Wednesday, October 03, 2012


In 2010, a London paper published a Ted Hughes poem left out of "Birthday Letters," about the last weekend of Sylvia Plath's life:

“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’


And here's a review of the poem/circumstances.

I didn't quite GET this before: While Hughes had left Plath for Assia Wevill/was kicked out by Plath in August of '62... On the very weekend of Plath's death in February 1963, he was sleeping with a secretary/later very minor poet named Susan Alliston (who also died young, in 1969; no, not suicide, just a disease, I forget which)--and NOT Assia Wevill--in the same place where he and Plath had slept after their marriage.

I dislike Assia Wevill greatly as a person (stupidly immoral throughout her life), but I can also see something like, since she was a touted beauty, a GREAT SEXUAL ATTRACTION that could not be denied between her and Hughes... But to find out that Hughes was just sleeping with WHOEVER on the weekend of his wife's death? AND in the SAME PLACE where he and Plath first slept together after their marriage?

As one commenter on a London-paper blog noted, to paraphrase: "Funny how he [Hughes] identifies in his poetry with males of uber-aggressive species like jaguar/pike, but was in fact, in his real life, more representative of a weasel."

As Sylvia Plath wrote, after their break-up: "He has become a little man."

I thought she was just being momentarily bitter. But, really: A random person on the weekend of his wife's death--AFTER he'd been to Plath's apartment and seen how sad she was? That is, indeed, pretty small. Wish Plath had kept herself alive long enough to really KNOW that fact deep-down.

Kinda reminds me of a time right after my first girlfriend had broken up with me: I was devastated and miserable, but consoled myself with, "We just need some time apart; I KNOW she misses me as much as I miss her..." In desperation, I started answering personals ads in the local weekly. I was talking to one of the girls I went out with about my ex... and it turned out that this woman had gone out with the ex just a couple of weeks earlier; they'd also met through the personals! I was shocked! The ex hadn't left me to somehow "heal" our relationship; nor was there a "mystery woman" in the picture who had stolen her from me. In actuality, she preferred going on random dates to being with me. One of what would be many eye-openers in my long path toward healing from that horrible relationship.

I think Plath was enamored of Hughes for surface (masquerading as profound) reasons: He was fantastically charismatic, plus he was a very good writer, plus he represented the uninhibited "id" that Plath yearned for (at least according to her young self in poems and journal entries, she so long constrained by her uptight ego/super ego-oriented upbringing).

On the other hand, Hughes has in numerous writings expressed admiration for Plath's 1950s "American-ness": blonde, "clean," well-organized, "new." The ego/super ego to his id, sure, but also very much the bright-n-shiny American to his perception of himself as being "post-war utilitarian," as he refers to himself TWICE in "Birthday Letters." Youth in post-WWII Britain didn't feel good about themselves. The country was still rebuilding, things were grim and gray. Plath represented everything that was NOT grim and gray. Plus she had plenty o' publishing connections and so wanted to help him, which is attractive to any writer!

I dunno. Maybe I'm just feeling jaded after reading about the Susan Alliston incident. To me, that indicated absolutely no empathy for/with Plath on Hughes's part whatsoever. An empathy that he, 36 years later in "Birthday Letters," claimed to have felt all along... I've now got to call "bullshit" on the latter-day "empathy" claim. I'm sure the older man did have many regrets about his earlier behavior. But... where was his true self on that February weekend of 1963? It's not that he was simply trying to avoid an emotionally charged situation with his wife, from whom he was separated; it's that he actively chose that weekend, IMMEDIATELY after Plath had indicated how much she needed him, to sleep with a random woman IN THE SAME PLACE THAT HE AND PLATH HAD SLEPT AFTER THEY WERE MARRIED. (Hughes would later write that he had no idea how much Plath needed him; an outright lie.) Such an act is not mere "self-protection" or "avoidance." It's an overt act of hostility, sadism, and hatred. Hughes never admits these destructive impulses toward Plath in "Birthday Letters," which is basically a shallow paean to his meeting her and then his later trying unsuccessfully to understand her alleged "daddy fixation," which the "simple country boy" he portrays himself as couldn't ever seem to grasp. "What did I do wrong?" he constantly whines. He never confronted the utterly destructive "weasel" part of himself that constantly broke emotional/psychic bonds by having sex with other women while married or in a long-term relationship. He cheated on Plath, he cheated on Assia Wevill, he cheated on his 2nd wife (Carol Orchard, a farmer's daughter 20 years his junior--the one who was finally able to put up with it without psychic consequence. Good, yet sad, for her simpleton self!)

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