In the 50 years since Sylvia Plath’s death, hordes of fans have heaped blame for her suicide on her philandering husband, Ted Hughes, the future Poet Laureate of England – Ted had taken up with another married woman, leaving Sylvia with their two young children, and his mistress was expecting his child. Who wouldn’t want to put their head in the oven?
Well, hold on a minute, says journalist Andrew Wilson, who, after exhaustive research into Plath’s personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs and poetry, and conversations with her acquaintances, family and friends, constructs an even more tangled web for us to consider.
Wilson traces Sylvia’s short life in minute detail, starting from her childhood when she published her first poem at the ripe age of 8, to her years as a scholarship student at Smith College, her internship at Mademoiselle in New York, the Fulbright scholarship which took her to England where she lived until her death at 30. Page after page, we are with Sylvia as she writes and publishes prolifically, accumulates awards and struggles to accommodate herself to the family’s financial limits. Wilson has painstakingly recreated Sylvia’s life, sometimes it seems, if not minute by minute, then day by day. We see that her success is due not only to her enormous talent but her addiction to achievement. We see that her circumstances (cramped living quarters, sharing a bedroom with her widowed mother, little income) were difficult and that, like most women, she had a strained relationship with mom.
Puberty seems to have been very stressful for Sylvia. She had a strong sexual drive and felt imprisoned by the 50’s double standard of enforced chastity for women and laissez-faire attitude toward men’s peccadilloes. It did not sit well with her that boys had all the fun. What’s more, she was incredibly fickle in her relationships, switching partners frequently, going from infatuation to boredom in the span of days.
Wilson hints at her troubled thoughts throughout her childhood and young adolescence, but it proves very hard for him or the reader to get inside her head. He tells us she is troubled by the death of her father when she was 8 – he died from untreated diabetes, never seeking medical treatment for his symptoms, and he was a scientist and a professor! We gather that she is competitive with her brother, Warren, but not particularly close to him. Her poems, of course, reflect her mental instability and suicidal thoughts.
Wilson drops hints that Sylvia was perhaps manic depressive or had borderline personality; she herself wondered if she were schizophrenic. She felt hollow inside, she said, and tried to act like a typical girl. But she could never hide her intensity, her manic highs, her enthusiasm of the moment.
What’s clear is that she was very serious about a career as a writer, studied the craft and read the classics constantly, always striving to perfect her work. In fact, she was quite compulsive about succeeding at everything she put her hand to. Any failure to place a story or poem or captivate a beau and she was devastated. There are indications that she may have tried to hurt herself at 10; her first serious suicide attempt was at 20 when she dug a cave for herself into her family’s basement crawlspace and went missing for 3 days, only discovered when her brother heard a faint moan. She was hospitalized in a mental ward at that time for 6 months and given electroshock treatment for her depression. She bounced back seemingly to a state of mental equilibrium, but depression was never completely locked away.
Interviews with Sylvia can be found online and it is a shock to hear her cultured, well-bred, plummy accent and exquisite diction as she reads her poems. We forget she was from Massachusetts and she was a Smith girl. Striking also is that her college professor and mentor, asked to describe her in one word, came up with “radiant.” She was many things: a child prodigy, a genius, a beautiful and engaging party girl, a pre-feminist woman intent on a serious literary career, and a seriously disturbed individual. And while not answering all of our questions, Wilson has given readers and fans a much needed corrective to her history in this eminently readable volume.
Today we might say that suicide ran in her family: her father’s inaction regarding his illness; her son Nicholas’s suicide at 46. (Strangely enough though, Ted Hughes’s mistress, Assia Wevill, also commited suicide by gassing herself and their 4 year old daughter!) We might speculate on whether this or that antidepressant or treatment for bipolar disease would have kept Sylvia with us a little longer. As with any writer though, the proof is in the pudding. Sylvia Plath’s poems in Ariel and her posthumous novel, The Bell Jar, remain her lasting legacy and everything else, I fear, is just fodder for Page Six.
(Incidentally, having her collection of poems nearby as a companion piece while reading this biography would be an excellent idea as Wilson quotes lines from her poems and it would deepen our understanding to see the lines in their proper context.)
See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in ten years, is a thought-provoking exploration of time and a family, the Sweet’s journey through it. Mr. Sweet is a composer and teacher from a wealthy family, and his wife is a Caribbean woman off a banana boat. They live in a small New England town with their children, Persephone and Heracles.
The Sweets have built up their relationship using many aspects of conventional love, including hate, “hatred being the direct opposite and so being its most like form.” Kincaid takes time seeing the world (its “thens”, its “nows”, and its “now thens” that the future will become) through each of the family members’ points-of-view. The intertwining and interlocking of relationships and emotions brings realism to the circular and disjointed telling of the Sweets’ life story.
Jamaica Kincaid, in See Now Then, portrays life as a series of incidents, occasions, interactions, emotions, realizations and relationships. Each character keeps his or her secrets and thinks them truly secret. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet shared something once, but have grown to accept a certain status quo.
In the “now”, they explore and reflect on the “then” to unravel how they came to be where they are and where life will lead them. This reflecting reveals what was always known, just misunderstood, as the story completes its circle concluding with Mrs. Sweet standing in the same place she starts the novel.
Kincaid writes in a poetic fashion, making use of repetition and verse, reminiscent of Homer (a parallel that did not escape the author), and her soothing Caribbean accent gives this audio book an appropriately rhythmic and authentic feel. Nonlinear storytelling challenges the listener to reach for meaning and relevance, when sometimes there is apparently none, but trust placed in Kincaid is rewarded. The emotional material strikes home for anyone in or interested in marriage or a family of his or her own.
Kincaid portrays a family struggle centered on self-identity vs. the family, how what is necessary and fulfilling for one member might drive a spike in a relationship with another. The sociological experiment that is the family unit is put to the test with two realistically well-meant, yet self-serving parents. See Now Then holds a warning, a truth, of the hardships and sacrifice entailed in relationships and the growth of a family.
There are times when audio books (especially when read by the author) seem inferior to reading them. See Now Then is not one of those books. Not to discount reading the words and the skill and fashion she uses in manipulating them, but this audio version is read just as the author intended: in her tone, at the proper pace, and with the proper inflection.
The story is a beautiful and heart-wrenching account of a family falling to pieces as it continues to stay together, and Jamaica Kincaid succeeds in presenting it in an interesting and compelling way.
Late one night when my daughter and I were driving home on the nearly-empty highway in Montana, we saw the most astonishing moon. Low to the ground and seemingly perfectly round, my daughter asked in wonder, “Is this what they mean by a blue moon?” Indeed with its mysterious layering of color and bulbous, plump form it looked like something from a fairy tale, a child’s drawing… or maybe from a poem by Joseph Ceravalo.
Ceravolo’s poems have been missing (out of print) for many years now. It’s hard to know something is missing until you learn it is missing, then it seems perfectly absurd—how could such good poems disappear?
Apparently Ceravolo lived a modest life. For employment he worked as a civil engineer (he lived in New Jersey), while writing poetry in his spare time. Sometimes the places he visited for his work such as Colonia Ramos Millan near Mexico City penetrated his work with a sort of dreamy loveliness. Often his poems seemed to come from ordinary moments with his family. He didn’t seem to crave recognition, yet some of his poems wrestle with the idea of being “rediscovered” in some future time. He declares his poetry--his “sympathies and despairs for/another generation to find.”
This matter-of-fact tell-all is stylistically aligned with poetry of the New York School, a poetry made famous by Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and Ceravolo’s teacher, Kenneth Koch. The sly, seemingly simple poems of this movement combined frank assessments with a slice of irony. So, even as the words grip with their simple force, the wry undertones of the lines choke with angst and humor. Poets.org uses lines from a John Ashbery poem to illustrate this phenomenon:
Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?
The “OK, but which ones?” really make the poem for me. Frank O’Hara wrote in this vein with his simple observations of New York City. In his famous “Lunch Poems” he records just what he does, just what he thinks, marveling at his own ludicrous thoughts and ambitions and in the meantime somehow elevating these thoughts by expressing them so exactly. Ceravolo shares these traits with the New York School, playfully making fun at himself without being “confessional.” He writes,
“How long has it been
since I’ve seen you, noticed you
old friend hung
between my two legs.”
--from “Old Friend Hung”
I resisted using this poem in this review because it seems too atypical, but it does demonstrate the playfulness in Ceravolo’s work, and besides I liked it. It really doesn’t need much explanation either. Suffice to say, it goes along with a series of delightful poems that were published in Ceravolo’s book Inri (1979). These short, haiku-like poems spin magic with close observations of nature pressing against the more humble, mundane aspects of day-to-day life. Here is another one called “O Moon”:
How ghost you are.
Let me kiss you,
And touch those lips
Of dry ice.”
This short poem is full of surprises—the line “how ghost you are” evokes the mysteriousness of the moon without being trite—and I love how the moon transforms into something else (possibly) in the poem. In any case, I’ve heard that using a moon in a poem is risky, that the moon has been way over-written, but when I hear these lines I feel I will never look at the moon again without thinking, “How ghost you are!”
Likewise, Ceravolo writes about trees, the ocean, flowers, and moths. In other words, he writes about nature and his subjects may seem to be typical of the pastoral or nature poems, but he does it in a way that harkens back to Blake, as he writes songs of praise for the elemental nature of things (I’m thinking of “Tyger, Tyger burning bright…”)
This is not to say that all of Ceravolo’s poems are the same. As you go through The Collected Poems, the different abilities of Ceravolo begin to become apparent. Although I have shared some of his short poems here, he has also written long poems, such as his book-length poem, Fits of Dawn. Ceravolo introduces the poem this way, “If you can see it as a fusion of emotion and sound, of real life incidents represented in the grappling of new concepts… Since music was the main impetus of my soul, I tried to steer or redeem American Poetry, with all due respect & love I had for it…” (1980).
This poem seems more “experimental” than others and relies on rhythm and sound to propel the poem forward:
Here own will are rain climb banal
off far ever
mis 'er tree yin dyer ee strain
positions camp alameda lone…”
As we see here, Ceravolos is perhaps influenced by e.e. cummings’ use of white space as well as his play with language.
Although Ceravolo is not a confessional poet by any means, there is a great deal of emotion underlying his poems. He grapples with the big questions in life—what it mean to be here right now, how can a man do what is good, how can we live in the best way possible? A Zen-like sensibility permeates the work, as Ceravolo guides us through the mundane moments of life—drinking coffee before work, arguing, riding the bus. Yet these parts of life are not framed in a way to invite misery or succumb to despair. Rather, his poems have a way of awakening you, startling you.
When I read the name on the spine of the book, “Joseph Ceravolo,” nothing came to mind. But then after reading that he had worked with Kenneth Koch I turned to a children’s poetry book I have that was edited by Kenneth Koch. Knowing that Koch was a fan of Ceravolo, I thought there might be one of his poems in the book. Sure enough, not only was there a poem there, but it was a poem I had used to teach poetry with over the years. Here are some lines from “The Wind Is Blowing West”:
I am trying to decide to go swimming,
But the sea looks so calm
All the other boys have gone in.
I can’t decide what to do.
I’ve been waiting in my tent
Expecting to go in.
Have you forgotten to come down?
Can I escape going in?
I was just coming
I was going in
But lost my pail
This is just one section. The poem meanders in this way for quite some time with the young boy wondering what he should do. One wonders—why is he afraid? What is the big deal? But then again, we have all felt angst over a seemingly easy thing to do. The poem seems to be about life itself, how to embrace it, how to watch it while participating in it. And asks what is the role of the artist?
Realizing that I had read a Ceravolo poem (and one I always marveled at) was a happy discovery for me. It made me wonder: What other poets need to be rediscovered?
I am a tough critic on the magical realism/sci-fi genres. Truth is, they are not my go-to genres when I am choosing a book to read, so it usually takes something special to draw me in. Scott Too grabbed me immediately. From the subtle hint of something awry in the first paragraph surrounded by piles of concrete details, told in an authentic voice, I was hooked:“The last normal day of my life began as all the others did. I woke at 7PM, cracked my neck, and slumped downstairs to find my roommate Jase, laid out in his corner chair. Half a burnt-out joint stuck to his dried lips, fluttering through his snores. Empty beer cans stood post around his legs and dribbled down the cushions.”
It starts with a late night bodega run and a drive by shooting. Our narrator escapes with only a superficial eye wound, only to enter his front door to see himself sitting on the couch with his best friend. Scott Too by Victor Giannini exists in a tear in the universe created when his protagonist simultaneously dies and escapes death. This body double becomes a real life foil for Scott and a literary one for the reader.
Presented in the form of a magical realism novel, in Scott Toowe find a touching coming of age story for today’s lost generation. Two friends moved to Brooklyn, rented an apartment, and built a sweet skate ramp in the back yard – they were independent for the first time. Only problem is, that was years ago, now the skate ramp lays in warped disrepair as does Scott’s life. It is not until his body double appears in his apartment and lives his life better than he has, that our narrator begins to wonder how he became so complacent.
Giannnini continually balances between the unflinching authenticity of the roommates’ lives (and apartment) and the unrealness of a body double walking around with a life of his own. The reader quickly accepts this alternate reality because we are so grounded in all of the concrete details that add up to a full gritty reality. We can almost count the empty beer cans around the apartment and are grossed out by the dishes in the sink. The characters’ actions and speech are so authentic that I swear I knew these guys and that I have seen their apartment.
The clarity and realness of the setting draws us into the world of the novella, and the characters keep us there. The characters are going on the journey with us, struggling to understand how a body double can appear and figuring out how to deal with him once he is there.
From the initial disbelief of “’Man, I must be really high.’” to the stoner logic of “’I’m going to pack this giant bong here with some killer weed. And we’re only going to smoke it and chill out…and then we’ll figure out where exactly reality broke apart.’” To the humorous, “’Maybe you guys shouldn’t touch.’” We are along on this journey with these characters, they don’t know what they hell is going on either…and we are going to figure it out together.
After we have been sucked into this alternate reality and we have accepted Scott Two’s existence, we begin to understand the novella. Subtle moments of self-realization begin to appear as Scott Two works out, tones his muscles and bulks up, takes over Scott’s job, and gets his girl.
Scott realizes that this body double is living his life better than he had been. The journey is gradual and is punctuated by intimate moments between the roommates, often with the skate ramp serving as the symbol for their lives. As Scott transitions from disbelief, to anger, to hatred, to acceptance of Scott Two, the relationship he has with Jase remains solid. “Jase and I were in his room, a cave of teenage angst turned to young adult pride. The two windows were open, watch of us dangling our legs into the Brooklyn air, letting the cool sandy brownstone slap at our calves.” And, “We did what people do. We stood side by side and smoked our little passive aggressive wishes for death, and stared down at our glory days.”
There is a sense of satisfaction that comes over you when you are done reading this novella. At every turning point Giannini takes the story in an unexpected direction and never once does he take the easy way out. We feel content with the direction each character is headed when we leave them– and in the back of each of our minds we are thinking, “What if I came home to a better version of me sitting on my couch?”
Synesthesia: a neurological condition in which one type of sensory stimulation evokes the sensation of another.
When I looked at the photos in Robert Landau’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip, I heard music. Specifically rock and roll music of the late 1960’s through the early ’80‘s, the period that the book covers. This was a time when the Sunset Strip, that mile and a half stretch of Sunset Blvd which passes through West Hollywood, was filled with music industry offices where people worked during the day; clubs, restaurants, stores and hotels filled with musicians and music lovers at night; and Tower Records, with its knowledgeable sales people, sat right in the center of it all.
Stuck in your car in the bumper-to-bumper traffic there was nothing to do except look at the buildings, the people, and the billboards, especially if you were a kid trapped in the backseat of your parents’ car or a pre-teen in a bus on your way to Tower Records in that pre-iPod age, dreaming of becoming a part of this world bursting with the creativity displayed around you.
Landau was the right person in the right place at the right time to capture these images — a teenage boy, son of an art gallery owner, staying with his divorced father in an apartment a block from Tower Records, armed with his first camera. He “transformed from an awkward bystander to a purposeful observer” and documented the one-of-a-kind hand painted billboards he saw going up around him. They became his personal, ever-in-transition, art gallery; a new billboard would take 5-10 days to go up, stay a matter of weeks, and then be replaced by another creation painted over the one before.
Landau supplies a graceful and informative text to accompany his photos. He takes the reader through the evolution of the Sunset Strip and its billboards up to the point in the 1960’s when they turned into a reflection of the youthful music industry revitalizing the Strip, interviewing many of the artists, painters, photographers, craftspeople, and music industry executives involved. The Sunset Strip had been a major commuter thoroughfare as well as tourist destination for decades and the street was filled with billboards, which seemed to advertise everything but music.
He cites Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records, as the first to realize the potential of the Sunset Strip Billboards Holzman explains, as do others interviewed, that the billboards were not about advertising per se, they were to show the record company’s commitment to the artists, to show that the people in the offices “got” the people making the music. If a DJ on their way to work took notice — Holman calls the billboards “very large calling cards” —and decided to give a listen to the album all the better. And Holzman thought he had the perfect group to launch his idea with, a west coast band that he had signed called The Doors. It was 1967.
(There’s a wonderful black and white photo in the book of The Doors billboard, band members perched on top, as two workers in hardhats finish installing it below.)
That billboard had quite an impact, and others followed featuring more of Elektra’s artists. Six months later other labels began renting other billboards, and soon the Boulevard was filled with images inspired by the music. There is a theme running through the interviews, that these billboards were meant to be a visual component of the music being made, rather than a commercial advertisement. Like the album covers, they were an extension of the music itself. But unlike album covers, they had to make their impact within a few seconds of a car going by during non-rush hour times — which meant striking images and few words.
Sometimes the images were adapted from the album covers, often though they were unique visuals created for the billboard alone. They could be extended with plywood out beyond the rectangular frame (such as the Abbey Road album cover image turned into billboard with the Beatles’ heads popping up above the sign, framed by the blue sky behind), made 3-dimensional, including special effects.
Some transformed over days: in one a painted figure of Cat Stevens seemed to paint out the image of his album cover as time passed in favor of a landscape; in another hand painted bricks gradually disappeared to reveal the title of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The styles ranged from pop art graphic to surrealism to satire to shock to gorgeous photography. Landau seems to have captured them all.
Many interviewed in the book echo the theme of the Sunset Strip at this time as art gallery, the billboards themselves as pieces of art rather than something commercial. The vibe was supposed to be unique, independent, creative, spontaneous — the antithesis of a corporate music company. The billboards — as well as much of the album cover art of the time — were windows into the world that the musicians were creating. I may have heard remembered music looking at these photos; but these artists and art directors were listening to the music for the first time and seeing visions: Synesthesia.
The music of course encompassed more than classic rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones and included such artists as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Smokey Robinson. All had billboards, all were part of the music scene and, of course, the music business where choices are made as to where the label is going to put its money. A billboard on the Sunset Strip might make your artist happy, but the cover of Rolling Stone is going to make them even happier. And a music video on the new MTV channel is going to sell more records. By 1982 this particular art gallery was, if not quite going out of business, no longer as special and unique.
There are still billboards on the Sunset Strip, some of them music related, but none of them hand painted. Tower Records has gone the way of Kodachrome, victims of a digital age which no longer thinks it needs them. But luckily there was a teenager with an eye and a camera, Robert Landau, who was inspired to capture and save the images of this vibrant period.
The photos are spectacular as is the design of the book by Frans Evenhuis, from the endpapers printed with images of Landau’s Kodachrome slides to the archival black and white shots of the historical LA, to the color prints of the rock ‘n’ roll billboards, beautifully shot by Landau, which not only show you the billboard, but give you the essence of the street and the time the photo was taken. This is not a book of nostalgia: the images are still alive and full of energy, as is the music they were part of. Perhaps the publisher can include a mix tape with the next edition. But then, if you are looking at this book, you probably already have a soundtrack of your own.
Ghana Must Go opens with the death of Kweku Sai, who was born in poverty in Ghana but who rose to a position of prominence as a renowned surgeon in the United States before suddenly leaving his wife and four children to return to Ghana. At the novel’s beginning he succumbs at dawn outside the house he designed and had built which he shares with his new wife. He isn’t that old, not even 60 years, and as far as we know wasn’t in especially poor health.
News of his death brings the family he left behind many years ago together—his eldest son Olu, an accomplished surgeon like his father, the beautiful twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, and the younger daughter, Sadie. They travel to their mother, Fola, who also has returned to Ghana, to mourn the death of their father, while suppressed stories of their own troubled lives emerge and they are ultimately reconciled.
As delicately and well-told as Ms. Selasi’s story is, I have an argument with it that has to do with the novel’s verisimilitude. It has to do with what caused Kweku to abandon his family in the first place. What happened was this: While he was a top-notch surgeon at a well-respected Boston hospital, at the top of his game really, living in a large and expensive home in the Brookline suburb, the matriarch of a prominent Boston Brahmin family, the Cabots, was brought in with a ruptured appendix and a bloodstream infection. The 77 year old smoker and alcoholic was at death’s door, but her family still wanted her operated on as a last ditch measure. Kweku was recruited.
He said to his supervisor, “In my professional opinion, sir, it’s too late for surgery.” The family wasn’t interested in his professional opinion. The operation was performed in Kweku’s usual masterful fashion but the woman died anyway. Now the family was looking for someone to blame and Kweku became the scapegoat. Seeking to appease them the hospital dismissed Kweku.
Granted, this was unfortunate and unfair, but in my opinion he totally over-reacted to this injustice. For a while he reacted as the man, who is fired and too ashamed to tell his family; who still gets up in the morning, gets dressed, and pretends to go the work. He sits all day in local parks or coffee shops and scans the paper for job ads.
Finally, he decides to confront Dr. Michiko Yuki, the head of his department. He wants to ask her how she can live with herself after what she’s done to him. The confrontation goes poorly and he finds himself being ousted physically from the hospital while his son Kehinde, who has stumbled in, stares in astonishment.
Kweku is unable to go his wife Fola and confess what has happened. Instead, he leaves entirely, calling her from a nearby hotel, to tell her that he has left and is never coming home again.
Kweku’s action seems selfish to me—it’s not as if he has been ousted by the entire medical community and has lost his license altogether or been sued for malpractice. I loose respect for a man who would let a single event destroy the lives of himself, his wife and children.
His wife (whom he assumes can handle whatever comes her way) and his children are damaged by his desertion. Fola is able to sell the house but as far as we know is not granted alimony, so she is compelled to struggle financially. A slimy half-brother of hers who lives in Nigeria invites her to send him the twins; unwittingly she avails herself of this opportunity—doesn’t she know that he’s a drug dealer and pedophile?
My problem is that I have trouble believing that a person, cultural differences aside, would react to such unfairness in such a radical fashion, especially since all Kweku would have had to do was to apply to another hospital and he would have been gladly accepted. Having suffered endless indignities and rejections myself, I have trouble believing someone would react in such manner who has suffered only one.
Once suspicion is aroused, I look for other inconsistencies. And I found them! At the novel’s beginning Ms. Selasi charmingly describes the house that Kweku designed and has constructed by the Ganga- smoking carpenter who lives in a tree house on the beach. It has four rooms each abridging a center patio. One would expect the house would provide backdrop for a scene or two at the novel’s end but it is not even mentioned.
In another scene Taiwo encounters her father asleep in a chair. The bottoms of his feet are bruised and painful looking. We never learn what has caused this.
In the books final chapters where Kweku family has gathered for the first time in years, they seem to do more excavating of their own painful pasts than actual mourning for their dead father, making the ending seem insufficient.
Taiye Selasi was born in London and raised in Massachusetts. She holds a BA in American Studies from Yale and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford. She lives in Rome. Ghana Must Go will be published in thirteen countries. The Penguin Group is a respected American publisher. With these kind of credentials, I would hope the pretext of her next novel, should she write another, will be more firmly rooted in plausibility.