Seeing & Looking






What a week, I can’t believe the amount of writing and work I’ve done in the past few days. I’ve been meaning to start writing a lecture all morning, but instead I feel myself wallowing in exhaustion, and reading. On my lap are two books I’ve read before: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and The Best American Poetry 2011.

I’ve been dipping back and forth between these two books over my morning rounds of coffee, finding connections and symmetry. I also find myself returning to the section of Plath’s journals where they have inserted many photos of her. Some of these photos I constantly see being circulated on blogs and tumblrs, others are rarer. Looking at Plath’s face is not really an aesthetic or visual exercise for me, but a linguistic and figurative one; I keep searching for signs of her words on her face and body, if that makes sense. It’s a rather clumsy way of putting it, I know, but that’s the best I can do. What’s interesting about photos of her is not whether she was ‘pretty’ or not (whatever that means), but what her face has to say. And that may explain why I’ve ear-marked this particular poem in The Best American Poetry 2011 collection, which is about language, physicality and mortality:


By Jude Nutter

As if language could become solid.

My mother’s sentences become shorter
as her needs grow smaller. And then
shorter still. Stone bridge with a diminishing

span. Become phrases. Become single
words chosen from the rubble inside
her mouth: Bird! Outside! Water.
Please. Tired. Tired. She has grown tired

of language. On her night stand
a tumbler of water on a plastic coaster and the last
book she ever opened in which,
for a year now, a green leather bookmark

has been holding its tongue; in which snowdrifts
on the train lines from Istanbul
have stranded Poirot just beyond Vinkovci
with twelve suspects and clues
appearing one by one—the handkerchief,
the button, the crimson kimono.

To abandon language is to stop
creating a place other than your own life
in which to live. It is to enter
the terrible certainty of the flesh. Even god
is only possible through language
but, still, I declare that it is possible
to transform a body into a temple: look

how our own lungs, unfolded
and smoothed and pressed out flat,
are the size of a spinnaker, could have a sailboat
flying before a strong wind; how they have

the dimensions of a good-sized room, a room
in which my mother might sit,
for a while, before the open window, and so enter
the heft and stance of the outside world.

I have grown used to the seethe
and abrasion of her breathing, truly. Truly.
And this is how I want to leave her, then,
my mother: in a room by an open window, turning

toward the steady compress of light
on the surface of the bay, to a skylark’s rising

smear of music, and to the sleek, white pony
in the wet, roped-off pasture next door
navigating, head down, through the high

surge of wild iris to small islands
of fresh grass; as a woman
who spent the last months of her life with nothing
but rain inside her.

Turning back and forth between images of Plath and this poem makes me go off on a tangent in thought: perhaps what I find fascinating about images of Plath is the knowledge that they come from a time when images of ourselves and the people we love where not as prolific as they are today. We have the ability now to photograph and display every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. There’s great beauty in that, and yet I can’t help feeling fatigue about it all every once in a while. It’s a fatigue that has nothing to do with weariness about appreciating the everyday; I guess it’s more of a fatigue about a lost way of seeing and looking that follows in the trail of an abundance and proliferation of images. I’m not really sure what this all has to do with Nutter’s poem, or the images of Plath I keep staring at this morning, but there you have it. Maybe it’s because this poem is, to me, about a way of seeing and looking, as well as about language; and so are the photographs of Plath.

All images are from this flickr photostream, taken from Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander. Jude Nutter’s poem was originally published in Sycamore Review.