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December 12, 1962
Gold seeping under her eyelids. Sleeping pills worn off, effortlessly obsolete as breath, their expiration reeling her fast from the silty floor of sleep to the surface, awake. It's morning, or almost: a slow December sun rises through her curtainless bedroom windows, snagging on her rumpled bedcovers, dragging its faint eastern light across her face. Her borrowed single bed is thoroughly churned, coverlet bunched and askew, leaving her exposed in nothing but a nightgown on one unblanketed side, the flannel stiff with cold. She has grown accustomed to tense, motionless drug-sleeps these last months, bedclothes still tucked with hospital precision between mattress and box spring when she wakes. Pinning her still as a crated statue to her bed, binding her in taut cotton like a mummy, like a dangerous patient. Like a patient, more accurately, paralyzed with fear. Trapped in her bedding: it's a feeling that's been not entirely uncomfortable. Not much else has held her since summer.
But something today is changed. More than her untroubled night, her turning in sleep as easily as a fish. Could one call what she's beginning to feel, coming awake just now, ruby light radiating through the fine tissue of her closed eyes, happiness? Not that, but something close, though more hollow, tentative, and just faintly perceptible: serenity? Curiosity? Amazing: she's flown in a clean trajectory straight from the blank infinities of sleep to something one could characterize as pleasant. Normal, like other people, waking on normal days. Expectant; anticipating good to come. Compared to her usual dawn aftertaste of despair, this sensation seems positively optimistic, untethered as an escaped balloon -- a feeling almost like the first days of falling in love.
What has happened to her customary morning dread, the sharp stink of her panic? Where is her more orthodox heart with its quick metallic ticking, the grinding in her chest? Her mind searches for it, that familiar hemorrhage of fear, the known morning ritual of materializing terror -- the terror of what she doesn't know as much as what she does -- that has greeted her upon waking since July. She listens: as if it might be recoverable, lost for a moment here in the covers, lurking still in the chill air of the heatless room. It's gone, though, for this morning, receded like the tide for these quick seconds of semiconscious assessment, of her life coming into focus.
Then she remembers: she's in London. Yeats's house with its blue enamel plaque by the door. It's hers -- her new home in the city. She's out of the rural purgatory of Devon, the red muck and bawling animals and isolation of her crumbling ancient farmhouse, home now in a poet's flat that seemed fated for her. All hers -- she didn't have to share credit with anyone. But there he is, inevitably: Ted.
He'd met her at the train station the day she'd come house-hunting last month, an inscrutable shadow shambling along behind through three dank, unacceptable maisonettes. Though it was later, after he'd escaped their latest failure into the tiled entrance of the Chalk Farm tube, his black back hunched in his coat and descending into dark as she watched him leave, another step, the ring of his boot on the stair, so quickly it was over --
It was later, on her own, when she'd seen the sign on her way to her London doctor's office, her infected thumb oozy and pink, rotting apple swollen, pulsing out its distress on her hand. Hurrying over the footbridge and down the Georgian arcade of Gloucester Avenue, her thumb in its bandages aloft and signalling her defeat, then around the corner and suddenly flats to let next to the blue sign. Address: 23 Fitzroy Road.
As if she'd conjured it: two years ago, she happened upon a freehold for sale on this same street before they'd ever dreamed of Court Green, of its acres of volunteer daffodils and cool twelfth-century walls, of their son born in a gush under its birded thatch, of their gardens, their fingers stained red with Devonshire loam. Two years ago in London, she raced home with Frieda in the pram to their tiny apartment off Chalcot Square -- just a block away from where she lies now in her cold bed -- bursting to tell Ted: what a benediction (if they could have only afforded it) to live on Yeats's street! Then three months ago in Ballylee, on the last shattering trip together, having climbed the spiral stair to the Irish poet's tower and thrown three pennies for luck, casting them eyes closed into the river sluicing the bridge below, she'd wished for something she then didn't know how to name -- something, something she needed to fall into place, her life to right itself, her writing, her disintegrating marriage, something she needed to stop, Ted -- she thought then it was Ireland for the winter that she needed. The far sea, its purifying salt and slow clouds, its ginger-scented turf fires in the grate, something equal to Ted's plan of flight to Spain; that's what she thought she'd been wishing for. But she was wrong. Their trip was a disaster. They left Ireland separately, Sylvia returning alone to Devon and the children. Ted wired her a few days later from London. For six years she had feared, even fantasized, shuddering at her garish imaginings, that someone would lure him away. Now someone had. He had come back just once to Court Green, to get his things; if she sued for divorce, he said he wouldn't stop her. He had left her. Her marriage was over.
There is no doubt in her mind: it was this house she'd wished for, unknowingly, from Yeats's tower. This house is going to be her salvation. God, she's made it. She braces for the chill and peels the blankets back. Her mauve wool bathrobe is retrieved from its position of abandonment on the coverlet, tugged over the shoulders of her eyelet-edged floral nightgown; her feet pivot to the hardwood floor. The cold hits her footsoles like a slap. Appropriate, this robe, its color: as if wrapping herself up in a bruise. Her heart feels light enough on this day that she can snatch a quick glimpse of objectivity, even endorse a little self-mocking criticism. In the corner beyond the bed, out of the children's reach, huddles one of the squat electric heaters she brought from Court Green. She tugs its cord out of the wall and scoots it, hugging her bathrobe to her, across the floor toward her desk.
She'd known this house was her omen as soon as she saw it; she's been counting on it (while the leasing agent sluggishly pondered her references) for a month. Jokingly, back at Court Green after finding the flat, she'd pulled out a volume of Yeats's plays from the bookshelves in the front parlor and told Sue the baby-minder she was looking for a sign. She needed benevolent spirits; she needed all the protection she could gather to herself. The page fell open, her finger marking a line in The Unicorn from the Stars: Get wine and food to give you strength and courage, and I will get the house ready.
In the fall orchard at Court Green, seventy-two trees hung with apples. She had borrowed a neighbor's long-handled picker and harvested all she could, a canvas sack slung across her breastbone, a three-legged ladder moving with her through the orchard, propped against the gnarled old trunks. Victoria cookers ripe in September, picked with Ted in joyless silence before the final Ireland rupture; then Pig's Noses and russeted Bramley's Seedlings in October, all layered now in straw in the wine cellar at Court Green but for the bag she filled for London. The honey from her new bees, also, she extracted, leaving the bees enough to winter over, supplemented with plates of sugar syrup, pie tins slow with Tate & Lyle left beneath the bare-branched fruit trees. Potatoes and onions as well dug up, the potatoes scrubbed, the dry platinum hair of the onions braided in a day-long session before the movers came. Just prior to leaving, with Sue amusing the babies and toting the last loads of storybooks and toys out to the Morris Traveller, she carried her clippers and an old pillowcase across the front lawn and cut a treacherous armload of holly. It was downstairs now, arranged in her pewter vase in the unpainted parlor, its red berries plump and shiny, the white-tipped leaves still green and supple, sharp as razors.
The houses lining the mews this dawn behind Fitzroy Road are edged in pink, suspended in a pastel nimbus of foggy illumination as the sun creeps beyond their rooftops. At her desk before the window, Sylvia sits in the sunrise quiet, her room, her papers, her flannel nightgown washed in thin blue light. She's risen today as she has every day since Ted left her in Ireland in September: While her two children sleep in their cribs, she has gone to her desk before sunrise, a habit begun as a way to give form to her suddenly nebulous days. Sleepless with the unknown, scenes from her marriage unreeling like a nightmare movie in her head, she needed a defense to stave off the creep of her misery.
It started as a helpful suggestion from her practical Devon midwife. With her husband gone and no help with the children, mornings before Frieda and Nicholas woke were Sylvia's only time to think or to write. Being alone had transformed so menacingly: with two babies in diapers, solitude had once seemed such a luxury. It had become, this fall, more of a sentence.
She wasn't sure, at first, that she could either think or write: her mind paced like an animal, desperate to flee, to connect, too frantic to do either. But something happened in those predawn mornings at her desk, some alchemy that distilled, concentrating her pain, dripping her fury into a purified essence, her own hot eau de vie. She had been struggling to write like this for years. Then Ted left, and the real muse moved in. Her poems had been flaming up, sparking, dangerous, for months. There was no sign of them stopping.
Blessed Sue the baby-minder -- she'd arrived when Sylvia, too, was burning white hot, back at October's end, after a comedically unsuitable (comedic only in retrospect) string of temporary nannies -- dour or disapproving or far too dear, one lasting all of an afternoon. The daughter of her Devon midwife's friend, a young nurse on break from her children's hospital job in London, Sue had been a godsend, a lifesaver. With Sue in the house watching the babies, Sylvia had not only been able to recover from the chronic viruses that had kept her feverish since summer -- the endless flu, the sinus infections -- but had also been able to work for unbroken hours during the day: twenty poems finished since Sue arrived, thirteen of them book poems. And with them the book: the manuscript of her second poetry collection, complete. The poems as well as the London flat found, Nicholas weaned, Court Green packed up and closed, she and the children successfully moved to London: all this with Sue's help. And it was cheerful Sue who kept Sylvia as well as the children company, who cock-horsed Nicholas on her knees and admired Frieda's puzzle and erased the gloom with her chatter while Sylvia prepared dinner or tea each day. Who made it obvious that what Sylvia needed was not a cold, professional nanny but a mother's helper in the truest sense: maybe an au pair, a young, smart, energetic girl like Sue, someone to help with the children and the house, but someone, also, to help Sylvia keep her own loneliness at bay. In Yeats's flat, Sylvia has settled both children into the largest of the three bedrooms and put a desk in her own. This leaves a third bedroom for an au pair, to be hired as soon as possible, as soon as Sylvia can find a suitable girl.
That to do, and finish moving in: painting the walls and the floors. Unpacking the boxes in the kitchen: the copper wedding cookware, her mother's Bavarian dish set brought from Wellesley last summer. Sewing curtains and pillows on her second-hand Singer machine. Hanging the few prints and etchings she's brought, putting up bookshelves. Ordering a double bed, perhaps more furniture if the flat still looks bare after her new chairs and straw carpets arrive. Painting the three bureaus delivered yesterday -- blue, she has decided, is her London color, inspired by months of watching dawn light: smoky dark blues, teals, navies, midnights. No more red: red was Court Green. The pink-washed walls trimmed in glossy white. The deep red carpet on the stairs, the Indian rugs in her study and the parlor and the bedrooms, the corduroy curtains she'd sewn. The few precious strawberries from plants not killed by late frost. The hearts-and-flowers she'd enameled on the children's furniture, on the used beehive given to them in June, on her sewing machine. Court Green was the home they'd made with their own hands. Of course it was red; it was the interior of her heart. It gave her a stab to think of it --
She wouldn't think of it now. Blue was for London. She'd already bought the paint.
She'd bought the paint, gone to the Gas Board and the leasing office, pleaded again with the post office for an earlier telephone hookup -- it might be weeks without a phone in the flat -- run errands and marketed in Camden Town, even put some hurried order to their piles of disheveled belongings. All this, again, accomplished with help: Sue had stayed one more day after their arrival in London. Without some sort of backup, caring for the children and finishing the move will absorb most of Sylvia's energy for weeks. She only prays that she and the babies stay well; as it is, she'll be too preoccupied to write until they are firmly settled into the flat. This, then, is her moment of satiation, the thrumming lull, the wing beat of a poet at rest. It was almost Christmas as well, a thought not nearly as grim as it had seemed a few weeks ago. There was shopping to do for the children, decorations -- the holly was a start -- to be made or found.
And she has a deep need, admittedly, to create this order. After the protracted months of not knowing how her fate would play itself, stunned by the melodrama her life had become, feeling herself flinch at every new, sordid revelation, she knows now where she stands: her husband has become a liar and a cheat, a man she doesn't recognize. He has killed their marriage. He's carried it away, limp in his hands, and forked it over with dirt; she'll never find it again. She'll go back to her home in the spring. Who would know then, who could remember -- daffodils waving their yellow heads by the thousands on the April hillside, lilac blowing over the nettled yard in May -- what death happened there? The blood, by then, the gory evidence, would be gone, faded from sight. Now, in December, she has a wintering place, perhaps somewhat dormant as it is, but alive to all she has planned. She is a writer in a sleeping indigo city of writers, waiting for everyone else to wake up.
She's impressed, sitting at her desk, astounded even, at her own tranquility. Since July -- since she first confronted Ted about his affair -- she's been counting the days, the hours, for a moment like this: to feel herself rising above the ugly episodes of her recent life. It's her poems and this move that have done it, that are spoon-feeding her the self-confidence she needs. They are her nectar, her royal jelly; she'll emerge from this stronger than she was. She feels like a warrior queen, poised, victorious in her bathrobe.
No noise, yet, from the nursery. No grumbling squawk and cot rattling from baby Nick or birdlike treble chatter from her two-year-old girl. She'll take this moment of peace, then, if that's what it is, and put herself totally to rights. Before her, on and about the desk, are files of poems, all she's written during the fall as well as some of those that followed her first collection published two years ago. She picks up a string-tied packet that she dropped in haste yesterday onto a stack of unpacked boxes. Wrapped in brown paper is a spring-clasp binder with stiff black boards, purchased while she rushed about yesterday in the Morris wagon. Slipping the binder free and resting it against her lap, she lifts the top file from the stack before her on the desk, slides the sheets from between the file's manila leaves. She holds in her hand a manuscript, a stack of poems half an inch thick, composed on the reverse side of a variety of papers: crisp pink Smith College memorandum sheets; a handwritten draft of one of Ted's early plays, The Calm; and the opening chapters of her own first novel, which will be pseudonymously published, British edition only, just after the new year -- The Bell Jar.
She's been thinking about this new collection of poems, their sequence, which to include, for nearly a month. Savoring the process, drawing it out, this pleasure of creating order, creating a truth, a logic and drive, out of their present seeming randomness. She knows certain things now: how many total -- forty-one, just as in Ted's brilliant second collection, Lupercal, the one that made him famous; this numerical scorecard is less an ego indulgence than it is purely superstitious, salt tossed over her shoulder. She knows, too, something about the movement of the poems as a body, how they rise like a startled flock, flying as one, wheeling, spreading chaotically across the sky, finally alighting in the same tree. She knows the story she wants them to tell. It is her story. It is where she wills herself to go; it is an incantation. She's giving shape to her life, past and future, with these poems. Like the arrangement of cards in a Tarot deck as they are turned up, it is not just the poems but their relation to each other that matters. She knows where she wants to begin.
The first poem is "Morning Song"; its first word is "love." She likes that, likes that it's a London poem. It seems symbolically right: she's wearing, this minute, the same flannel Victorian nightgown -- threadbare now, a London draft blowing up the hem, standing the hair on her unshaved legs on end. As in the poem, her baby, now two of them, will wake soon, calling to her with their twinned morning songs. It started with love, the life she wants to order; she resists the coming of bitterness into her head, of Ted, of how frightened and bereft she has been, how brittle, on some subterranean level, she knows today's elation to be -- she wants this moment, the sun blooming hesitantly through the window before her, her room filling with moody winter light, her manuscript complete in her hands, solely to herself, untainted.
It starts, then, with love: the mornings with her infant daughter in the cramped bedroom off Chalcot Square, Ted writing at first on the ridiculous rickety card table the Merwins had loaned, set up in the vestibule. It was his own little womb, she teased him. Too narrow for anyone to get by with Ted crouching enormously in his chair before his papers, facing the walls he had painted a deep vermilion. But that first London apartment was her birthplace also: she labored Frieda in their giant six-foot-square bed, an event -- not the birth itself, but the existential act of giving birth to her child, a complete and separate being -- she could see, then as now, as nothing but the beginning of her real existence. Becoming a mother: it was the galvanizing moment of her life. She would never do anything else to touch it, this ineffable transforming act. It drew her like a flame; it was a sound she couldn't help turning toward, literally also.
The poem itself she wrote much later, almost a year after, during that strange February of mounting anxiety: the second baby lost so swiftly, Ted's accumulating success and she secretary to his mail and calls, still not writing herself with predictable ease. The dismal prospect of an appendectomy and a week in hospital. In blue jeans and a rumpled shirt left over from Smith, the poet's wan wife, pushing a pram sans makeup. She thought, then, she was losing everything -- her unblemished marriage, Ted, the words she could not seem to uncover -- and she clung with a desperation she believed she had long ago exorcised. Not the desperation of a supplicant, but of a Fury. It was a month of red and white, a valentine mocking her, something she was part of and not part of, like her poem: the bloody clots, the walls in that claustrophobic apartment, the Irish hair, and the seductive voice on the phone, the lipstick -- not hers -- she was so sure of, and where was he? The red leather cover of Ted's Oxford Shakespeare. How dare he? She ripped it up: the tattered pages floated down, like snowflakes -- but it wasn't snow. She'd been waiting every year for snow in England; she waited still. She wanted snow's erasure, its lustration.
And yet, something vanished like snow: Ted came to the hospital, parting the crowds of stubby nurses, cradling more paper in his giant hands. Carrying offerings priceless as new life! -- her wished-for yearly contract from The New Yorker, the newsprint cone of nodding tulips, thick steak sandwiches on crisp, unsullied butcher's wrap tied with twine. He'd come; it was all forgotten. She could see now, in the camera obscura of her mind, the scene played in mirror image: her own face as he approached her hospital bed, his hands full. Impossible, but she knew it as she knew the cries of her babies: her face peeled back to innocence, her eyes wet, the tears shimmering, incandescent, prismatic, rolling down her face. Ecstasy, her face. All joy, her life. They were reunited. Her marriage had not been damaged. She had never been so glad to see him.