Tag Archives: sylvia plath

7 August 2009: awaiting my own tragedy

Day after biopsy–sitting bandaged in the backyard. An excruciating experience all around–less from the pain of the surgery than the hospital inefficiency, in a corner alone for hours afterward, told I’d see the surgeon–that I must see the surgeon–before leaving. “Before six.” Near seven I’m confronted with a registrar who does nothing, looks at my bandage, asks, “Are you always this pale?” Refuses to answer when I ask how to take care of my stitches, dressings, etc. Says the nurses will explain everything. She goes home. The nurses don’t know. Seven days or one, covered or left exposed? So I am still bandaged, taking painkillers and waiting.

What an absolute mess I must seem–and am, snapping at everyone and crying. Jetlagged still, having managed to sleep half an hour before going to the hospital, my first time under general anesthesia, terrified and alone. And back for the mastectomy, the “real” surgery, in a week. The seemingly impossible process of recovery.

The girl in the next bed was laughing, joking with the hospital staff. She was in to have a fibroid cyst removed. “As long as no one cuts my nipple off,” she says to the nurse, smiling. And I think–this is wrong, a grave mistake, shouldn’t it be me there? Instead the urgency of my situation is amplified. Five months ago, it is now almost, waiting for the diagnosis which was almost certainly, they assured me, fibroadenoma. Then cancer. The giant leap for womankind. Now this radioactive, surgical biopsy, more serious, but somehow less horrible than the first because it wasn’t a surprise, an invasion of that magnitude. Now waiting to find out not whether I have the horrible disease, but how horribly I have it. Grading. I always got good grades. And despite my perpetual pessimism about most things, I have a strange optimism about biopsies. Which is dangerous of course, because look what happened before.

So the doctor I met with in Pittsburgh says he’d be “surprised” if it had spread to the lymph nodes. But then, that’s exactly what they said here, only to find it was cancer. Surprise! After “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Sure. That roomful of people, looking at each other, nodding in unison to confirm how surprised they were. Me, stupid, faint, childish in my polka dot skirt and Mary Janes. What does their surprise mean to me? Should I feel honored? At their optimism, if that’s what it was. Dr. S. saying, “we’re hopeful.” As if hope were a treatment, a cure. As if it were anything.

It was raining then too, the day of my diagnosis. I was clutching my blue raincoat in the hospital hallway. Raining the day I began chemo, when I climbed into the loft bed of my little flat and vomited. And a downpour yesterday; we drove to London, dangerously, in it, and it began again fourteen hours later in time for us to leave. K. ran to the car while I stood outside the hospital, holding nothing and sobbing. “Are you okay?” someone said. And I nodded, because what do you say to a stranger?

“How old are you?” the nurse asked yesterday. “Twenty-four? You’re a baby.”

Of course I am. I have never felt younger or more helpless, never. And my body has never felt older, more decrepit and disgusting.

The bandage is not so bad, it’s everything else. My hair of course, getting patchy, falling out steadily, the pathetic covering I regrew over the past few months littering the pillows. Lost hair, gained weight. They made me strip off my nail polish yesterday and I got a look at my cracked yellowed nails. All to complement the fake, nippleless, Franken-stitched breast they’ll make me. I feel sorry for K. I wonder how he can stand it. Maybe he can’t.

At home, I flipped through my high school journals, and was not as embarrassed at that self as I imagined, but amazed at my intensity. Perspicacious pessimism–and actually prophetic in it, or at least realistic. I wrote at seventeen: “I am awaiting my own tragedy.”

Everyone has one, surely, coming up, sooner or later, I supposed. To varying degrees, maybe. But I’ve always been waiting for it. Or maybe  pessimism causes cancer, that holed-up negative energy. Maybe. Either way–awaiting my tragedy? Here it be. Continue reading

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this living hand


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats


In Italy (or What I Did on my Cancer Vacation), I found I agreed heartily with Percy Shelley; the non-Catholic cemetery is indeed the “holiest place in Rome.” This, though the previous night, I’d had mass with the Pope.

I’d bought a nice little hardback volume of poems in the Keats house; I sat by his grave in a sweltering silent heat and read this poem. How chilling it is, the physical presence of death–and comforting too. The pervasiveness of poets who thrust their tubucular bodies into their verse, and the image of that outstretched hand–as in Whitman:

Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

and in Crane’s reply:

My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman — / so–


I am enamored of cemeteries, and I guess a little of death. And of the irony of Keats’ poem: the “icy silence”  interruped by the near violence in the image of his outthrust hand. And of the omnipresence of Whitman beneath our boot-soles and Plath’s Lazarus unwrapped “hand and foot.” I’m considering the continual trope of the post-mortem voice–

as in Hardy:

Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?

and Dickinson:

Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I developed a new respect for Keats’ lyric sufferings after understanding the science of his disease, the awful physical progression of tuberculosis. In the abstract, in an anthology, it is all nightengales and whining. But then the reality of blood and ugliness underscores so strongly this search for beauty. Ie, how can anything as ethereal as the pursuit of art persist against something as demanding and decisive (derisive?) as corporeal decay?

Still, despite the chill of Keats’ hand stuck up out of his grave like a flag or a flower, despite Tennyson’s elegaic temper and Milton’s pastoral mourning, I prefer death in American verse (& perhaps as a newly-inducted 19th-century Americanist, I am obligated to say this).

I cannot imagine two views of death as disparate yet individually visionary as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s; in each, there is a distinct kind of kinship. For Dickinson, a kinship with Death:

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

–and for Whitman, a kinship with audience which transcends it:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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6 May 2009: some infinite thing

Told, at the hospital, as expected but still shocked into despair, that there’s been no response to the chemotherapy. All these months for nothing–the cancer in there, ‘no response,’ like an obstinant child. Ineffective drugs–the equivalent of having done nothing at all. It hurts all the time now, a dull strong ache, heavy and poisonous, this albatross organ of sex and life I’m forced to carry around, this growing embodiment of hate & pain & evil inside me. And I’m full of hate as it poisons me–looking vengefully at everyone on the street, wondering why they don’t have cancer. Willing it on them, even. Perfect strangers. At the beginning of the illness I felt instilled in me an awkward, cautious respect for strangers–thinking that if I could be living this awful painful dream of a life beneath my subway-face, what could their lives hold, their faces hide–what were their realities?

And now I feel my own death pressing on me from the inside and I want to drag down the scenery-people with me as I go.


Back to the hospital tomorrow to start all again. A new drug now: Taxotere. Not stronger, she says, just different. Her responses are all patronizing and evasive–as if she doesn’t know the answers to the questions, or just doesn’t see the use in bothering to give them. The kind of voice that says Oh No It Was Just a Bad Dream, when you can see for yourself how the world is crumbling outside the window. Made to feel crazy and impudent for knowing you are awake. “We’re hopeful.” Hopeful is a word for a greeting card. For the impotent relatives who say they’re praying. For those praying and knowing underneath its utter ineffectiveness, but what else can you say but I’ll pray for you and mumble some slapdash please to Jesus. I want something more than crossed fingers from the people meant to be treating me.

So I look up the drug online once we’re back and read: 30-60% effectiveness.

Multiply that by the chance of not having responded to the FEC, by the chances of getting cancer in your twenties by–

these sick incalculable equations.


Updike:  “Is it just these people I’m outside or is it all America?” Rabbit Angstrom’s runaway query resonates. And for me it transcends America; am I outside all the world? There is not one person in this world yet with whom I feel I have achieved “communication.” At odds with everyone out of jealousy, out of timidity, out of sheer incomprehensibility. Loving K & knowing he loves me and yet the sad fact of his inability to understand me always apparent. And should I settle for that as the apex of human interaction because it just might be possible that no one will ever understand–how adolescent, to say “no one understands me.” Boo, oh boo hoo hoo. But honest I am as baffled by “connection” as I was as an adolescent. Thinking if I could just get out of Erie, the world would open up to me. Well, the world opened but the the people were the same. And all the possibly-important people of my life are those I haven’t spoken to because of the fear of their brilliance. Those shadow-people who will perhaps become characters so I can create fictional dialogue-relationships with them based purely on conjecture and regret.

I am ashamed of myself for my fear of people and my hatred of them, at finding so frighteningly difficult what should come naturally as a member of the species, using language and having empathy, even a hello-how-are-you kind of language and empathy. I operate on, as David Foster Wallace said, “the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate moods and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”

In this commencement address, published ironically posthumously, he professes life’s “about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” And he was 45 and he was dead. Hung himself at home and sparked that brief literary twitter of ohnowhatashame and so young and possible, so F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon.

Reading this inappropriate manifesto days after his death, I was alarmed in that best-writing way: that someone has articulated something you’d previously believed to be inarticulable, unique to you. Yes, how he feels the same depression and despair that I do–and in supermarkets too–“at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line.”

It’s that tangible, well-worded depression I identify with too readily. The same adolescent affinity I always felt for Plath’s journals. But the differences between them–DFW & SP et. al.–and me are myriad; why should depression and arrogance and selfishness make us kindred? 1. They were spectacular, and I am not. 2. They sought death, and I do not.

What scares me most is not losing the time to produce, but realizing that no matter how miuch time I had, I never could. Like that joke–“I’m older than I ever intended to be.” Only it’s not just that–it’s that I am more dull and ordinary, more purposeless, less driven, less spectacular and brilliant than I ever intended to be.

That’s what kills me. Not the cancer. Or maybe the cancer is somehow made of it–a symbol, a metaphor, and a bad one. Like how as a child I always imagined my life as a novel, Jane-Eyre-ish, Dear Reader peeping in, interested. Only narrated always in the third person; even I couldn’t communicate with me, my split-self, writing/living and being read. And at some point I stopped because I realized there was no Dear Reader.

Worse is: what if there’s nothing to express in the first place?

DFW: “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Or: the constant gnawing sense of having (still) never found some infinite thing?

Every day I feel some touch of that recalcitrant, Hamletesque melancholy: “I do not set my life at a pin’s fee.”

I just wish someone did. That belief in me, that sincere estimation of my goodness & potential. Recognition of my value not as a lover or daughter, automatically and unquestioningly, but seeking someone who disinterestedly believes that I have even a “pin’s fee” in me to contribute to the world. Someone to advocate against my death sentence.

So yes, the desperate project of my life is to make it to “30, perhaps 50”–to do something with the time too.

I feel the tumor pressing painfully inside me. No longer something foreign and separable-seeming, but part of me. No matter what they do some ghost of it, some remembered part, will always be there, hurting me.

And it’s much too close to my heart. My God — my heart.

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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subconscious carcinoma, toasted cheese and poetry

Favourite quotation from an early review of Emily Bronte: “There is an old saying that those who eat toasted cheese at night will dream of Lucifer. The author of Wuthering Heights has evidently eaten toasted cheese.”

I didn’t really sleep last night, because I never really do, but when I sort of half dozed off I dreamt Christina Applegate had died, despite her bilateral mastectomies.

Oh, this toasted cheese cancer-cloud of my subconscious…

Months ago I dreamt my father had some awful illness, and was so shaken I called him at work to tell him I loved him (I hardly ever spoke to him). A few weeks later I was calling him at work again, to tell him I had cancer.

Once (years ago, before cancer ever occurred to me, occurred for me) I had a strange dream that Sylvia Plath had not committed suicide, but was dying of cancer. She came to Vassar; I was supposed to be some kind of ‘runner’ for Elizabeth Bishop. I handed Plath a volume of Bishop’s poetry, which Bishop had annotated specifically for her. It made her smile.

Sylvia Plath offered me a souvenir of the experience. I wanted a charm shaped like the world. She gave me an unpaired earring.

I pilgrammaged to Plath’s grave recently. Yesterday I wrote a poem about it.









Which is newsworthy, really. To be writing poems again.

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