- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

The day after tomorrow will be the 40th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death by her own hand in London. The poet had moved there from Devonshire a few weeks earlier with her two children, Freida, 2, and Nicholas, a babe in arms. Plath's Yorkshireman husband, Ted Hughes, who many years afterwards would become poet laureate, had left her for another woman.
Kate Moses' novel "Wintering" contains ample flashbacks as far as 1958 when the Hugheses, married two years previously, were in Boston, but it mainly is concerned with the two and a half weeks after Plath returned to London on Dec. 11, 1962, moving into a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road in the house where W.B. Yeats lived as a child. She wrote a number of poems in the opening days of the new year, but for the purposes of Miss Moses' account that is not yet.
The last six months of the poet's life were an especially prolific period for for her poetry writing, despite everything there was outside of her work to upset her. These poems, along with other work, went into a collection of 41 poems that Plath collated according to her fancy and put into a black binder around the end of 1962. Known as the "Ariel" poems, they were not published in quite that sequence but all are in "The Collected Poems" edited by Hughes. As he notes of the "Ariel" sequence in his introduction, Plath "pointed out that it began with the word 'Love' and ended with the word 'Spring.'"
Miss Moses does not begin or end her novel with these same words, but the spirit is much the same. She, taking her own liberties, has assigned the title of one of the poems to each of her 41 chapters. Hughes' intention was to set the poems chronologically, and now Miss Moses' uses them to organize her account of Sylvia Plath's feverishly up-and-down final weeks. (She does not touch upon the suicide itself.)
Thus in Miss Moses' narrative "Wintering," the title of which is used both for her novel as a whole and heading for her final chapter, dated Dec. 29, 1962, is in fact a poem dating to Oct. 19 of that year (Plath had started to date her work some years earlier) while still at Court Green, the cottage near the northern edge of Dartmoor where she and Hughes had been so happy.
In that poem, Plath the housewife and smallholder is putting down her first jars of honey from the Hugheses' own hive:

This is the easy time, there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife's ex- tractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat's eyes in the wine cellar,

The lines go on to say how all the drones (males) have been pushed out of the hive to perish and conserve the available food for the females, and that, "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady," which is just the sort of outlook that has done much among women to contribute to the rise of Plath's reputation starting in the mid-1970s from little known to major contemporary poet.
Bees can be talismanic for Plath, and Miss Moses makes the most of them. Ted Hughes, for example the man manages to get himself stung six times while attempting to retreat from the hive soon after its arrival at Court Green. Likewise, Hughes as editor, mentioning Plath's in variorum drafts which he was not able to include in "The Collected Poems," speaks of some of her handwritten pages as "aswarm with startling, beautiful phrases and lines, crowding all over the place, many of them in no way less remarkable than the ones she eventually picked out to make her final poem."
This is why we read Plath, and one is tempted to defy anyone to scan her lovely yet suddenly sharp, blood-letting and self-destructive lines, yet not be affected. It is one argument for not reading Miss Moses' novel with the poems by your side, for the one inevitably outshines the other and temptation is to lay the fiction down and settle for the poetry. Better to take the poems out afterwards and let the resonances between narrative and verse, and their weave in Miss Moses' hand, just pop out at you.
No less germane than the bees to Miss Moses' purpose in placing "Wintering," or the thought of it, in the closing pages of her novel is the poem's last stanza:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

In the novel, Plath is rising from her bath and making her toilette, very carefully like a bride, in preparation for going to meet Hughes. He has just driven through snow and winter weather to Devon (the savage force of Britain's "Great Freeze," the country's worst winter since 1740, was about to unleash itself) after spending Christmas with his mother all the way up north in Yorkshire. It was quite a trip, to fetch for Plath some things she needed, including a length of red velvet and a fresh jar of her honey. He, in the cruel imbalance of feeling that too often characterizes such exchanges, was thinking only to do his abandoned wife a favor.
The novel places great weight on Hughes in the couple's marital breakup and its tragic sequel. During her last days, Plath alternated between a rage to live and be her own woman despite all, and her despair and desparation at being left with two small children and arrival in London in winter (she can't get the post office to deliver her a telephone). Career-wise she was in good shape with her novel "The Bell Jar" soon to appear and the British Broadcasting Corporation, New Yorker magazine and other distinguished outlets asking for her work. But for all her fierce ambition, that helped only up to a point.
Many of the poems in the "Ariel" sequence are very hard on Hughes. I am thinking in particular of "The Jailor," another October poem, the title of which heads up a chapter set on Dec. 14, when Plath is trying to phone from a public kiosk one horrid, rainy morning with two children and a couple of large bags of dirty laudry (diapers were of linen and still being washed and reused). Hughes recalls having omitted some of the more "personally aggressive" ones when publishing the "Ariel" poems after his wife's death. (As for his own career, he did not write any more poetry for three years after Plath died.)
Clearly, for all we may sympathize, self-indulgence and revenge are factors in the story of Plath, whose life and suicide pale before those of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, about whom I wrote two weeks ago. At the same time, Plath was the more demonstrably ill of the two, having had a breakdown as a young woman, attempted suicide and been hospitalized at length. She was terrified of going mad again and, looked at that way, the audacity of her assault upon life was very brave. For ourselves, we have the poems, and in my own view that one often gets one thing out of a rich life at the cost of its corresponding other thing become complicit in Plath's fate every time we dip into, and happily yield to her unique and spellbinding imagery.
What about Miss Moses' book as "novel." Is this any way to go about the form of Henry James and Virginia Woolf? Certainly, she researched her subject, from biographies (the canon on Plath is large) by Anne Stevenson and others, to both textual and personal assistance from scholars, not least, Marjorie Perloff, to the work of Kay Redfield Jamison, the Johns Hopkins psychologist, right down to staff of the Devonshire stable from which Plath used to ride out.
But still, is it much of a novel? A lot of pages plod, especially the many devoted to the minute particulars of raising little children (sorry, ladies). Other chapters depicting a happer life at Court Green, which comes across like paradise itself, and the gritty realities of London in winter, are easier to read and, as the tragic end approaches, compelling. Novel or not, here is a valuable, searing addition to the Plath canon. It is a first fiction by Miss Moses, who is a literary editor on the West Coast, half British and half American in her background and so equipped to appreciate the Plath-Hughes axis better than most.
WINTERING: A NOVEL OF SYLVIA PLATH
By Kate Moses
St. Martin's Press, $23.95,292 pages

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