by Anna Ross
It was 9:30am on a Tuesday, a late fall day chilly enough for a jacket and scarf but not yet boots and winter coats. I stood in the Park Street T station waiting for a B train, which would take me to teach an 11:00 class at BU, crying as I read Sylvia Plath. Most of the rush hour had passed, so I had enough space to lean against one of the iron columns smoothed with layer upon layer of kelly green paint rather than wedging myself between shoulders at the edge of the platform, but there were still plenty of commuters on their way to and fro, and I was crying. Not sniffling, not watery eyes that could be mistaken for allergies or a cold. Large unmistakable tears dribbled from both eyes down both my cheeks— people were beginning to look. I pulled my scarf further up around my face and kept on crying as I reread “Tulips,” “Morning Song,” “You’re,” “Mirror,” “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” “Wintering,” “Ariel,” and, almost unable to see, “Edge.” Three or four B trains passed me by before I could gather myself to board one, and even then people looked a little uncomfortable at having to sit near me.
Like many teenage girls, I’d fallen hard for Plath while reading The Bell Jar— here was a story with enough pathos, parental misjudgment, and stifled talent for any 16-year-old girl to get behind. But by sophomore year of college, I’d put such childish things away, too sophisticated now for what I deemed the histrionics of “Daddy and “Lady Lazarus,” even those “excitable” tulips. Now, well over a decade later, here I was, MFA and teaching job under my belt, beautiful 9-month-old daughter safely ensconced at home with loving babysitter, bawling in public all over my anthology of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.
Which leads me to wonder about audience. Was my sudden and alarmingly complete identification with Plath— “O high-riser, my little loaf,” “A woman bends over me,/ searching my reaches for what she really is,” “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown,” “The box is locked, it is dangerous./ I have to live with it overnight/ And I can’t keep away from it,” “I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,” “The child’s cry/ Melts in the wall,”— was this a function of hormones (as everything then and since then seemed to be)? Did it matter that I was reading Plath as a poet AND as a mother? Does it matter that I still do? In my course on American Women Poets, the question of whether we are ghettoizing these writers in the guise of celebrating them inevitably arises (followed quickly, if silently, by the more immediately personal question “When I write about my children and motherhood, am I writing poems that, literally, only a mother could love?”). After all, we’re taught that the art must stand up on it’s own, without us, reaching out through the centuries to whomever it can touch. As Archibald MacLeish says “A poem should not mean but be.” (But what does he know? He’s never been a mother!) So I’ll suggest a new paradigm: perhaps the true test of any piece of literature is whether one can read it while unabashedly and openly weeping in a crowded train station and then, still weeping, read it again.
Anna Ross’s first book, If a Storm, won the 2012 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry and will be published in the summer of 2013. She has received fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and her poetry and criticism is forthcoming or has recently appeared in The American Reader, Salamander, Barrow Street, and Boston Review. She is Poet-in-Residence at Stonehill College and is a contributing editor in poetry for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.