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Books: May these poets finally rest in peace; A new novel portrays American poet Sylvia Plath and the British poet Ted Hughes's ultimately doomed relationship. Marianne Nault reviews the book and a new edition of Plath's poems. Wintering. By Kate Moses (Sceptre, pounds 16.99).

Byline: Marianne Nault

Will Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes ever be left in peace? Biographies, films, poems and now, we have the first novel about what it was like to be the tormented poet who died by her own hand.

Poetic prose is perhaps the most precarious ship on which any novelist should attempt a maiden voyage. Kate Moses, editor, daughter of a British father and American mother, living in San Francisco with a husband and two children, in the opening of this debut 'novel' (based on meticulous research into every word written by and about the two poets) attempts to immerse the reader into a kind of Virginia Woolf stream of poetic consciousness, into the crevices of Plath's tormented mind, exacerbated by electric shock treatments she endured after a suicide attempt ten years before.

Sadly, the overly adjectival descriptions (even Woolf eschewed such overwrought prose) serve to diminish rather than illuminate the subjects of this enquiry.

Curiously enough, the most powerful passages in the book deal with Ted Hughes's agony over his 'crime of abandonment', as Moses puts it. Of course Moses - and the literary world - has been assisted in understanding just what he felt about the death of his wife, mother of his two children, with the publication of his magnificent book of poetry, Birthday Letters, that eloquent reworking of their courtship and marriage, published months before his untimely death from cancer in 1999.

One could argue that is all we need - those poems and Plath's own magnificent outpourings throughout her brief life. In the portrayal of Ted Hughes returning to his idyll, the thatched manor house in Devon that they had created together, before the serpent in the garden destroyed it all, Moses creates marvellous insights - fictive though they may be - of the guilt-stricken mate trying to retrieve items that Sylvia had requested.

Having researched all of Plath's manuscripts, published and unpublished, along with the Hughes archives, with an eye for a double biography, I revisited the host of characters in this novel, whom I personally interviewed over the years. Sadly, apart from a few passages, I was disappointed. The 'imagined conversations' between Sylvia and her mother, the menage a trois that grew when Assia Wevill became the 'other woman' who wreaked destruction (killing herself and Ted's daughter Shura some years later), the conversations with neighbours, all ring false.

Recycling is fine for the environment, but this regurgitation of poetry-cumprose provides little for the literary landscape of these two giants. May we be spared additional authors of biofiction, queueing to dig up new bones, new graves. RIP.

Selected Poems. By Sylvia Plath (Faber, pounds 9.99) Any new edition of Sylvia Plath's poems reads like an urgent message from the edge. The simple fine design of the cover of Selected Poems is just as Sylvia would have wanted, and within, a selection of poetry that ranges from early discursive lyrics from 1956 to the final embittered poems, written days before her suicide in 1963, an extraordinary sweep that makes clear the scope of her talent.

First published in 1985, this collection draws on four previously published works, as selected by Ted Hughes. Some aficionados of Plath's poetry may take issue with the inclusion of the early poems, such as the posturing Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper, but in its painful restraint, a window opens on to the mental patient who was Sylvia, soon after her attempted suicide and the electric shock treatments that scarred her for this brief but dazzling life, avoiding for a time 'the perilous needles that grain the floorboards'.

Each of the 45 poems documents those epiphanic moments of a literary giant. The powerful truths of her life and work are distilled here: the madness of 1955; the grand passion of Spinster in 1956 when she first met Hughes; the omnipresent grief of her father's death in Full Fathom Five - re-examined in the terrifying Daddy with its inverted nursery-rhyme brutality of one who like 'a black shoe will not do'; the exquisite poignancy of maternal love in 1961 with Morning Song, and in 1962 with Nick and the Candlestick, poems that mark the births of two children she was about to leave forever concluding with the hopeful despair of - 'You are the one/Solid the spaces lean on, envious'.

It is Ariel that glitters with the genius of her art, after burning away all the peripherals: Plath resurrects an event in Cambridge on a runaway horse, merges it with later riding lessons in Devon, and synthesizes it all into a death-defying 'pivot of heels and knees'.

The poem is one of her final triumphant rides through the labyrinthine paths of memory, past the icons of father/lover/children, flying like an arrow 'Into the red/Eye, the cauldron of morning.' Of course there are also the delightfully sardonic lines: 'pears fatten like little buddhas' and 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch' and 'The tulips are too excitable'. But it is the risk-taking lyrics of her final days, written in an icy London flat during the worst snowstorm in decades, at the 'blue hour' before dawn. Those words that become axes when reread in this volume that resound like: 'Echoes travelling off from the center like horses Words dry and riderless,/ Indefatigable hoof-taps' - words that will last forever.

Anyone who doubts the stature of Sylvia Plath in the pantheon of the 'greats' should get this slim volume of poems; for those who know, we have another satisfyingly thin volume to place beside our bedside, for thrills of courageous, inimitable words from one who rode closer and closer to the edge of passion, of extinction.


Poets Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes with their daughter Frieda in 1961. Photograph from Sylvia Plath - A Biography by Linda W Wagner-Martin (1988); Sylvia Plath (left) skiing in Francestown, New Hampshire, with college friend Marcia Brown in 1951. Photograph from The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 (2001).
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 19, 2003
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