Sylvia Plath: A Fifty-Year Retrospective
Sylvia Plath: A Fifty-Year Retrospective
By: Andrew Mulvania
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 50th Anniversary Edition, Faber & Faber, 2013, pp., £7.99, paper
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, St. Martin’s Press, 2013, pp., $29.99
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson, Scribner, 2013, pp., $30.00
Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder, Harper, 2013, pp., $25.99
February 11, 2013, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the dramatic suicide of Sylvia Plath. The year also saw the publication of three new biographies of the poet as well as the release of a new “50th Anniversary Edition” of her one novel, The Bell Jar, published a few weeks before her death; the latter sports the controversial cover image of a heavily lipsticked woman dabbing at her face with a compact. It is telling that publishers have chosen to “commemorate” Plath with a spate of new books on the anniversary of her death rather than her birth, for it is her death, with its lurid details—gas oven; milk and bread left out for her two young children still sleeping upstairs; towels stuffed in the cracks under the taped doors of kitchen and nursery—that has threatened to overshadow her literary achievement.
Plath herself must share some of the responsibility for this emphasis on death in connection with her work, as biographer Carl Rollyson observes when he writes, of an earlier suicide attempt by Plath at age twenty:
Sylvia’s disappearance and discovery [under the crawl space of her house] were widely reported, and she became news in a way she never intended but which had a remarkable impact on her vocation as a writer. Eventually, she would realize that dying had become part of her true subject matter.
If it’s true that Plath, in her brief life, recognized the importance of the specter of death—particularly her own—to her work, it’s certainly true of publishers who’ve chosen to capitalize on her famous suicide with ghoulish promotion of yet more biographies of a poet whose literary reputation, though secure, is not yet settled and rests largely on the poems in a single volume: her second and final collection, Ariel.
The basic facts of Plath’s life have been well rehearsed by previous biographers: there was the long shadow cast by her stern, German father’s needless early death from self-misdiagnosed diabetes a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday. Otto Plath was a scientist—a biologist and Boston University professor specializing in bees—who should have known better. And there were the often unwelcome intrusions of self-sacrificing mother Aurelia’s efforts to promote in her talented daughter an unhealthy perfectionism, perhaps as compensation for the sacrifices she had made on behalf of Sylvia and her brother, Warren, following her husband’s early death. The first signs of a fissure in this edifice of achievement was Plath’s suicide attempt in the summer of 1953, following what had appeared to be a successful internship at Mademoiselle. She’d grown depressed after failing to gain a spot in Frank O’Connor’s short-story class at Harvard Summer School. A few years later came the intense courtship, marriage and artistic collaboration between Plath and English poet Ted Hughes, whom Plath met while on a Fulbright at Cambridge University in 1956, followed closely by Hughes’s adultery with Assia Wevill. Wevill would later kill herself and her daughter, also by gas oven. Through it all, there was the steady, even meteoric development of Plath’s poetic gifts, resulting in the astonishing poetry—much of it written in the last months of her life—that would justify such an outpouring of biographical attention.
Previous biographies include Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Methods and Madness (1976); Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1988); English poet Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), which has the dubious distinction of being the only biography “authorized” by Hughes’s family; and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991). Still other works, such as Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage (2003), focus more narrowly on the Plath-Hughes relationship. The three new biographies discussed here each chart their own course in navigating the thorny landscape of what Hughes, before his own death in 1998, derisively came to refer to as “Plathiana.” It should be noted that it is the Hughes estate, and in particular Hughes’s still-living sister, Olwyn, that have been largely responsible for making that landscape so “thorny.”
Of the three biographies reviewed here, Carl Rollyson’s American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath is the only one that attempts to cover the entire life; the other two focus more closely on periods of Plath’s life that may not have received as much previous attention. Rollyson acknowledges that he’s treading on well-covered ground by the somewhat presumptuous decision to confine basic facts of Plath’s life to paragraph-length headings at the beginning of each chapter. The headings provide a quick chronology of important events in Plath’s life and accompanying dates for the years covered in that chapter. He justifies this decision in his author’s note, saying that rereading earlier Plath biographies led him to dispense with “a good deal of the boilerplate most biographers feel compelled to supply.” One wonders what this means when applied to such an original and complex woman as Plath. Can it mean, as Rollyson indicates, not discussing Plath’s parents in detail (“I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents”) or skimming over her years at Smith (“I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history”)? In the case of the former, Plath herself—to a greater extent even than confessional-era contemporaries such as her onetime teacher Robert Lowell and acquaintance Anne Sexton—made extensive use of their lives in her writing, psychologizing and mythologizing them at will in important poems such as “The Disquieting Muses,” “Full Fathom Five,” “Electra on Azalea Path,” “Colossus,” the Bee Poems sequence and “Daddy” and writing heavily autobiographical fiction in The Bell Jar and short stories published in Seventeen, Mademoiselle and elsewhere. In the case of the latter, the time at Smith was a crucial and formative period in Plath’s life, confirming her in her already partially realized goal of becoming a writer by introducing her to the benefactress of her scholarship at the college, novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, and indirectly leading her to Dr. Ruth Beuscher, the therapist she saw after her post-Mademoiselle breakdown (Prouty paid for her treatment at the famous Boston psychiatric hospital McLean). In any case, this crucial biographical information could hardly be said to be “boilerplate.”
Rollyson’s tone is breezy and at times unctuously familiar, as some reviewers have noted. Here’s Terry Castle writing for the New York Review of Books: “Rollyson’s book bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.” Rollyson also develops the intrusive habit of alternately referring to Plath by the family nicknames “Sivvy,” “Siv” or “Syl” (“Then her father died, and the family moved upcountry, sealing Sivvy off from the enchantments of childhood”; “Siv was six years old when war came to Europe, old enough for a precocious child with a foreign father to realize the world was full of villains”; “Syl was not alone. She went to school with the children of immigrants.”), often on the very same page, as in the examples just cited. Aside from violating the sense of consistency or scholarly objectivity one expects from biography, this lack of formality feels mannered and has the paradoxical effect of distancing us from Plath rather than bringing us closer.
In contrast to his informal tone, however, Rollyson’s chapter titles— indeed, the title and approach of the entire book—reach for a gravitas and earnestness that they are often unable to deliver. Plath’s own self-mythologizing in her work seems quite natural in comparison. Titles like “Primordial Child of Time,” “Queen of the Dead,” “Queen of the Ocean” and “The Universal Mother” imply a narrative of Plath’s rise to near-mythic status. If she would eventually achieve that status, Rollyson’s chatty emphasis on the day-to-day details of Plath’s life simply can’t show us how. Rollyson takes his lead from Plath’s interest in the figure of Isis from D. H. Lawrence’s work The Man Who Died, but the image of the poet that Rollyson provides often seems more the tawdry stuff of tabloids.
This may be due in part to Rollyson’s repeated and frustrating comparisons of Plath to the figure of Marilyn Monroe, comparisons based largely on the fact that Rollyson has also written a biography of Monroe. Examples of such arbitrary analogies include lines like the following: “Sounding very much like Marilyn Monroe, who would soon wed Arthur Miller, Plath [searching for a male partner] called herself a princess awaiting her white knight, employing the same imagery Monroe used in sessions with her psychiatrist.” These comparisons are purely speculative and add little to Rollyson’s implied argument that Plath saw her own life in terms comparable to those of the film icon Marilyn Monroe. But their fame was not equivalent. Though certainly ambitious and well published in her short lifetime in major venues such as theNew Yorker, Mademoiselle and elsewhere, Plath died having published only a single book of poems, The Colossus, and a novel that appeared only a few weeks before her death.
In Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson manages to avoid Rollyson’s tendency to reach for the mythologizing “master narrative” of Plath’s life, choosing to focus on striking details and well-placed anecdotes often supplied by firsthand testimony from friends and lovers who, as the dust jacket advertises, “have never spoken openly about Plath before.” The book is peppered liberally with such revealing testimony, often used as “real-time” reaction to some specific moment Wilson has just discussed, as for example in his conversation with Melvin Woody, professor emeritus of philosophy at Connecticut College. In an interview Wilson conducted in April 2011, Woody recalls having drinks with Plath “in a couple of bars around Fifty-second Street and Third Avenue” after the two bumped into one another at the New York City Ballet during Plath’s month as aMademoiselle intern in the summer of 1953:
I remember that night she was incandescent.… She was radiant—when she was “up,” she really glowed. We had a wonderful time that night—we were soul mates—but she was in a manic or hypomanic phase. I first met her because she wrote to me when I was a senior in high school—she had read my poetry, which I had sent to her roommate Marcia Brown. She said she liked my poems—I didn’t think they were that good—but from that time on we had similar enthusiasms.
Such recollections have a poignant effect in context, in part because of the contrast between the importance of the recollected event to the individual and its ultimate significance for the “Plath narrative” and in part because they compel one to reflect that these individuals lived to witness and come to terms with Plath’s posthumous rise to fame while she herself did not: they are still alive, which means Plath could have been as well, had things turned out differently. It’s this ability to bring Plath into vivid focus, almost as though she were still alive, that characterizes Wilson’s book.
An example of the difference in approach between Wilson’s biography and Rollyson’s can be seen by comparing the two writers’ accounts of the fateful first meeting between Plath and Hughes on February 25, 1956. First, Rollyson:
They were shouting to one another above the noise, and the first words Hughes heard from her were from his own poetry. “You like?” Hughes asked as he backed her into another room and sloshed some brandy into her glass. Then he kissed her—“bang smash on the mouth,” ripping her hair band and earrings while barking, “I shall keep …” When he kissed her on the neck, she retaliated with a long, hard bite on his cheek that drew a line of blood.
And now for the same scene as recounted by Wilson:
After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth.… Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “Long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face.
Wilson’s instinct for storytelling, scene setting and pacing is immediately apparent, making Rollyson’s prose seem workmanlike by comparison. But what’s most significant in these parallel examples (both drawn from Plath’s journal entry of the event, recorded the next day), particularly as it bears on the art of biography, is Wilson’s attention to detail: that the poem from which Plath had quoted lines was Hughes’s “The Casualty”; that the hair band, mentioned in both accounts, is “red,” the earrings “silver”; that Hughes “slammed the door” and poured “glassfuls of brandy,” which Plath “couldn’t manage to drink.”
What Wilson recognizes is that it’s precisely these small and humanizing details that draw readers to biography in the first place. This awareness makes Mad Girl’s Love Song a fine and compelling portrait of Plath. One could cite, for example, Wilson’s anecdote of a young Sylvia on a walk home from school spotting a blue jay pecking at a sparrow fallen from the nest. Wilson tells us how, “without a moment’s hesitation,” Plath rescued the bird, took it home, fed it pieces of worms on a toothpick, named it “Dickie” and made a nest for it “out of an old strawberry box and a piece of flannel.” It’s not the typical image that comes to mind when reflecting on the poet who penned such lines as “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” or “I eat men like air,” and yet it’s precisely the kind of image one wants when trying to gain a full understanding of the person who could come to write such lines. For his part, Rollyson simply doesn’t have time for such details. In his breakneck gallop through the Plath archive, he forgets that it’s exactly these moments that most interest readers.
One way in which this attention to detail can sometimes seem overdone, though, concerns Wilson’s nearly obsessive interest in the vicissitudes of Plath’s romantic life. Wilson paints a portrait of a Plath frustrated with ’50s-era conventions controlling the free expression of female sexual desire:
We have to remember that Sylvia was a young woman overloaded with a huge store of sexual energy that she was not allowed to express, living in a society that wanted to contain female eroticism within the confines of marriage. The anger that she felt about this—and the rage that she was not born a man, free to sow innumerable wild oats before settling down—would find expression throughout her journals.
There are moments where Wilson’s biography begins to feel like a revolving door of young men Plath auditioned for the role of future husband, even as part of her rejected such a future. And so we read of her waxing and waning relationships with Dick Norton, immortalized as Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar; Gordon Lameyer, to whom she was unofficially and briefly engaged; Myron Lotz; Philip McCurdy; and Richard Sassoon, the one man besides Hughes about whom she was quite serious. One particularly compelling male figure in Plath’s life whom Wilson discusses at length is Eddie Cohen, the young man who became her correspondent, confessor and counselor when he took the bold step of writing to her after reading her story “And Summer Will Not Come Again” in the August 1950 issue of Seventeen. Cohen was a twenty-one-year-old living in Chicago—and an English major—who would serve for a time as one of Plath’s most insightful literary and personal critics. He would occasionally overstep in an attempt to be a substitute boyfriend, as with an ill-conceived trip to visit her in Northampton during her spring break at Smith College. What Wilson gets right about Plath’s relationships with male companions prior to meeting Ted Hughes is that she was a young woman of her times, expected to actively search for a husband in the pursuit of a conventional marriage. Perhaps it makes sense to devote so much space to Plath’s dating life given the truncated scope of the book. But in the end, Wilson also adequately addresses the ways in which Plath was anything but conventional, focusing extensively on her unabashed literary ambitions (she loved to greet new friends by showing them her pile of rejection letters, which she felt demonstrated her determination and drive); her well-known struggles with mental illness; and the paradoxical combination of the defiant feminism often expressed in her work and a similarly strong impulse toward domesticity in her personal life.
Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work is a curious combination of Plath biography, historical context and epigraphic callouts—with words or phrases such as “Pageboy,” “Red Lipstick,” “Beauty”—throughout the text defining different aspects of the lives of Plath and the elite group of twenty young women who served as guest editors in the high-gloss milieu of Madison Avenue and the Mademoiselle offices in the month of June 1953. The “biography” reads at times like a novel, which is fitting, since the experience it describes would become the subject of Plath’s The Bell Jar. At other times it reads like the magazine whose atmosphere it is meant to describe. This genre-bending quality is not entirely surprising, given that Winder, who earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, is also the author of a collection of poetry.
The title borrows a phrase from Plath’s own journals characterizing her twenty-six-day stint as a Mademoiselle intern. In her book, Winder details a whirlwind month of lavish rooftop parties, including a crabmeat-and-avocado-salad luncheon at an ad agency that led to ptomaine poisoning for Plath and some of the other women. There are scheduled outings to a Yankees game, the UN, the ballet and other classic Manhattan “musts,” and sweltering nights at the Barbizon Hotel that led to Plath’s slow simmer toward the post-Mademoiselle breakdown and suicide attempt when she returned to her mother’s house in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
As Wilson does in Mad Girl’s Love Song, Winder writes about the bevy of young men who surrounded Plath while she was a student at Smith and during the month that she and the nineteen other interns were taking in New York City. She depicts a young woman who was as unabashed in her attraction to the opposite sex as she was in her literary ambition:
Actually, Sylvia lit up around men and flirted without restraint. She had that “bloom” so often credited to youth, and a large gold personality that bubbled, then boiled over. Some of her mannerisms were almost aristocratic, whether carte-blanching her way through a debutante ball or picking beans on a farm in Masachusetts. She was bold like the perfumes of the day, gaudy brews like Youth Dew full of amber and aldehyde—big bossy perfumes that took up space.
Though Winder’s prose may at times reach too far toward the poetic, the image she gives us is a humanizing one of a young woman fully immersed in experience, greedily gulping it down like the caviar she was accused of hogging at a meet-and-greet lunch for the interns. As is also the case in Wilson’s book, this image is bolstered by quotations from private author interviews and correspondence with the other still-living interns, including Janet Burroway, novelist and author of the popular short fiction-writing manual Writing Fiction.
All three biographies provide a backward glance at Plath’s life, including the inevitable emphasis on the suicide and its meaning for her life and legacy. At the same time, the books hint at a continued life for Plath through the voices of those who knew her. Rollyson’s work, in particular, has a fascinating, if pedantically titled last chapter, “In the Temple of Isis: Among the Hierophants,” that chronicles the fate of Plath’s reputation beginning immediately after her suicide in February 1963 and continuing through the publication of her final poems in the Hughes-edited collection Ariel in 1965. It was the book that demonstrated the searing immediacy and power of her work. Rollyson covers the wrangling between Aurelia Plath, on the one hand, and Olwyn and Ted Hughes on the other, over the American publication of The Bell Jar, which triggered what Hughes, writing to a friend, would call “Sylvia mania.” The chapter also addresses the suicide of Assia Wevill and her daughter by Hughes, contributing to the 1970s-era feminist backlash against Hughes as a kind of misogynist monster. It details the emergence of the first full-length biography of Plath by Butscher in 1976 (carefully censored by Olwyn) and subsequent biographies by Wagner-Martin, Stevenson (some felt her work had nearly been coauthored by Olywn), Alexander, Ronald Hayman and Malcom—all of whom were hampered by an inability to quote from Plath’s work. It covers Ted Hughes’s own poetic response to his relationship with Plath with the publication of Birthday Letters shortly before his death in 1998. The 2004 publication of the restored edition of Plath’s own version of Ariel, introduced by her daughter, Frieda, gave Plath a last word, as was only fitting. The suicide of Plath’s son, Nicholas, formerly a professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska, on March 16, 2009, serves as a sad coda.
For me, the Plath who endures—outside the biographies, the Plath vs. Hughes blame-game, the dramatic details of her suicide and her morbid fascination with death—is the Plath of the poems. Not poems like her final poem, “Edge” (“The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment”), however spare and powerful it may be; rather, it is the Plath of poems like “Wintering,” one of five in the sequence of Bee Poems that grew out of her experience as an amateur beekeeper while living in the English countryside at the house called Court Green she and Hughes had purchased in Devon in 1961. “Wintering,” and the other Bee Poems, were written and conceived of as a sequence in the fall of 1962, only a few months before her suicide, as Plath’s marriage with Hughes was dissolving. In the poem, Plath describes, in almost funereal terms, the bees locked in their coffinlike box for the winter, yet she ends the poem—after a poignant series of questions suggesting the uncertainty of their future and, by association, her own (questions such as, “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas / Succeed in banking their fires / To enter another year? / What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?”)—with the lines “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Though “tasting the spring” of fifty years ago was something Plath herself, as a woman, finally could not do, her brilliance and promise are perennially renewed with each new biography and each new reader drawn to her life and work.
A Conversation with Daniel Talbott
Sarah Schwab: Can you talk a little about how you started writing and what advice you have for other first-time writers?
Daniel Talbott: It’s funny, because I still think of myself as a first-time writer. There are so many artists I work with who I look up to, like Adam Rapp, Lucy Thurber, Annie Baker, Sheila Callaghan, Mark Schultz. . . . I really admire their work, so I still feel like a newbie. It’s always shocking to me that anyone wants to see a play I’ve written. I entered the theater world as an actor in the [San Francisco] Bay Area when I was seventeen. The scene there is very homegrown. It’s small and intimate. Berkeley Rep was one of my first theater homes. And even though I went to school as an actor, I knew I wanted to start a small theater and direct. So I started Rising Phoenix Repertory the summer of my first year at Juilliard, in 1999. By that point I’d done more work as an actor, producer and director than I had as a writer. Playwriting was one of the last things I tried.
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The Logic of Dreams: The Life and Work of Ruth St. Denis
In 1924, modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis assembled all of her “Denishawners” in an empty theater in New York City for announcements about the upcoming season. Seventeen-year-old Louise Brooks, a rising star in the company, came in a side door and slipped into a crushed velvet seat. Her late arrival didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, Miss Ruth, as her students called her, had summoned the meeting in part to address those who were not living up to her holistic approach to dance, which required hours of barre and ballet exercises, after-hours readings, spiritual development and adherence to Denishawn decorum in dress, diet and behavior. At the time, Brooks had told an interviewer, “Miss St. Denis is very strict. She won’t let us smoke or eat candy or stay up late or anything,” while her peers complained privately, “We do nothing but work and dance.”
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Gregg Easterbrook describes a seemingly puzzling fact about the condition of people now living in the United States and Europe. In many undeniable ways we are living in a better world than our forebears. Most of us have unlimited food at affordable prices, with hunger being a less common problem than overindulgence. Our average lifespans in the past century have climbed from forty-four years to seventy-seven, with the life expectancy of women in Sweden, for example, climbing at a rate of three months per year for the past two centuries. Many of the plagues of history, such as smallpox and polio, as well as many infectious diseases, have been defeated, while infant mortality has declined by 45 percent since 1980. Mortality from cancer has declined by 1 percent a year since the early 1990s, despite an overall ageing population. Over the past century, there have been numerous advances in comfort, less bondage to backbreaking physical toil, decreased average work hours, as well as advances in freedom of expression, political freedom and sexual freedom. By almost every statistical measure, our overall physical conditions have improved markedly, a fact that is observable in even a relatively young adult’s life. The great paradox, however, is that the average percentage of people who describe themselves as “happy” hasn’t budged since the 1950s.
Easterbrook runs through an interesting set of possible explanations for this, including theories that contemporary life is plagued by choice anxieties, collapse anxiety, abundance guilt and a movement from material want to a want of meaning. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the fact that human beings get used to their material circumstances fairly quickly, and their measure of what is enough and what is too little adjusts accordingly. I used to imagine that the spread of electricity, radio and better systems of travel during the early twentieth century must have been an amazing and wondrous experience for those who lived through it. Yet in reality, changes in comforts and material well-being—both public and private—are quickly absorbed and assumed to be the natural order. The other reality, which Easterbrook discusses at length, is that while the lack of money causes unhappiness, having it in abundance doesn’t cause lasting happiness. The paradoxes here go deeper than the obvious. For example, millionaires as a group are no happier than people of average income, the disabled and chronically ill report a slightly higher sense of well-being than the populations at large and, as a group, older people are happier than young people.
Happiness is more likely to be affected by friendships, love, and meaningful work than by merely having lots of money and amenities. Perhaps this is obvious enough not to even seem paradoxical. For most of the major religions of the world, the fact that happiness cannot come from wealth or living conditions alone is hardly news. But as one delves more deeply into the human condition, true enigmas do arise—of a kind that only imaginative artists and philosophers begin to address. The scary proximity and interconnectedness of good and bad fortune, and even of good and evil is a reality that we have been particularly aware of since about a hundred years ago, when the world commenced ripping itself apart with world wars and the Modernists began envisioning their Wastelands. Before then, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche were already doubting easy, dogmatic premises about good and evil, and later the Existentialists carried that uncertainty still further by doubting there was any reliable meaning in the world other than what we give it through agency and choice. Much of our winter issue reminds me of this doubt and of the potential uncertainty of the given; it reminds me, too, of the need for action and choice to get beyond them.
In his story “Salvage,” Hal Walling describes a young man, Blake, resident in a small town on Vancouver Island, who has ties with the local drug culture. He is perceptive and aware of his own flaws and motivations, but when a friend of his is killed, he feels a strong sense of guilt. During a drug deal he just avoids being arrested and then learns that his dealer’s violent brother is coming after him to kill him. In this well written story of an underside of contemporary life, Blake escapes the island and goes to visit an old friend where he faces an even worse tragedy—one that results in an inescapable self-realization. John Fulton’s “What Kent Boyd Had” is a story about the rise and fall of a successful attorney, the eponymous Kent Boyd. It begins at the apex of his life. From a poor, Pentecostal background, Boyd has worked his way to the top and has everything he could want, with a few very minor insufficiencies. As the story catalogues all the things the protagonist “has,” the reader watches Boyd make a single impulsive choice that causes the whole construct of his success to topple. He makes a rather sorry rebound, and the story takes him to his final years, where he reflects on what exactly makes a life valuable.
Seth Fried’s fable “The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk” questions the prevalence and acceptance of evil. It depicts a nation of people who are dominated by a malevolent tyrant and yet who are also fully complicit and accepting of him. Their acceptance comes not just from naiveté but partly from calculation. It is a story that questions the senselessness of tyranny and the less obvious effects on people who live under its sway, perhaps even wondering if the horrors of such a rule may serve to distract citizens from deeper, more existential fears. Jane Gillette’s “Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance” tells about a est-Coast landscape architect and his natural-foods-advocate wife, who relocate to Indiana to start a restaurant specializing in locally grown food. The supremely successful husband fully embraces the vision of starting a locavore restaurant, and they put their all into it, only to have their vision come crashing down around them. It is a story with the feel of parable and metafiction about how a grand and irreproachable ambition tinged just slightly with arrogance or blindness can end in disappointment and loss.
Jonathan Fink’s essay “The Dreamers” explores the effects of the fracking boom in the town of Midland, Texas. While unemployment falls and incomes and home prices soar—which isn’t an entirely good thing for many residents—the quality of local life, the water, and the environment decline. In his essay “The Edge Effect: Surfing with Peregrine Falcons in La Jolla,” Nick Neely follows lay ethologist Will Sooter. Sooter is a retired headhunter who has spent thousands of hours studying and photographing the once-endangered peregrine falcons around the La Jolla Bay. The essay profiles Will and his obsession with the birds, while vividly narrating falcon behavior in the coastal California setting.
Sarah T. Schwab’s interview of Daniel Talbot gives us a look into the life of the scrambling theater scene in New York and California. Talbot is the director, playwright, producer and literary manager of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and also the artistic director of the Lucille Lortel and NYIT Award-winning Rising Phoenix Rep. In the interview Talbot talks about being a bicoastal artist and about Rattlestick’s commitment to off-Broadway theater. Talbot is radical in his belief in both the significance of theater as an art form and the fact that theater is not condemned to only consist of expensive, large-scale enterprises: “What I love about theater is that it’s this pure space that represents back to us everything we are in physical action, from the way it’s made, from the way it’s marketed, from the way people come and see or don’t come and see it. It’s a Truth box, and it represents back to us on every level what we are.”
The poems in this issue include Jennifer Atkinson’s laments for the green places lost to or endangered by environmental encroachment and other man-made disasters. Both global and local in their concerns, her poems take us from the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-reserve to Sri Lanka’s war-torn landscape to a ferry on the Hudson River and to the speaker’s own neighborhood, where an open field will soon be mown. She reminds us that “Only we will miss / The leaning tree when it finally falls.” Alexandra Teague’s poems bring us back to the American Wild West during the violent years of the 1860s. Issuing from “this terrible engine” of the Winchester repeater, also known as “the gun that won the West,” these gripping, poignant poems examine how fear, violence and loss—individual or collective—are inevitably entangled, and how they often bleed into one another and take new forms. Michelle Boisseau’s poems experiment with scale, exploring the fine lines between the up-above and down-below, the vast and minute, the transient and timeless. Each of her poems is like a compact universe in which we “fall through violet galaxies, / fresh and ancient as thumbprints.” If it’s true that human perception is limited by mortality, then these poems suggest that our imagination can sometimes ferry us across the timeless space and vast unknown. Kristine Somerville’s visual feature “The Logic of Dreams: The Life and Work of Ruth St. Denis” describes a career in the arts that lasted many years and overcame endless obstacles to redefine the importance and nature of modern dance. Her childhood was spent on the verge of poverty on a twenty-acre farm in New Jersey. She made her way slowly upward, from dance classes to dime museums to dance troupes, performing on stage and rooftop gardens. For four years she danced as a Belasco player before having an unlikely epiphany that led her to study costumes and style and systems of movement. Somerville describes St. Denis as at heart a Romantic who believed that dance in some way connected the observer with the divine, yet with the establishment of the Denishawn School she became the leader and eventually the great mentor of a whole new kind of modern dance, with its emphasis on the strange, the mysterious, and the unconscious mind. Despite her hard-earned practical success, St. Denis’s long career was tempered by money troubles, as the costs of maintaining the Denishawn Company often exceeded its income, to the point that finally, during the Depression, it had to be abandoned.
Andrew Mulvania covers recent biographies of poet Sylvia Plath. Nowhere is the scary proximity of good and bad fortune, absurdity and action more apparent than in the life of Plath, for whom death was always so close and whose career lasted so briefly.
The Edge Effect: Surfing with Peregrine Falcons in La Jolla
In early June, I found myself trailing Will Sooter to his office. Past the University of California, San Diego, we turned a corner, then another, onto toney La Jolla Farms Road. Once this bluff-top tract was a horse ranch; now something quite different is farmed there. In my rental, I pulled up behind Will to a private gate with wood paneling. Will pressed the button on the speaker, talked into the air. the gate swung open. Beyond a porte-cochère was a five-bay garage, but we parked neatly off to the side. The place belonged to the CEO of a major technology company, and, needless to say, it was spacious and elegantly modern.
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My husband and I have lived here for forty years, and this is the craziest thing we have ever seen,” Jodi, a seventy-five-year-old cosmetology instructor from Midland College, says from an adjacent chair at the Chrysalis Salon in Midland, Texas. Mechanical rollers travel slowly up and down my spine, and my feet are submerged in a footbath that resembles a mini-hot tub. They soak like two pork tenderloins as Jodi continues, “I always ask people, ‘You know what goes with a boom, don’t ya?’ and most of the young people don’t know you’re supposed to say, ‘A bust.’” The young woman filing Jodi’s calluses nods along. “This one just feels different,” Jodi says, and her gray bouffant bobs slightly. The hair on the back of Jodi’s head has been cut to less than an inch in length. I can’t tell if her choice in hairstyles is aesthetic or medical, but her hair frames her face in such a way that it reminds me simultaneously of a lion’s mane and white petals circling the eye of a daisy.
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The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk
The tyrant in his fortress
He is seated on a throne, looking bored. An empty hall lit dimly by high sconces. The stone walls and vaulted ceilings amplify every sound. And yet, all is silent except for the sputtering of the flames and the rasp of the tyrant’s breath. He leans forward as if to make a grim proclamation but instead lets out an abrupt and high-pitched sneeze.
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What Kent Boyd Had
And then, in his midforties, just as he started to feel slower in his limbs, the mornings seeming to drag, the darkness seeming to fall sooner each day, even in the spring and summer months, Kent Boyd nonetheless convinced himself that he still had, among many other things, his youth. He had countless sunrises before him. He had a great deal more to expect and hope for, especially if his past was a predictor of his future; and since he was an optimist, he chose to believe it would be. He had two kids, Alice, thirteen, who’d inherited her mother’s fair complexion and curly red hair, a conflagration that blazed halfway down her back, and Ethan, eleven, who’d gotten Kent’s oddly handsome bulldog face and his lumpy nose, a feature Kent had always regretted and often lied about, claiming he’d broken it, which was no longer an option now that his son carried around a small replica of it; he had a million-dollar house in a nice neighborhood of Boston, a partnership in a small corporate law firm he’d helped to found that specialized in copyright and patent law. He had a decent if weathered Subaru, a car he chose to drive, even though he could afford much better, because he wanted to set an example for his kids. He’d met enough class-conscious rich brats and didn’t want to father two more. He had several summers and long vacations behind him, dedicated to his obsession with golf, of rising at five every morning, heaving his clubs into the old Subaru, meeting friends to tee off at sunrise, slashing away at the bright little ball, its dot of light soaring above the vast green dunes, until late in the afternoon. In the game, he had two spectacular achievements: a 34-foot putt on the most difficult green—with a severe back-to-front slope—at St. Andrews, in Scotland, birthplace of the sport—and a birdie at Augusta; he had Bernhard, his partner and closest friend, who never let him forget his talent, celebrating it in the bar afterward by lifting a glass and shouting, “You’ve got balls, Boyd! You’ve got one hell of a stroke.”
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Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance
Since there’s only one scene in this story and it takes place at the McDonald’s out on McGalliard Road in Muncie, Indiana, I’ll first kill a little time discussing food, so that once we get there, we can quickly reconcile ourselves to a straightforward act of charity. Therefore, consider the following an irony-mitigating ramble, rather than an explanatory march, through the thickets of a subject dear to our hearts.
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I didn’t see the cop car parked near Scotty’s house. Its interiors were off, there were no lamps around. After picking up I’d driven maybe a hundred feet when suddenly the constable was in my way. He raised both palms in the air, then jogged around the side of my truck and ordered me in a low voice, as if this was a carjacking, to kill the lights.
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