There has been a lot of discussion about Poppies recently in relation to remembrance. I was outed as a botanist by a journalist in The Independent at the OGOM Company of Wolves conference because of my earlier work Botany, Sexuality and women’s writing, 1760-1830, from Modest Shoot to Forward Plant and I do still have a contract with Reaktion for a book on the Secret Life of the Tulip. Though I can’t imagine completing this any time soon, I do get asked what unites the different strands of my research (vampirism, botany, etc.). Well this poem for one! There is a connection to the wreathes of poppies as the tulips become ‘red sinkers’, around the neck. I’ve always been fascinated by the dark and bloody imagery of these tulips. They are ‘excitable’, vampiric, tongued and monstrous, they eat up the ‘oxygen’ and they ‘should be behind bars like dangerous animals’. There is something of the medical or body gothic here too that I like so much in the work of Tracy Fahey.
The poet is a patient in a sanatorium ‘swabbed’ clean of her ‘loving associations’ and attended by nurses and anesthetists. In a nightmare vision of drowning, ‘bright needles’ and recovery, the unwanted ‘too red’ tulips speak to the redness of the body’s wounds. Open mouthed and vivid, they turn to gaze on the faceless, shadowy woman they obliterate. I have been thinking about this poem recently in relation to our Books of Blood project (which is going to have a poetry strand). I wanted to post it in celebration of that and of gothic flowers everywhere. I find it remarkable, scared and bare, the word play (‘stupid pupil’), the uncompromising darkness (‘I didn’t want any flowers’), the wilful loss of self (‘I have no face’), there are no words for how good a poet Plath is. I guarantee you will never see tulips in the same way again.
‘Tulips’ (Sylvia Plath)
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.
I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.
The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.
I love this poem. It’s wonderful and I think the way Plath captures the affect of flowers on the psyche is impressive. The first flowers my partner ever bought me were deep purple tulips. He bought them for Valentine’s Day and he was so pleased that he hadn’t chosen the obvious red roses. I was delighted with them – they were very Gothic and I’ve always loved the simplicity of tulips (they make me think of grown-up crocuses). However, I don’t think it can be a coincidence that the man-eating plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ has a somewhat tulipular regard.
The idea of flowers as aggressive or overpowering also makes me think of the use of white lilies in Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. The parallels that are drawn between Bluebeard’s skin and the waxy petals of the lilies and the idea of the pollen staining the white all drew attention to the idea that cut flowers are as much symbols of life as they are of death. The moment they are cut, they start dying. It always breaks my heart when I have to throw away dead flowers.
Yes, cut flowers are the living dead…perhaps that is why the tulips are stealing her oxygen (though it is true they do take in oxygen and breathe out carbon monoxide). Your boy sounds totes thoughtful and open to your gothic sensibilities…..I would be impressed by that too. I once dated someone who kept sending me yellow roses and I could not understand why this one flower…..I love native and common place flowers the snapdragon, the humble bluebell, the.little disregarded daisy so I am not very gothic in my tastes here but I did grow a purple/black sunflower which was spectacular……..I might post it.
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