- I closed my eyes and searched for a stored image of my copy of Ariel, given to me when I was twenty. Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart.
- I was numb with cold but couldn't bear to leave. It was such a desolate place in winter, so lonely. Why had her husband buried her here? I wondered. Why not New England by the sea, where she was born, where salt winds could spiral over the name PLATH etched in her native stone? I had an uncontrollable urge to urinate and imagined spilling a small stream, some part of me wanting her to feel that proximate human warmth. Life, Sylvia. Life.
After watching P.O.V. the other night which aired the film documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life on Wednesday this week. I spent a good chunk of the night afterward thinking of how much she has had to do with my own personal evolution.
Patti would write in her prose work Mummer Love to Arthur Rimbaud "The years saw me grow long-limbed awkward inexplicably maverick. I sought my kind and found none. How you rescued me. Your peasant hands reaching through time wrapping my young heart. Your poems, found in a stall by the greyhound station I dogged dreaming of escape, were my ticket out of my cloistered existence. Words I could not comprehend and yet, deciphered by blood, illuminated adolescence". We never know what fortunes will alter our lives forever and often times we never know at the time they are fortunes.
I didnt find Patti in a public bathroom stall but I think my finding her period was no less miraculous and every bit as fortunate. I had been aware or rather had knowledge of her from her first album Horses when in came out in 1975. I would later own a used copy of Horses on a soft baby blue 8 Track. There was something about her, she sorta stayed around peripherally till I was old enough to seek out that something. That fortune came to me in the form of a knock off copy cassette (bright orange plastic cover) of her last work at the time, Wave, by my brother who purchased it for under a buck at Grapevine Records and Tapes in Flint,MI in 1980. Patti had retired in 1979 with Wave being her last album.
I was hooked from the first song. I knew other songs of hers I had heard on the radio but now I had something by her I could listen to, REALLY listen to over and over so I could hear the words. I loved the words of songs as far back as I have memory, and her words were powerful, meaningful and messaged! I was 12ish at the time and not being the brightest sun in the school sky there was so much she was singing about that I just had no knowledge of. I blamed my ignorance on me, that maybe had I worked harder and paid more attention in school I would know the likes of Nerval or Rimbaud, Genet, Ann Lee or Wovoka. I had no clue other children my age and older even were just as ignorant of such things. There was no Google then and growing up with an illiterate granny whose ten kids were at best functionally illiterate we didnt even own a set of Encyclopedias.
I picked up the other three Patti Smith albums by the time I was 15 and with each album falling more in love, not with her in any romantic sense, but in just as passionate and powerful a sense. I wanted to know everything! Everything about her, who she REALLY was. I cant tell you how I knew this, but somehow, by chance I KNEW to know her was to know who influenced her! By now I was sixteen, sixteen with my first car; a white "ghetto glider" as my half brother called it. In truth it was a 1978 $200 Buick Skylark. But it got my cousins and I around and also made many a nights for someplace to sleep when there weren't any.
In trying to quench my thirst for Patti Smith influences my cousin Tommy suggested a dip in the Flint Public Library pool. I hadnt thought of that. We drive to the east-side to where the library was located and I quickly find out to obtain a library card I have to have a parent or guardians signature or I have to be 18. I have no parents or guardians and I'm 16. But given that this was in the mid 80's long before library's electronically tagged all books, Tommy says "pick out what books you want, I'll get 'em for ya". So for a few years that became a routine. I would point out which books I wanted to read and a cousin or two would snag them. I'd read them usually sitting out side in Playland's (the local arcade) parking lot smoking a Winston. I read great poetry and literature in that parking lot, while my cousins played arcade games inside. Nerval's Aurelia, Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, Rimbaud's A Season in Hell and Illuminations, Pasolini's collected poems, lots of art books, bio's from Ann Lee to Modigliani, to name but a few. I read, smoked, and returned each book via the outside drop box. But the problem was, and there was a problem, that despite how well this library system worked, I would read one thing, then another then wish I had read the other first. I had no way to reference what would interested me more or be more important in my quest to a better Patti Smith understanding.
A month or so after my 18th birthday, a Sunday it was. My granny asked Tommy and I to run up to Kmart and get my brother some ham and cheese sandwiches for his lunch. Back in the day Kmart used to have a small deli area when you walked into the store where they sold subs and ham and cheese sandwiches. The ham cheese sandwiches were three for a buck. Granny gave us a dollar and off Tommy and I went. Being August Kmart had all their school supplies out. Tommy and I looked around a little when I spot this desk encyclopedia for $6.99. It seemed perfect for what I was looking for, would give me basic idea's about the persons in question and then I could decide what I would read next. Only problem was, no money. Tommy and I go back to granny's. I remembered this piggy bank I had which I knew contained quite a few penny's. I emptied the clear see through pig of its contents and began to roll 50 penny's to a red paper packet. I rolled out $8 dollars to cover tax. Tommy and I go back up to Kmart. He goes into get the book and pay for it with my rolled up penny's because I was too ashamed to.
I utilized the book for what it was purchased for and I also use it just to flip through and skim while having coffee. One morning on a flip through I see the word "suicide", since I know what the word means I read no further and flip the page. Info about the word continued to the next page and my eye caught the last thing written on the subject which said "several literary figures have taken their lives in this manner" and it listed three. Hemingway, Koestler and Sylvia Plath. I was familiar enough with Hemingway to know he was of no interest to me. I checked out what it had to say about Koestler whom I never heard of and still wasn't interested after reading what it had to say, then read what it said about Plath whom I also never heard of (or don't remember if I did. I would later recall after finding out she was married to Ted Hughes that I remember liking a short story of his (the rain horse) in 10th grade so the short bio our books contained might have mentioned her). What it said of her didnt strike me in a particular way, but I'll admit I was curious. I had wondered how and why an old woman would kill herself. You see, I didnt look at her dates (1932-1963) I assumed she was old from her first name Sylvia which my mind immediately went to silver/gray therefore old.
A few weeks later I was at the library trying to find something to read, not having anything on my list I thought about that Sylvia Plath woman. I asked the librarian for a few things on her, the librarian gave me three things: a book of criticism, Ariel and Letters Home. Ariel being the book of poetry published a few years after her death and Letters Home being something her mother put out containing letters Plath had written over the years to her mother. I read all three straight away. I was immediately astounded by Ariel! Especially the holocaustal imagery. You see having been profoundly moved/interested/confused/impassioned with the subject for 10 of my 18 years, I felt very alone in that, seeing I wasn't Jewish. And here was a woman with German lineage also writing about this "whole" to use Semprun's term.
After reading all three books I took them back to get more books by/on Plath because my original interest the "why" of her death didnt get answered anywhere in the three read books. Within a very short time Patti Smith faded into the background and Plath ascended to the forefront. I read all I could find and one thing that was refrained was how academically driven she was. She didnt settle for merely being born a genius, she pursued knowledge like a starving animal pursues prey. A year or so before I had quit high school, reading about Plath's academic prowess made me feel more and more like a loser. If this woman desired to work her ass off to attain knowledge and a certain amount of prestige the very least I could do was go back to school. I signed up for adult ED through the school system I had started at, wanting to get my diploma from there. Having quit in the 12th grade I didnt need too many credits. I worked hard , acing all the courses I had to take and a few extra ones I wanted to take. I graduated a year later, got a good job an hour from Flint which sadly had become according to the census the "worst city to live in in the country". A few years later I moved from Flint only to return to visit now and then.
Like Patti Smith before her, Sylvia Plath became a needle threading me through her influences and their influences and theirs and theirs and theirs all weaving the beautiful tapestry that is my life. But it was Patti Smith who first put that needle in my hand. In all my years of knowing of Patti and Plath I had never read nor heard Patti mention her. Within the first 19 minutes of this documentary she mentions reading/being influenced by Sylvia Plath. So it has come full circle. Both women still interest me, inspire me and move me to tears with as much passion as when I first found them both. And both are still relevant and important figures still influencing tens of thousands world wide with their lone individual voices.
Plath wrote in a late essay that she is not "worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far-among strangers, around the world even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime". Her poems have been "very lucky" and have I am here to say reached a life and helped that life to flourish and out grow a poor narrow background.
Patti Smith closes Mummer's Love telling Rimbaud this: "This is what I know. I am here for a purpose. The purpose changes. Gifts that are not mine. Children who are not mine. An angel who is not mine. And this-to meet you at the urinal and draw you upright in my arms. I am still sturdy. This memory may enter me and I will realign the clay of my being. Will be you. Muscle shall be ours. All limbs intact. All brutal mirrors cracked. I am here and that is something. I am here my friend, and have always been. As much as for any living thing".