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Poetry Analysis/ Discussion

Poppies In July

Little poppies, little hell flames,
Do you do no harm?

You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns

And it exhausts me to watch you
Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied.
Little bloody skirts!

There are fumes I cannot touch.
Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?

If I could bleed, or sleep!
If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,
Dulling and stilling.

But colorless. Colorless.


Ted Hughes titled the last poem in Birthday Letters "Red."

Red was your colour.

If not red, then white. But red

Was what you wrapped around you.

Blood red.

And outside the window

Poppies thin and wrinkle-frail

As the skin on blood.

We know from her many references to 'red' and 'blood-red' ("the blood-jet is poetry") that Sylvia Plath associated this color with dynamic life forces, creative forces, even violent forces--released from restriction or confinement. In the last lines of "Ariel," her arrow-self, having been released from "dead stringencies," "flies / Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning." It is the red sun-cauldron of rebirth, of transfiguration.

Before that yearned-for release, however, a different voice speaks, on many occasions. It is the voice of the passive woman, submitting to her psychic and even physical confinement, despairing of ever achieving the release of her imagination and creative power. She beholds the symbols of vitality, like the red tulips in her hospital room, and she bemoans her own powerlessness, her own dullness. At times she can only imagine psychic freedom by transforming herself by being dead:

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hand empty.

How free it is turned up and be utterlys, you have no idea how free

The peacefulness is so big it dazes you.

("Tulips," CP161)

Now a year later, in "Poppies in July," the passive woman-voice speaks again, now also as the victim of some abuse she only hints at in the poem, but we know the underlying truth-her husband's betrayal of trust. Any of us whose trust has been betrayed would probably describe the feeling as like getting hit in the face, like getting a painful bloody nose. How to respond? First with rage, certainly, even with claws and fists, but the feeling of betrayal lingers on.

So here we are on CP page 203, witnessing a woman who sits by her window, looking out at some blood-red poppy blossoms.

Little poppies, little hell flames,

Do you do no harm?

In an earlier draft, Plath wrote "at the edge of my eye you burn." Now let us think of connection: fire, touch, burned fingers. But if you are mentally unhinged, you feel nothing.

I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.

And in Sylvia's draft:

"My heart is very quiet. The world is a curtain."

I remember the passages in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden where the girl desperately burns herself, hoping at last to feel something (finally she does, and it is a triumph). For the woman who speaks in this poem, to feel nothing is evidently worse than death. The following lines contain the image that Hughes picked up for "Red." Talking to the poppies, she says:

And it exhausts me to watch you

Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.

A mouth just bloodied

(and the draft Plath added: "a mouth just left by a fist")

Metaphorically, if not literally, the betrayed victim has been hit in the face, yet she finds herself passive, yearning for a poppy-derived opiate just so she can sleep:

If I could bleed, or sleep!--

If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!

(in the draft: "mouth could marry such redness")

So there is no physical wound-if only there were! Between the two lines quoted above, Plath wrote "I am unattached. I am unattached." In "this glass capsule/ Dulling and stilling," she wishes the opiate liquors would penetrate. The glass capsule is recognizably The Bell Jar-a psychic return to Esther Greenwood's loss of contact with sense. As we know from Sylvia's journals, the fear of losing her senses, of losing her power to imagine, was Sylvia's worst fear.

Inside The Bell Jar, if the dulling, stilling liquors were to penetrate, they would be "Colorless." The poem ends at the opposite pole to blood-redness. When sense is removed, life is lost.

When I ask myself what is the evident purpose of this poem, I turn to the whole purpose of the Ariel poems composed during the year of 1962. Each one seems to serve as an act of throwing off "dead stringencies." They are enactments of rage, despair, and determination, all to help re-fashion and restore a damaged mind. A succession of voices, each a kind of caricature, projects the poet's will to exorcise her demons and become whole again.

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, USA
Thursday, September 15, 2005

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