is heavy, heady stuff that goes way down to where the marrow has soured.

Like I said: If you know Plath well, she comes back to life on every single page of Little Smiling Hooks.

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