Monday, May 14, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different, Part the Second

What better way to honor the great poet, Sylvia Plath, than to write a book about her, all done in poetry? That is just what Stephanie Hemphill set out to accomplish in her new book, Your Own, Sylvia. I am a huge Plath fan, so I try to read anything and everything published about her. Still, I have to admit I was a little nervous about this book. A fictional biography of Sylvia Plath written in poetry is an enormously ambitious undertaking. This kind of homage is great. . . if the poetry’s any good. If the poetry’s awful? Well, then it’s just painfully embarrassing, isn’t it? Yes, I started this book with some trepidation, but I was very quickly swept up in the ficitonalized re-telling of my favorite poet’s tragic life. With a sigh of relief, I realized that not only are the poems not bad, but the majority of them are very good. Your Own, Sylvia was a fast and engrossing read. I found it difficult to set the book down, but just kept turning from one poem to the next to the next until the entire story was told---and of course I already knew how things were going to end. Many different voices tell the tale, with the poems coming from the mouths of people who knew her well, from those who wanted to know her better, and from those who barely got a fleeting glimpse of the powerhouse and streak of passion that was Sylvia Plath. The only voice we don’t get is Sylvia’s. Though Hemphill uses quotes from Sylvia’s poems and journals throughout, she doesn't overstep herself by daring to write a poem from Sylvia Plath’s point of view (with only one exception.) I think this was definitely the right call on the author’s part. The one time she puts words into Sylvia's mouth, it's because she is mimicking a particular Plath poem that was written in first person. It bugged me a little, but not too much because it was well done.

This is a great book for a Plath fan. It’s based on the reality of her life, but at heart it's a fictional undertaking. Hemphill has obviously read a quite a bit about Sylvia Plath and she has managed to turn her research into art and really give a strong sense of who Sylvia was. I only have two quibbles with the book:

1) Hemphill concentrates way too much on Sylvia's anger toward Ted Hughes and not enough on the fact that Sylvia loved him and found him essential, even in the midst of her anger over Ted's betrayal. (For heaven's sake, go read Her Husband: Ted and Sylvia: A Marriage, and stop relying so much on Rough Magic!)

and 2) the footnotes after each poem, although interesting, rather aggravated me. They interrupted the flow of the poems. I knew most of the information contained within them but I found I couldn't just ignore them. They were right there, hovering at the end of each poem! I would have much preferred to get all the footnotes at the end of the book. However, I realize that most other people on earth don't obsessively buy Sylvia Plath books, compare and contrast them, and retain an encyclopedic knowledge of all things SP. So, these footnotes are probably necessary for a Plath newbie. I wonder, though, how many people will want to read this book if they are not already slavering Plath fans? I hope this book will encourage people to seek out Sylvia's poems and The Bell Jar (even if the book went seriously downhill at exactly page 100).

This is a great homage to Sylvia. The poetry is stellar. The story is tragic and addictive. Three thumbs up from me!

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