Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

On Friday morning I jolted awake at 5.45am, startled by a door slamming behind me in my dream. Unable to get back to sleep and irritated by a new clicking in the rotation of my ankle, I started to think about my body and how it’s held up in what has been its thirtieth year on this earth.

There is the clicking in my ankle and knees, the new way my shoulders crack and crunch when least expected, signs of getting older perhaps? But there is also proof of my prevailing immaturity – a new scar on my right kneecap, proudly gained on a silly evening celebrating a friend’s thirtieth birthday. (I slipped on a curbstone and went down outside Sandino’s in Derry – impressing spectators by keeping my pint glass both in my hand and unbroken, surprising myself by slopping most of its contents out of the glass and onto my head.)

There are the scars of a few insect bites around my ankles from a walk through the Lakes on a Hen Party over the summer, the remnants of a few kitchen burns from culinary adventures fading on my hands but more or less very little has changed over the past twelve months. And I should be content with that considering how very little I’ve done to keep it in check.

Most years I endeavour on some kind of physical challenge to keep my limbs moving and blood pumping – a 5K to train for or a mountain to scale, but this year has been particularly sedentary. I’ve not taken particularly good care of myself physically, so it was a surprise when it was my mental health which caused me to stop in my tracks. It’s the first time it’s happened, it came as a shock, yet simultaneously, felt so bloody inevitable.

They say exercise is as good for your mental health as it is for your physical, it was one of the first things the doctor recommended, but my recuperation has involved much more rolling news than the rolling out of yoga mats. It’s been cold and wet and there’s been hourly Brexit drama and four episodes of Fraiser daily on More Four, why would anyone leave the comfort of the sofa under such conditions?

And it goes so against the idea of recovery from ill health – we learn how to do it from our earliest sick days off school, wrapped up under a duvet on the couch, sustained on soup and flat lemonade, watching Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep and Bosco. Moving is discouraged.

But I have been exercising my mind, I’ve barely been without a book in my hand and my Killer Suduko game is pretty impressive now. All the same, I was still a little perturbed by the whole thing – if my mental health could so betray me when I least expected it, what could my physical health do to stop me in my tracks?

So, at 6.30am on Friday morning, with a sudden need to give my body what it needs and, for much of this year, has been denied, I shook myself into action. I needed to move, to kick and stretch and feel the exhilaration of blood pumping, the shock of cold, the satisfaction of tired bones. I rallied myself enough in the darkness and early morning chill to drag myself to the university pool and swim 730M – a feat I’ve never achieved before. As I walked home along Hope Street just after 9am, the busy world was going to work. I was refreshed, at ease, happily tired out from the morning’s exertion, I was going home for a bacon sandwich.

It’s been some time since I pondered poetry here but my morning’s swim oddly made me think of Sylvia Plath and the swimming accident which almost took her life aged ten. It’s referred to in Lady Lazarus, where she reflects on how two of her nine lives had already been lost. It’s a dark poem, drawing the mind to the horrors of the Holocaust and exposing the entertainment value the world finds in the suffering of others. Plath displays her scars, mental and physical, but also points a finger at the reader for crowding closer to examine them.

Plath penned the poem during a period of unexpected productivity the week she turned thirty. The poetry might have come from a dark place but ‘out of the ash” she rises, empowered somehow by sheer tenacity. That is what I pondered as I munched my bacon sandwich at 10am on Friday morning.

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer   
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.

by Sylvia Plath

Originally published on PoetryFoundation.org.

2 thoughts on “Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

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