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Sylvia Plath
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.

Sylvia Plath is among the most written-about poets of the twentieth century. Since her death in 1963, more than 100 books and countless articles have appeared about Plath and her work.
Plath’s story is well known. She was born in Massachusetts in 1932. Her father, a college professor, died when she was eight years old. She published her first poem even before she began studying at Smith College! Plath’s struggles with mental illness began when she was a student, including a suicide attempt, all of which is vividly described in her novel The Bell Jar. After graduation from Smith, she earned a Fulbright and studied at Cambridge University, where she met English poet Ted Hughes. They married and had two children. The marriage came apart at the end of 1961. Plath took her own life on February 11, 1963, when she was just 30 years old. Her second collection of poems, Ariel, appeared posthumously and was immediately famous. It includes such poems as “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” poems which were immediately hailed as masterpieces of confessional poetry and feminist icons.
Plath’s poems, especially those in Ariel, are often written about as though they were inseparable from the way she died, and her suicide is spoken of as though it was inevitable. One reader has described her work as: “Thrashing, hyperactive, perpetually accelerated… throwing off images and phrases with the energy of a runaway horse or a machine with its throttle stuck wide open. All the violence in her work returns to that violence of imagination, a frenzied brilliance and conviction.” (Robert Pinsky)
But there is more to Plath than her suicide, and more to Ariel than darkness (though the darkness is certainly there). Plath was a loving mother to her two children with Ted Hughes, Frieda and Nicholas, and several of the poems in Ariel are about pregnancy and motherhood. As Plath said of one of these poems, the mother “finds in [her child] a beauty which, while it may not ward off the world’s ill, does redeem her share of it.” That redeeming beauty of the child is at the foundation of this poem as well.
“You’re” is a delightfully clever poem addressed to Plath’s unborn child. In typical Plath style, it piles images on images, borrowing comparisons from everywhere—animals and vegetables, earth, air, and water. Also typical of Plath, it feels spontaneous but is carefully structured. Each of the two stanzas has nine lines, reflecting the nine months of pregnancy.
The poem starts with the word “clownlike,” and there is a playfulness throughout the poem. The first stanza speaks of the early stages of the fetus as it grows—“feet to the stars,” “moon-skulled,” ‘gilled like a fish.” The lines speak of the early stages of the embryo: there is an otherness about it—it’s “gilled like a fish”—but it’s also somehow cosmic; Plath references both moon and stars. The fetus is “wrapped up in yourself like a spool,” living in the dark, like an owl, and “mute as a turnip” from the Fourth of July to All Fools’ Day.  (The Fourth of July to All Fools’ Day is, of course, almost exactly nine months—and Plath’s daughter Frieda was born on April 1!) Strange and silent though the fetus is at this point, there’s a definite affection in how the poet addresses it: “my little loaf.”
In the second stanza, the unborn child becomes increasingly active: “our traveled prawn… like a sprat in a pickle jug… A creel of eels, all ripples / Jumpy as a Mexican bean”—all images of movement. This baby is constantly moving, even bouncing. As the poem ends, we sense that we are also coming to the end of the pregnancy: the baby is “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.” A “clean slate” is a blank page, a fresh start: a new life that is just beginning. But, Plath says, the child has “your own face on.” Like several of Plath’s poems about her children, the poem emphasizes the uniqueness, the mystery of the child. She does not see her unborn child as merely an extension of herself and her body, but as a being in its own right. In a sense, the poem ends where it began: “You’re.” You are: the title acknowledges the unique being that grows in the mother’s womb.
As we mark Respect Life Month this October, I thought this lesser-known poem from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel would be a good one to help us reflect on the uniqueness and mystery of every life—in the womb, and out of it.




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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