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Arja Salafranca

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A terrible taste for it, like salt

I’m driving to work when the beat of a favourite song comes pouring out from the airwaves. Surprisingly I struggle to place it and then the words, and the words, are familiar, so so familiar, I’ve been listening to them since my teens, since the 1980s. “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never/ Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair…” The song is going to end sadly, as we know it must: “The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of Lucy Jordan/ On the roof top where she climbed when all the laughter grew too loud.”

There’s more cause for suicide than simply loud laughter, of course, but the detail is in the poetry, the lyrics, the underlying beat. We weep and sing along as we hear the song, one touched in orange colours and white cars. She’s done it, she’s finally riding the streets of Paris with the warm wind in her hair…It’s romantic, it’s beautiful, and because of all that it’s also achingly sad. The song touches, haunts, remains popular. Whichever way you read the song – and Faithfull has said she didn’t intend it as a suicide ballad – the echoes of the end are unmistakeably there. And it’s a song that has always appealed with its desperate, quiet beauty. The unbelievableness of it all. Suicide made beautiful. The words are, of course, sacrilegious.

For me, there are other hauntings, other obsessions. Plath, Sexton, Jonker…the female “suicide poets”. The name is terrible, cringe-inducing, yet it’s short hand too. Their lives and works will forever be tainted and overshadowed by the fact that each ended her life when, for whatever reasons, each felt she couldn’t take it anymore.

Depression, psychosis, mad, unpredictable behaviour and passion dogged all these women. See the movie Sylvia, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and witness Plath’s tempers and rage. Dip into her diaries – the sheer plunge and rise of her floury thoughts and emotions leaves you exhausted, weeping, fleeing. What must it have been like to live with her then? The answer was lost the day on an ice cold February in London that she placed her head inside her gas oven, and, perhaps, coolly closed her eyes, forever.

Move on to Sexton, the housewife who suffered a breakdown in the 1950s and told her psychiatrist that she could see nothing useful for herself except prostitution He suggested otherwise, suggesting that she take up her poetry again – she had excelled at it at school – that writing about her mental illness might help others. So she did. The results were phenomenal. Publication and plaudits and prizes followed within years of her pounding out the poems about madness, menstruation at forty, masturbation, and the constant licking at death. She, more than Plath and Jonker, put her taste to die in her poems, over and over. Eventually she gassed herself in her car in her Boston garage.

And Jonker, blonde-haired, dead too, and dead too soon. Read her lover Andre Brink’s descriptions of life with the impossible, impetuous Jonker, flitting from Cope to Brink, showing Brink the evidence of her scars from a previous attempt. “Do you think I will commit suicide one day?” she asks him. He writes, “Which was one of the key questions she also asked me during our first weekends together.”

My interest in each was fuelled, not at first by their fiery strong lyrics, but by the way each chose to end her life, and how she lived during that life. I was drawn to the storms and tantrums, the sheer difficulties each had in navigating every day. I was nineteen when I first reached for Sexton and Plath’s biographies, compelled and driven by own impulses, seeking some kind of answer, perhaps out of my own taste for death. Sexton’s inability to go anywhere alone was shocking, but comforting. In contrast I went everywhere alone, I had no friends to accompany me, but her difficulties were echoed in my own. When I needed to buy a new battery for my wristwatch I could not do it. I walked up the jewellery shop, hesitated at the door and walked away. Even buying painkillers to dull my own menstrual pain was an ordeal, one accomplished by not looking the salespeople in the eye. I tried as often as possible to get my mother to buy the pills, but there were times when it could not be avoided, and I remembered Sexton’s own monstrous difficulties. Heart pounding, all my courage tingling, I’d enter a pharmacy.

A taste for Death. Italicise if you’re going to write a novel as PD James and Peter O’Donnell have done, but in the hands of would-be suicides the words become real, bloody, indeed something to taste. It comes up over and over. Each of the poets hungers for it, hungers for the release it will bring, tastes it over and over in various ways, flirts with it in poems, in conversations with others. In life it follows them, much as in death, it haunts their poetry and the way we read their poems.

Jonker has an abortion, is hospitalised where she, like Plath, undergoes electro-shock therapy, Brink writes that, “her fixation on suicide became near-pathological”. She and Brink talk often about suicide, “she showed me the thin white scars on her wrists from a previous attempt.”

In the last few months of her life in England Plath befriends A Alvarez, then the poetry editor and critic at the Observer. Living alone with her two children, she reads him new jets of poetry to Alvarez and he’s shocked and silenced by their power. One night before Christmas she calls him to hear her read more poems. He has dinner plans, can only stop in for drinks. One of the poems she reads him is ‘Death & Co’; it stills him:


I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell,
Somebody’s done for.


“I didn’t know what to say,” writes A Alvarez. “The earlier poems had all insisted, in their different ways, that she wanted nobody’s help – although I suddenly realised that maybe they had insisted in such a manner as to make you understand that help might be acceptable, if you were willing to make the effort. But now she was beyond the reach of anyone. In the beginning she had called up these horrors partly in the hope of exorcising them, partly to demonstrate her omnipotence and invulnerability. Now she was shut up in them and knew she was defenceless.”

Alvarez walks out of her life that evening on the way to his Christmas Eve party. It’s the last time he sees her alive. There’s no going back, no reaching in to help, and in the years after, he must have wondered often if he could have reached out a hand, helped, pulled the drowning person closer to shore. But is there any way through the madness, the desperate need to self-destruct, any way of showing the would-be suicide that indeed, there’s light and hope at the end of the tunnel? Each poets’ death seems to suggest otherwise.

At forty-six, Sexton is divorced, her children are growing up and away from her, friendships have faded, and she finds living alone is hard and tedious, the only refuge is pills and alcohol. She has lunch with an old poet friend Maxine Kumin, they discuss revisions for her latest poetry collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, and then she ends it. Her long flirtation with death is over, there can be no further winks, poems or imaginings of the end. In a wry poem, Sylvia’s Death, she even laments that her friend, Plath, has done it before she managed to:


Thief! –
How did you crawl into,

crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,

…and I know at the news of your death,
a terrible taste for it, like salt.

…what is your death
but an old belonging?


Sylvia’s beaten her to it, Sylvia whose poems ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Edge’ speak chillingly to the attempts and the future success at ending the pain of this present.

At twenty, Plath tries to obliterate herself with sleeping pills. She’s found and survives by some miracle. Ten years later ‘Lady Lazarus’ takes shape:


I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –

… Dying
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call


I’m nineteen, reading these lines, having moved from the biographies to the poetry. The poems are too strong, you burn your fingers on them, and yet, they give hope. I feel connected to the dead Plath who shares my birthday of October 27, and whose collection Ariel echoes the dips of my own name. Much as reading South African poetry in high school set free my own poems to roam the halls of my own high school or the streets of Hilbrow as seen from a bus, making me believe that the landscape I saw could also be fodder for my own imaginings, reading Sexton and Plath free me in another way. I’m nineteen and feeling hopeless, adrift in a world where no one talks to me, and I cannot reach beyond my own iced up personhood. Beginning to believe that nothing can ever change, I start to think of ropes in ceilings. However, I have no idea how to get ropes into ceilings or how to tie knots. I know sleeping pills will do it – but I can barely ask for neurofen in a pharmacy. In a last ditch effort I think of drowning. But in landlocked Johannesburg there is no sea, as there was for Jonker. I do concoct a plan, I’ll tie a rock to my feet and I will drown in a bath. As unfeasible idea as this appears years later when I read about in my own journals, it offer comfort then, there is an escape route, some way out. And yet, freed, the poetry’s also pouring out. A Life stripped of Illusions is full of allegory and the meanings hard to guess at. Years later, once I’m passed the age of nineteen, escaped, I think, or so I say, I can reveal what it really was about, that undeniable strong pull towards nothingness:


What happens is this:
a wall suddenly becomes a wall:
white, clean, clinical. It has nothing to say.

… What we have here
is the bared white reality
of nothingness.


As my life slowly pulls together, not apart, I will find my own taste fading. But like something once glimpsed, it’s hardly every forgotten. It lurks there, it’s a promise, something you can always go back to. As I crawl through my twenties, trying to see if I will make a success of them, it, my life, I offer myself the magical number of thirty. If I haven’t done this at thirty, if I can’t do what I’ve always wanted, need to do, well, there’s thirty. You can go ahead and do it at thirty.

Thirty comes and goes.

Jonker, the powerful swimmer, has already presaged her death in an early collection published in 1956. In ‘Escape’: “My body lies washed up in grass and wrack/wherever memory should call us back.” Her short life is characterised by promise and breakdowns, she wins the Afrikaans Press-Booksellers prize for her volume Rook en Oker, and uses the money to take her first overseas trip, with Brink meeting her later on.

But it all unravels in unhappiness, screaming fits at being left alone in hotel rooms when Brink has to meet a publisher and eventual committal to a Parisian mental home. Much as Jonker could not take “primitive” Johannesburg, as she described it, or the shock of leaving the familiar Cape Town for the Highveld, perhaps a similar impulse roars up as she roams Europe. A difficult peace resumes when she returns to her beloved Cape. What did she think, longing to go overseas, and yet the trip aborted, a failure, the inability to be somewhere else, a place she dreamed about? Death too is a recurrent theme in her work, as well as the conversation. Brink recounts another episode: “Near midnight, beside herself with rage, Ingrid ran out of the apartment screaming that she was going to kill herself. By this time I was so tired and had heard her threat so many times, that I did not believe it. But an hour later a stranger brought her back to the door, she had tried to jump in front of his car. We were both in shock.”

Meanwhile, she is courting death in ‘Conversation on a hotel terrace’:


My death throbs behind my eyeballs like the moon
I hear it move behind the peals of waves
I measure its progress in the slime-track of a snail
The days fall like sparrows into the earth
And every word has the appearance of Nothingness


I’m twenty-five and the man I do not love, an Afrikaner, gives me a copy of Ingrid Jonker’s Selected Poems. Jonker’s name is not unfamiliar. Not only did Nelson Mandela catapult the poet into fame with his selection of her poem to be read at his inauguration a few years ago, the moving, ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga’ but I remember reading Jonker’s lines at high school in Afrikaans class. Through badly done translations in class of Afrikaans poetry I learned to read and enjoy poetry. The ironies are never lost on me – I refused to learn the language of apartheid as we saw it then, but its beauties came to me in ways that changed my own writing.

So, I reread Jonker with the man whom I don’t love by my side. Many years later I open the book with its dusty pink cover and the Jonker side portrait. Memory dribbles out in the inscription he wrote then. I’ve watched the documentary Ingrid Jonker, her Lives and Times, and seen her daughter Simone as a grown up women talking about her own memories of the mother who cut her life short. It’s all so unbelievably sad and brings home the wreck and the pain that a suicide leaves in the lives of those who mourn the person. In the case of well-known successful artists the pain seems greater and magnified, they are mourned by many, and the mourning begins freshly with each new reader who discovers the work as the decades go on.

In each the taste for death is overcome, conquered, till it finally produces the ice-cold body in Plath’s ‘Edge’:


The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment


* * * * * * * *

Sources:

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Selected Poems: Ingrid Jonker translated by Jack Cope and William Plomer

Selected Poems: Sylvia Plath edited by Ted Hughes

The Savage God: A Study of Suicide by A Alvarez

Ingrid Jonker Black Butterflies: Selected Poems translated by Andre Brink and Antjie Krog

The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton Foreword by Maxine Kumin

A Fork in the Road: A Memoir by Andre Brink

* * * * * * * *

Arja Salafranca’s two poetry collections are A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in which we burn. Her debut collection of short stories The Thin Line was published by Modjaji Books 2010. She has edited two anthologies, Glass Jars Among Trees (with the poet Alan Finlay), 2003 and The Edge of Things, a selection of South African short fiction (Dye Hard Press, 2011). She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg.

More at: http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com

Arja Salafranca’s review of Black Butterflies, the film based on Ingrid Jonker’s life, appears in The Sunday Indepedent this Sunday, October 23 2011. Read it online here.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    October 21st, 2011 @16:05 #
     
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    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece, Arja. By the way, do you know the song Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel? He wrote it about Ann Sexton: "She pictures a soul with no leak at the seam"; "words support like bone"; "Ann, with her father, is out in the boat/riding the water/riding the waves on the sea". And, like the ballad of Lucy Jordan, it's chillingly beautiful.

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    October 22nd, 2011 @12:27 #
     
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    what a seductive piece Arja, what an intimate picture of despair. I don't want to go there but I know I have been.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    October 24th, 2011 @23:10 #
     
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    Beautiful piece, Arja. Nineteen is a terribly dangerous age.

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