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Monday, October 24, 2011

What Happened That Night

(Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Massachusetts,
May 20, 1959)

Sylvia Plath was an American poet studying in England on a scholarship when she met Ted Hughes, a young English poet already on the path to success.

Their marriage was intense and passionate and troubled. One evening in 1963, when she was only thirty years old, Plath gassed herself, leaving behind their two young children. Hughes had just left her for another woman.

Hughes went on to become a popular writer of verses for children and poems about myths and nature. He also served as the country’s Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998. On the whole, he remained silent about Plath. He never responded to the many angry public attacks hurled against him by self-proclaimed feminists who blamed him for Plath’s death.

But he had been thinking and writing about Plath all along. In 1998, as he was dying of cancer, he published
Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems about his wife and their life together, and his torment and his grief. And in 2010, another of his poems about Plath was discovered among his papers at the British Library.

That poem (below) is “almost unbearable to read,” said Carol Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, after the startling news came out. “It’s a poem that will speak in the way that a Shakespearean tragedy does to people who’ve had the misfortune to touch on those issues. . . . There is a deafening kind of agony, blinding agony to this new poem.”

What happened that night, your final night?
Double, treble exposure over everything.
Late afternoon Friday, my last sight of you alive,
Burning your letter to me in the ashtray with that strange smile.
What did you say over the smoking shards of that letter?
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you and leave you to blow its ashes off your plan.
Off the ashtray against which you would leave me to read the doctor’s phone number.
My escape had become such a hunted thing,
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted.

What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked me awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: “Your wife is dead.”

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