Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sylvia Plath - Part VI "The Poet on the Hill"

It is in the spring of 2002 that I rent a car at Manchester Airport and drive east towards Yorkshire. The road is narrow. The steering wheel and I are on the wrong side of the car, and I am driving along the wrong side of the dangerously busy road. Still I feel a need to hurry as I must reach the village of Hebden Bridge while there's still some light ... frankly, in whatever time zone I'm in, I have no good idea of when darkness will fall ... and so I must hurry to reduce the risk of driving around in the dark looking for a B&B.

The village, finally reached, lies in a narrow steep-walled valley. Its roads and houses, terraced up the south side of the valley, are retained by deep sloping stone walls. These walls, marvels of engineering, seem like the hands of some mythically powerful god who is preventing Hebden Bridge from tumbling in the Calder River.

I drive around town, up and then down the steep narrow roads. I cross handsome, gracefully arched stone bridges. The town is immediately enchanting. I have a sudden feeling that this valley feels like what home should feel like; it encloses me better than any place on earth that I've been to has ever enclosed me; it feels as if I was meant to have been born here, as if having been born in Indiana was a terrible mistake.

I day-dreamingly credit this new strange feeling to genetics, wondering if my Irish ancestors, having built untold miles of stone walls, created an affinity for stone building in their descendants.

I pass a Bed & Breakfast called Myrtle Grove. I turn around and pull the car to the side in front of it. A set of stone stairs leads from the road up to the stone house. The roof is made of a purplish slate. I knock at the door. I'm invited in.

Immediately upon entering I have an overwhelmingly keen realization that not only was I suppose to have been born in Hebden Bridge, but I was suppose to have lived my life in this particular house, in these very rooms; Myrtle Grove has within a moment struck me as the perfect dwelling. The floors are huge slabs of stone. The fireplace's sides and mantel are each one single slab of stone. Every window in the place is of unusual dimensions and oddly placed.

The substantiality of granite warms me. I am drawn to its solid safeness, the relative eternal of it. Stone is supremely sensible.

The proprietress, an attractive woman of perhaps fifty, her face warm and welcoming, offers her hand. "I'm Maureen," she says, as she leads me toward the stairs to look at the room. "And you are ....?"

"I'm George."

"And what brings you to Hebden Bridge?"

We're headed up the stairs.

"I've come to pay homage at the nearby grave of an American poet named Sylvia Plath."

By the time of my last word, she has reached a landing. She halts. "Look!" she says. She presents, with a sweep of her hand, a window, and then steps aside to give me room to approach it. I look out upon the valley's opposite wall. Atop it there are black silhouettes of a village.

"What you see there is the hamlet of Heptonstall," Maureen says. "And see that church tower above the tree line?"

Yes, I see.

"She's buried in the yard next to that church."

A line for a poem falls into my brain. I give the poem a title: "The Poet on the Hill". Inasmuch as the world, at this very moment, seems capable of perfection, it makes sense to suppose that this poem will appear in The New Yorker. I can see it spread on a page. I can see it in that particular font The New Yorker assigns to poems. I am thrilled! My name in lights, so to speak, and so near Broadway! I also know that it is very unlikely that I'll ever write that particular poem; I prefer just giving titles to poems to actually writing poems.

I recognize in Maureen a kindred soul. She is so pleased with her presentation. My spirit is mingling with hers. I implore fate to let us become friends, to show me a way to insinuate myself into her heart. I want to embrace her. I want to embrace the village of Hebden Bridge. I want to embrace the entire Calder Valley.

The room is beyond suitable. I settle myself in and then walk down the steep hill to the center of town. I have dinner in the restaurant of the town's single hotel.

When I return to Myrtle Grove, Maureen and her husband, John, are sitting at a small table in the kitchen, finishing up their dinner. After all my hurry up along the road from Manchester, it is still daylight. She invites me to have tea with them.

We three sit outside at a table in the yard. We talk about books and writers. I admire, in John and Maureen's garden, various flowers of kinds I've never seen before.

"I'll mail you some seeds," she says.

The evening turns chilly. I go up to my room. I am warm and snug beneath a sheet and a duvet. There is a good selection of books on a shelf, lots of poetry. I pick a collection of poems by W.B. Yeats. I will read myself to sleep.

There's a tap-tap at the door.

"Come in!"

Maureen enters. She's carrying a tray with nips of Irish whiskey on it. She sits on the bed. We talk and talk. She reaches for a Norton anthology of poems from a shelf; we talk about favorite poems.

After second nips of the whiskey, Maureen goes downstairs.

Happily coddled, I sleep the sleep of the happy. I am one of the children in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse: I am definitely going to the lighthouse tomorrow; the day will be fine!

In the morning I have breakfast with John and Maureen. After John heads off for work Maureen and I linger over another cup of coffee. Finally I go up to fetch my suitcase. Maureen and I embrace. I feel imbued with potential, a potential that doesn't really exist; potential which died years ago, died before I was born. I walk out of the house that I should never have to leave. I head across the narrow valley, across one of the beautifully arched bridges, and up the other side.
I park in the lot of Heptonstall's elementary school. I walk through the hamlet toward the church without coming upon any shops, without encountering another human being. Heptonstall seems like a ghost town, giving me the same feeling I'd once had in a French town called Illiers-Combray, where Proust lived as a child, a feeling that I am being peered at from behind the lace curtained-windows of the gray homes that snuggle right up to the edge of the road.

I arrive at the rear of the church and walk along the side to the front.
In the yard of the church are ancient tombstones; across the way is a graveyard.

A man in a far corner tends a roaring brushfire. I approach him. He is perhaps fifty; he is thin. He seems contented with the company of his fire, totally concentrated on it. Who could not be contented with a great brush fire? I surprise him from behind. I say "Hi" and he, seemingly startled slightly, turns around. He composes himself immediately and says, "Good morning to you!"

"I wonder if you could show me where Sylvia Plath is buried?"

"Come," he beckons softly. Holding his rake out front with his right hand, like the major of a parade holding a baton, he leads me along the side of the graveyard. Turning his face to me, he says, "You like her poems then, do you?"

"Yes. Very much. They're great!"

"It's nice how people show up ... from all over the world they'll come."

He stops now and gestures with his free arm. "Here we are ... you'll find it down the way then ... close to the end."

"Much obliged!" That's how my Irish father would say thank you.

"Not a'tall."

He heads back to his fire.

The grave is well tended. It is bordered and decorated with large stones, the size of two and more fists. Amongst these stones, Alpine plants have been set. Maureen had mentioned a local greenhouse whose proprietor was an expert when it came to Alpine plants.

The granite marker is relatively new, yet another replacement of those which were desecrated over the years by fierce feminists whose hearts burned with animosity toward a man who they believed represented much that was awful in his gender. Over the years, they have descended ... like witches of the night someone said ... upon Heptonstall to chisel away at the letters H-U-G-H-E-S on the gravestone so that it would read simply Sylvia Plath.

I, feeling like a Christian close to touching the hem of the garment, know that the hem ... as it has been for over forty years now ... is still ... close as I am ... out of reach. There is no reaching it. There's also nothing to say, but I say the nothing anyway. "I wish I could have helped you, Sylvia. I am too late. I am sorry. I wish you could have kept going. I wish you could have lived to write more poems."

I turn away. My heart ... aching already with the melancholy of an old and lingering separation ... bleeds now with a fresh severance.


Back in the states, I eventually piled atop this sadness ... this sadness that is like the prevailing wind of sadnesses ... I pile atop it the fact that I never did receive seeds from Maureen. Wanting to feel that she had become fond of me as I had so quickly become fond of her, not wanting to think that she had forgotten me, I'm certain that she must have prepared a little packet, and my heart determines that the blame for me not receiving it must lay with the United States Customs.

1 comment:

  1. After reading all of your Plath blog posts, I finally picked up a copy of "The Bell Jar" on my most recent visit to the library. I looking forward to reading it. An author I would recommend to you (although you are probably already familiar with him), is Ha Jin, a Chinese-American writer.