Although the best-known poems in Ariel possess a relatively accessible combination of striking local imagery with direct utterance, and, some commentators have argued, a strong sense of narrative as well (Dickie, 1984; Roberts, 1999), other poems in the collection have notoriously defeated sure critical analysis. These include 'Cut' and 'Nick and the Candlestick'. In my view these poems can best be explained in terms of Julia Kristeva's bodily discourse of abjection (Kristeva, 1982; see also Rose, 1991, esp. pp. 52—3). For Kristeva, the term 'abjection' refers to a state in which order is disrupted: the strict distinction between subject and object, life and death, one's own body and the outside world begins to blur. When these symbolic-order binaries are threatened, the human subject reacts with a psychic and bodily distress signalling the frailty of the symbolic realm, which is constantly liable to collapse back into what
Kristeva calls the 'semiotic', the pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal realm of unity with another body.
In contemporary reviews, 'Cut' was described as a puzzling 'circular string of uncontrolled conceits' (Stilwell, 1984, p. 45), apparently going nowhere. Later critics have noted the disjunction registered in the poem between the persona's body and her subjectivity (Larrissy, 1990, p. 137): the speaker describes this domestic incident with a detachment that unnervingly — for the reader — echoes the injury. The opening lines of the poem suggest that the bleed of analogies for a cut thumb is caused by the accident: 'My thumb instead of an onion'.
However, I would argue that the sequence goes the other way around: it is the onion itself which, by fatally and even thrillingly resembling the body, has caused the accident — if we can assume even on a fictional level that such an injury has taken place. It is telling that no mention is made of how the injury occurred: all we get is the registering of substitution — 'instead'. It is as if the cut represents a breach of a psychic kind. Sigmund Freud (1955) interestingly discusses a hallucination undergone by his patient the Wolf Man of a similar injury — the Wolf Man saw his thumb dangling by a thread of skin but it was actually unharmed — which, not unexpectedly, Freud reads as a transferred castration anxiety. This is also an anxiety not far beneath the surface of 'Cut'.
Onions possess, at least metaphorically, qualities which can seem worryingly anthropomorphic. They have a fine, peelable skin; and they can cause tears with their own sweated juices. Indeed, the potentially abject ambiguity of which properties are human, which vegetable, is preserved in the poem's next lines. The top of the onion-thumb is quite gone,
Clearly the gap between the stanzas here imitates not only the object being described but also a 'hinge' of sense — the reader's horrified realization that it is not the onion top which is gone but a bit of a human body. Such a realization allows for the images that follow. Once the abject knowledge of similitude, rather than difference, between animate and inanimate has been exposed it cannot be stopped, as the sequence of associations shows. The speaker next invokes a turkey wattle which unrolls like a carpet from the heart. The compression here is grammatical as much as visual. The uneven red of a turkey wattle turns into something else — a red carpet — even as it rolls out to greet the famous, wounded protagonist, disturbingly following the rhythm of the persona's heartbeat. This is conducted with an authenticity that the phrase 'straight from the heart' both suggests and ironizes.
Kristeva observes that 'food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection' (Kristeva, 1982, p. 2). Food can provoke daily domestic encounters with things that may be disgusting yet life-giving. In Powers of Horror
Kristeva — or the text's first-person speaker at this point — describes an abject moment with the skin on milk which she is expected to drink (ibid., pp. 2—3). Just like the onion, which is well known for the layers which can be discarded to reveal a central truth, the skin on milk has an uncanny resemblance to human skin and is the substance which most links the subject to his or her mother. Rejecting milk is, in Kris-teva's view, akin to rejecting one's parents; in 'Cut' it is the subject's own body which is in danger of being rejected. The 'redcoats' which bleed out of the wound may have seemed safe and life-enhancing when inside the body, but the rupture to the boundary of skin makes their status uncertain. The speaker asks whose side they are on: the answer is that they are on the outside, which is the wrong side.
The focus of the poem changes early on from the first-personal 'my thumb' to a second-person address: 'Your turkey wattle', representing the dangerously split subjectivity that is associated with abjection. Again the apparent causal relation between the domestic accident and this split is actually the opposite way round. A papery feeling is not caused by the injury but causes it to seem threatening; the persona is already unwell, and addresses the thumb as something resembling a person, a 'homunculus'.
The 'homunculus', a detachable body-part, is to the speaker radically different from the speaking subject, 'I': to think of one's body as separate from oneself allows for the possibility of suicide, as Esther Greenwood in Plath's novel The Bell Jar (1966) realized when only pity for her own veins prevented her slitting her wrist. Marjorie Perloff discusses the 'papery' image in Plath's poetry at some length, observing that in most of its appearances it suggests fragility and dissociation (Perloff, 1984, p. 121). Paper is skin-like and can act as a veil, allowing the subject to see the world and her body at a remove (rather as the caul with which the Wolf Man was born lingered on into adult life as a sensation of distance and unreality; Freud, 1955). It is also, of course, the medium on which poems such as 'Cut' are written; and the metafictional link between one's fingers, a tool and the ability to write poetry has appeared in other writers' work — see, for instance, 'Digging' by Seamus Heaney. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to see 'Cut' as representing ambivalence about 'the blood-jet' of poetry ('Kindness'); the flow of blood and images is indistinguishable, and although the cut provokes a crisis in the subject it also enables the poem to be written. Indeed, the paper appears to metamorphose into a bandage for the wound. The speaker does not say that she has wrapped up the cut, but describes the stain on its
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
These lines associate, again in flicker-book form, images that do not go well together. The white Klan robes suddenly 'bloom' with blood ('Poppies in October'), giving a sign of crimes whose racial motivation is a theme the poem has hinted at all along in its uneasy invocation of the scalping Indian — a 'redskin' — and swarming redcoats.
Unnervingly, this violent image flips over into one of violence perpetrated, as the blood turns up on a Russian grandmother's hat. The boundaries of sense, morality and grammar all bleed unnervingly into one another; and the abjection which is the poem's subject cannot be prevented from affecting the reader too.
The final stanza of the poem winds back down to its first cause, as the persona invokes, in order, a trepanned veteran, dirty girl, and thumb stump. The pain and punishment of the trepanned veteran, who may have had holes drilled in his skull to combat something like a papery feeling, turns suddenly into an abject acknowledgement of the speaker's gender in the invocation of the dirty girl. The girl is 'dirty' because this blood is associated with the feminine alone; Kristeva identifies menstrual blood as the most abject of all substances (Kristeva, 1982, p. 96). In her discussion of the biblical taboos surrounding menstruating women Kristeva argues that the very possibility of menstruation means that femininity is itself at all times unacceptable: women are always already dirty, not allowed to touch sacred documents or to enter holy buildings. Unglamorously in 'Cut' the reader and poem are brought back to the beginning — to the thumb stump which allowed for the linguistic haemorrhage — but not in a senseless circle.
My second example of a poem which springs into new meaning if read in the terms offered by Kristevan abjection is 'Nick and the Candlestick', a poem which Margaret Dickie Uroff calls 'cryptic' (Uroff, 1979, p. 149). This poem is about a maternal ambivalence which is enacted by the poem's division into two different halves. Although Margaret Dickie rightly says that 'the time-span and cause—effect sequence' are often hard to discern in Plath's late poetry (Dickie, 1984, p. 173), in this case both are quite clear. In the first half (stanzas 1—7) the speaker is preoccupied with the alien sensation of breastfeeding; in the second (stanzas 8—14), she has finished feeding and is provoked by her baby's objective presence into a more celebratory mode. The poem's title suggests this split: Nick, the child, is balanced against the candlestick.
In the first stanzas, in which the speaker gets up in the middle of the night to nurse her child by candlelight, the candle is unpleasantly mingled with the speaker's sense of her own body. As a miner, she enters internal regions where oxygen is low and the light burns blue. Watching the candle drip 'waxy stalactites' becomes a bodily melting; these are 'tears /The earthen womb / Exudes'. It sounds as if the teary, milky oozings and the 'dead' womb — the child has, after all, already been born — belong to the speaker; the candle cannot be detached in her mind from her own bodily state. Even the 'Old cave of calcium' is not just a geographical but a bodily space: perhaps the mouth, the skull, or the milk-producing breast. Many of the images which follow in the next stanzas are of uncomfortable or painful — homicides, panes of ice, a vice of knives, a piranha religion — mergings or parasitic feedings — 'They weld to me like plums', 'drinking . . . out of my live toes'. The child at the breast is not mentioned, but analogies for him are. Sardonic religious imagery is clear throughout in the references not only to carnivorous religion and holy Joes, but to the fish-sign of Christ, whose body is also consumed at 'communion'.
An influx of oxygen - 'The candle / Gulps and recovers its small altitude' - allows the speaker to separate herself from the candle, which she can refer to again in a straightforward way. (Several critics compare this poem to Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight', which has a similar structure: the poem's speaker sits by the fire late at night watching a film on the grate and charts his inner state by its alterations.) It is as if she wakes up a little, and is more alert to the decreasingly abject separation of subject and object. The speaker's question to the baby - 'how did you get here?' - is at once existential and quite concrete. After the blurred mental state which accompanied the initial feeding, realization of the baby's separateness is like a second birth (he is addressed as an embryo) - perhaps particularly as the child is now safely inert in sleep. The pain has resolved itself into something that is the mother's alone ('not yours'). Although Plath said of this poem that in it 'A mother nurses her baby son by candlelight and finds in him a beauty which, while it may not ward off the world's ill, does redeem her share of it' (quoted in Hardy, 1985, p. 65), it seems that the speaker's difficulty in distinguishing internal and external states continues. Crippling mercury atoms may still drip into a terrible well of real ecological disaster, but they also return to the uneasy exudations of the candle-body into a deep hollow which we read about at the poem's start. The final stanza suggests that the child is another miraculous baby in the barn, but this reference is also fraught with ambiguity. Earlier on Christianity appeared in a troubling guise of sacrifice and introjection of the body; even here the child's memory of an earlier 'crossed position' is not reassuring. The pain he wakes to may well not be his, but he will be asked to take it on, as Christ did.
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