For quite a long time, I have enjoyed the person of Sylvia Plath as an icon. However, last year, I realized that I had never actually read anything by her, so I promptly devoured The Bell Jar. Now, nearly a year after completing Plath’s biographical novel, I decided to take a plunge through Crossing the Water.
Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath is a strong, though short, collection of poetry compiled after her death by ex-husband Ted Hughes. The subheading of the book, “Transitional Poems,” presents a major connecting theme throughout the collection. This series of poems was written by Plath in the time after she published The Colossus and before she wrote the Ariel poems, which are largely considered her crowning poetic achievement. Plath’s struggles with satisfaction and death rip themselves out of her mind and into her poetry in Crossing the Water.
As transitional poems, each poem in the collection and the collection as a whole are constantly involved in cycles of motion from satisfaction to dissatisfaction, from life to death and back again. Plath, who was notoriously dissatisfied with life, explores the reaches of death in poems like “I Am Vertical,” “Last Words,” and “Widow.” The poem “I Am Vertical” begins with the speaker saying “but I would rather be horizontal.” The speaker wishes to end her upward mobility and become part of the earth, in which death she might be content. This theme repeats throughout Crossing the Water repeatedly.
Underneath the major thematic push of transition and death, Crossing the Water struggles with a feminist desire to usurp patriarchal authority, and at times can even be read as antifeminist. The poems “In Plaster” and “Two Sisters of Persephone” both embody this push and pull between feminism and patriarchy. In “Two Sisters of Persephone,” neither the first sister nor the second survives into full happiness, and both die wanting. One sister gives birth to a king and turns bitter “and sallow as any lemon,” while the other sister, “wry virgin to the last,/ goes graveward with flesh laid waste,/ worm-husbanded, yet no woman.” The first sister fulfills her patriarchal role as lover and mother, but it turns her into a bitter woman. The second sister, who pursues her own single life, dies unwed and is not considered a woman. The speaker is unclear as to which fate is worse, and both come with condemnation.
As far as the book’s construction goes, Crossing the Water has a nearly visible split at the poem “Stillborn.” Through the first part of the book, poems are longer and inelegant. Nearly half of the book contains less than a third of the poetry. After “Stillborn,” the poems shorten and tighten — both in total length and in line length — becoming clearer and sharper. The shorter poems, which are mostly in the second part of the book, are more precise. “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” presents a solid, beautiful image in the bird preening in the rain, whereas “Wuthering Heights” and “Finisterre” leave the reader guessing as to the poem’s subject. Even Plath’s feminist “In Plaster” suffers from bulky lines and an unclear topic. The poem, literally spending time in a full body cast, never explains itself beyond the title, whose dated terminology does not clear up the question. Thus the internal struggle between the speaker and her plaster duplicate is occulted by the poem’s lack of clarity.
In total, this collection of poems is solid. Ted Hughes may have made some questionable decisions in including the larger, bulkier poems in the book, but they work with the themes of transition. The beginning may struggle, but by the end of the book, Plath’s poetry has become sharper and more precise, and much more beautiful. In some of her poems, Plath reaches hopeful conclusions, which heightens the beauty of the latter portion of Crossing the Water. In particular, “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” includes this admonition in the last stanza:
Miracles occur,/ if you care to call those spasmodic/ tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,/ the long wait for the angel,/ for that rare, random descent.
Sylvia Plath pushes the borders of life and death, only to arrive at the acknowledgement of small miracles that make the world liveable and beautiful. Crossing the Water is one such trick of radiance that reaches into the supernatural realm of the miracle. This book is a remarkable collection of poetry, and I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in good verse!