Poetry Showcase Inspired by Sylvia Plath from Emma Lee

art by Katy Horan (c) https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/artists-portraits-of-sylvia-plath/

"Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted"  
(quote used on Sylvia Plath's headstone)

Not the pink of a woollen wedding dress,
the azaleas on a cemetery path,
a bandage bloodied by a cut thumb,

nor the hearse-like English cars,
the men in crow-shaded suits
the shadow of Devonshire slate roofs.

Not the blues of the English Channel,
the Atlantic Ocean that tempted
drowning-dreams in her first decade.

Not Spanish terracotta or Devon earth.
Her red was the poppies’ papery skirts,
the lust for poetry in her blood.

Not quite the yellow of her bikini
during that platinum summer
of beaches and babysitting.

Almost the yellow of daffodils,
her first hive of bees (her father
had written Bumblebees and their Ways).

Her yellow was that of the rose –
Victorian symbol of jealousy,
rages that could tip her into self-loathing.

The yellow of a single rose bud
at the point of becoming a full bloom.

Like a child forming itself finger by finger in the dark

My father told me I was love.
My mother said an accident,
grew like a bulb in her cold womb.
The grass would unload its dew on my feet
as I traced the flowers the frost made
and drew a star for my dead father.
Pinched red mouthfuls of berries
knowing sunset would bring punishment
after which I’d look to the black sky,
search for my father’s star.

I envied the magnolia,
drinking its own scent.
Eternity stretched like boredom.
I counted the pills, but not enough
to kill this thinness, light as paper.

And I became a bride. You were real,
handsomely featureless, 
would waste afternoons starting at the sky.
I gave you children. Then
I drew pity from the others on the ward.
I took my ring off. It caught the sun.
I put it back on. This is my finger
touching the photo. These are my babies.
The clouds white as a wedding dress.

I stayed. You’d borrowed the light.
I wanted it back. I wore black.
You’d buy roses, still called it love
as I hid a bruise, another fracture.
The children cried and I
was too small to comfort their hurts.
The pain they wake to is not theirs.

I crushed pills, added water,
watched it turn colourless, tried to drink.
In the ambulance, my heart still beat
so healthily it almost bloomed.
This living doll was mended again
for the gift of my babies’ small breaths,
the smell of their sleeps.

Reading Her Letters

Reading Sylvia Plath's letters gave me a jolt of recognition:
the strained cheerfulness, framing negatives as positives
and accounts for every penny with approval-seeking justification
to a mother who burdened a child with financial difficulties,
who made it clear how difficult it was to be a mother,
the burdens, unasked for self-sacrifice, always the martyr.
She lived vicariously, demanded success to take credit for
- my daughter gets her brains, work ethic from me, she'll go far.

And the subtext: it justifies the pressure I put her under
because I need her to achieve for me be the success I wanted 
for myself, what's hers is mine. Two lives entwined
no boundary allowed between mother and daughter.

The letters showed a way of managing contact, a boundary
of grey rock, reinforced by polite words on pretty stationery.

Crackle and Drag
(i.m. Sylvia Plath 1932-1963)

She did what she set out to do:
secured Yeats' former flat 
with a year's rent in advance,
turned summer in New York
into an intense, glowing novel,
flayed herself into a brilliant poet.

Poetry not written by a dead, white male
that school thought suitable for study.
A rejection was an invitation 
to try again, repurpose her work,
try out a short story, a novel,
create a moment's monument

that lives beyond a punchline, rewards
re-reading, outlives the life.
When some readers insist on dragging
her work with the foreboding of death,
they miss the crackle of static, the spark
that fired her work ethic, that inspired.

A Contemporary Visit to 3 Chalcot Square
(home of Sylvia Plath from 1960-1961)

You’d approve of the red curtains,
but not the lampshade: you weren’t chintzy.
In the window boxes, instead of flowers,
you’d have had fresh herbs for cooking
while Ted was in meetings at the BBC.
You’ve have cut a rose for your dinner table
from the untamed bush you ducked under,
hurrying back from walks 
along Primrose Hill with Frieda.
Whites and yellows would have brightened
your flat, chock-a-block with books
and baby paraphernalia, barely 
room for your writing desk, piled 
with your journal and dictionaries,
plans for book launches, another baby
and a scintillating literary salon that 
somehow got crammed into this, 
with just enough space to paint the sill white
and stencil hearts in a burning red.

Emma Lee’s publications include “The Significance of a Dress” (Arachne, 2020) and "Ghosts in the Desert" (IDP, 2015). She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, 2015), was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs at https://emmalee1.wordpress.com. 

Poems Inspired by Prince “A Purple Showcase”  from Emma Lee 

3 poems from Emma Lee 

Poem: Tracing a Love Song by Emma Lee

Poems Inspired by Prince “A Purple Showcase” from Emma Lee

Seven Seven Bleeker Street

(Written by Prince, sung by Jill Jones)

It wasn't even an A-side.
A simple beat thickened by bass,
a swirling guitar melody,
an alto female voice building towards the third verse
before falling in the final refrain.
The lyrics a generic afterthought
based on long vowels and feminine rhymes
so the lines drift into the melancholy
of a long-lost first love, a first home.
Even the number is expressed as two digits
to avoid the masculine tee in the middle.
News and social media speculate 
over the cause of death of the song's writer.
I sit in my car on a frosty street
lined with birches, white bark visible,
sunlight creeping over the rooftops,
about to run my first errand of the day
when the song sneaks unbidden into my head.

A Syncopated Cha Cha
2 dancers, one of whom is deaf, dance a cha cha to Prince's "Raspberry Beret"

Raspberry is the colour of the subversive.
She's a glittery, gum-chewing, bohemian mystery
whose easing into character as a brash New Yorker
was helped when a broken hearing aid left
her unable to gauge how loud her voice was.
Her syncopated steps: swivel, check, replace,
side, belie a quiet control under the impression
of casualness: the outfit that took several hours
to throw together, wild waves still governed
by a tide. Some shades of raspberry are blue,
a reminder of their undertone of tartness.
An excellent teacher knows he is a catalyst
cheering from the sidelines as his pupil shines.
Unseen hairpins keep the beret in place. 
Some things are practised not until the dancer
gets it right, but until she can't get it wrong.

Purple Lights over the Mediterranean

How many teens can tell a tale 
of a rocky relationship with dad,
rebellion tempered by the need 
for food, shelter or money?

A tale of a passion for something 
misunderstood by someone 
who wants you to follow their template?
Of sneakily rehearsing, playing, writing
while pretending to be someone else?

How many teens compare their life
to being in a warzone,
navigating choppy waters,
or desperately bailing out 
knowing the flimsy boat will sink?

How many teens have been cast adrift
by parents who want to do their best?
How many, caught somewhere
between childhood and adulthood,
have been pushed out to sink or swim?

Whose stories do we listen to?
The famous man with a guitar-lined basement
or the teen enthusiast drifting
on a prayer in the Mediterranean?

Bio: Emma Lee’s publications include “The Significance of a Dress” (Arachne, 2020) and "Ghosts in the Desert" (IDP, 2015). She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, 2015), was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs at https://emmalee1.wordpress.com. 

More From Emma: 3 poems from Emma Lee

Poem: Tracing a Love Song by Emma Lee

3 poems from Emma Lee

photo from unsplash

all previously published in The Blue Nib

Understanding Ghosts
(i.m. GWJ 22/10/1954 – 09/09/14)

Hold your head up; you’ve got a pretty face
Yours: reddened by alcohol in your belly.
You’ve just jolted me from my memory 
of a novelist telling me I shouldn’t hide trace
of a published poem just because the period
was for stories. He thought evil lacked lustre, 
wanted to look at the person who saw ogres,
even if told in the form of a ballad.

I thought he could see my ghosts, the crippling 
self-doubt. His gruff impatience was saved
for those who were lazy, unimpeded. 
He knew some writers needed nurturing.
I’m weighed with the loss of a talent
you will not stain by your ugly intent.

The Colours of a Panther

"I saw a black panther," a voice on the radio. 
A so-called expert repeats it. I change stations. 
What other colour would a panther be?
Harborough's countryside is hedged green fields.
The shadows merge into significance.
The radio is now off. I wanted the throb 
of a cello undercut with yearning, not commercial pop.
Cats are adaptable and secretive,
content in their own company and a patch of sun.
Easy to let my imagination run with the suggestion.
I pull into town, run errands, until I'm caught.
It should be a simple decision: a pizza.
There's your favourite, but I want my choice
if only I knew what that was. A man, who doesn't
look like you, stares. I'm his way. I grab,
stumble to the checkout and pay, slump into my car,
hands, clumsy with keys, paw at the wheel.
Black is never just black. I don't remember 
my drive home, only that I was alone.
I discover the pizza I snatched wasn't 
your favourite as I put it in the oven.
There's a shadow where you used to stand.
A smear like silky fur on my cheek.
My heart feels as if it's been clawed.
Maybe panthers don't just come in black.

A smudge of cinders

My teacher looked at me as if breezeblock
wasn't a word she knew. 
I had pushed my sock down. 
It was itching the scabs on my leg.
A breezeblock had fallen 
from the stack in the yard.
I splashed cold water on my scraped skin.
My mother said to leave it.
My teacher asked if I'd seen a doctor.
I frowned. We weren't to bother him.
My teacher held her pendant 
and ran it back and forth along its chain. 
I wanted to wet a paper towel 
and dab it to cool the cuts,
but I'd been taught not 
to interrupt an adult's thinking.
I pushed the other sock down so it matched.
My teacher seemed to have forgotten me.
I crossed my fingers that she wouldn't 
speak to my mother.
I was supposed to keep my cuts hidden
by pulling my socks up.

Poem: Tracing a Love Song by Emma Lee