Lucien Darjeun Meadows
Content Warning: This piece contains discussions of suicide and self-harm
All around this Baltimore campus, the tulip poplars are beginning to leaf out in brilliant, foamy green, and they are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down, upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour. They are nothing at all and also just like your “Tulips,” just like the fracture of greens into gold, red, brown now out here in Northern Colorado. Two thousand miles away and over a decade later. This is the sea, then, this great abeyance.
In the spring of the tulip poplars, I walk among the wealthy white students at this private liberal arts college thanks to a Native Students Scholarship, a Pell Grant, and a fair amount of luck. I am silent and watching and making stone out of everything on the first day of the term, eavesdropping on their talk of where they spent winter holidays (places I’d never heard of) or what classes they were taking this semester (fields that, surely, couldn’t lead to a secure job).
I cross my ankles to hide my too-short jeans, silently practicing their intonations to hide my Appalachian accent that still pours out, now, in a thick grey death-soup. Our creative writing professor welcomes us, distributes the reading lists, asks us to introduce ourselves, where we’re from, one of our favorite poets. “Luc, West Virginia, Sylvia Plath.” A chuckle around the room, though who knows what phrase (if not all three) inspired it. A few students later, a boy I have been watching as a far sea moves in my ear, a boy in a black turtleneck and perfectly faded jeans, shares in cut-glass vowels, “I liked Sylvia in high school—who doesn’t?—but now I’ve moved on, and love Roethke, Eliot, Lowell.” Nods from students around him, and the teacher too.
That afternoon, I find my way to the campus chapel, deserted in the sideways late afternoon light. Bower of willow and oak, carefully nondenominational stained-glass of light from a distance, open hands, panes of randomized white and blue and jelly-glassfulls of daffodils. There was a chapel in a blue holler I can barely remember. There was a swarm of hands upraised, the pallors of hands and neighbourly faces. I think mine were among them, once. I climb into the balcony, take up reading where I left off this most recent time. The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf? It is not mine. Do not accept it. And I smile.
I cannot remember when I first learned of you, my piranha religion, drinking its first communion out of my live toes. I would love to have a concrete, heaven-opening moment of discovery. Perhaps in a time of extremity. Perhaps on a recommendation from a mentor, a lover, a friend. Perhaps in the serendipitous chance of a library display, or a book by the book I first was reaching for. O love, how did you get here? There is so much I cannot remember, a whole world I cannot touch. As an undergraduate, I carry my half-size edition of Ariel with its grey cover of soft-focus flowers in the pocket of my long black coat. As a teenager, as the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands, I read and re-read your Collected Poems, which I was allowed to keep, even though the nurses in that locked ward confiscated The Bell Jar, Les Misérables, Beloved, The Color Purple, and more besides. Perhaps poetry could never be as dangerous as paragraphs. They must not have known the blood jet is poetry. There is no stopping it.
How did I find you, raised as I was in working-class Appalachia to a father who barely graduated high school and a mother who had a breakdown and left after one semester of college? She walked barefoot in the first snow to her own campus chapel and played the piano for hours, until they carried her away. I remember that. I think I was there.
How did I start reading your words in a home where our bookshelf held The Bible, a few mysteries, condensed books, and a partial knock-off encyclopedia? Did I find you at the county library, that one-room home with the line of sunflowers outside in summer, the steps of ice in winter, where what I read was watched, and watched, and watched by the librarian, the woman in blue, the preacher’s sister with a love of the rack and the screw and the well-timed insinuations in the fellowship hall?
I know you by high school. I know you when I start at the community college, because I read Ariel backstage to a boy whose smile unfolds like a suit, for all those rehearsals of The Importance of Being Earnest. Sitting backstage with one ear in the headset and one eye always on him, I know to read how my mind winds to you, cue the lights, curve of water upleaping to my water rod, dazzling and grateful, cue sound effect one, and he runs, and he runs. And I run too. Let the stars plummet to their dark address. O my lovely one, the dark night of the holler with no sound but the forming of dew.
I know you when I think of coming out. I know you when I think of what would happen after—something beautiful, but annihilating. I know you when I meet my partner one July at an open mic one month after my most recent hospitalization, and he follows me, thickened into a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think, wrapped in black eyeliner and chains and a clear cellophane I cannot crack. And still he follows me out the coffeeshop door after I read my poems, panic, and leave right from the podium. Wait, wait. “Your work reminds me of Sylvia Plath,” he says. And I stop, and my lips crack open: Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. He tells me this story. I think I remember.
As a boy, I had never been further north than Philadelphia. I had never left the country, let alone gone further west than Ohio, but I wondered then—and still wonder now—if I were born fifty-five years earlier in New England, if I had been a woman, if I had been heterosexual, if I had been fully white and even a little well-to-do, if I had gotten a scholarship to New York and a Fulbright to England, if, if, if, if I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree, you and I could have shared more than this communication across such separate identities, we could have had less than a thousand clean cells between us, we could have shared a life and a death and all those poems.
Let me relapse. Now it is the second spring of the twenty-first century. I am a ninth grader in a technical high school. After years of being homeschooled, I fall in love with this place for my first time onstage, working with fellow students in the Floral Design department. I love it for the first boy who watches me back, for the possibility that here, the frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star. I will leave after a collapse—eyes to the sky and the memory of an ambulance siren, two months into tenth grade—but for now, three hours a day, three times a week, I bend with my classmates over steel tables under hot florescent lights, down to thin shirts even in winter as we craft something whole from pieces and deaths and bend even living flowers into submission. Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts. I am fascinated by the green floral wire, pushed through the center of the flower’s blossom and run down the stem, freezing time, freezing the appearance of life.
With the wire down the stem and hairspray and dye on the petals, I keep each flower in stasis, living while not living, for months after its natural end, if not handled. This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible. Raised Baptist in the tent of unending cries, I am given, each Sunday, a vision of the brimstone and torture awaiting all sinners, like the gay men I am realizing I belong to.
Still, I wait for those hours in Floral Design, gathering courage once or twice a week to sit beside a certain boy who breathes as if he floated on a glass that was invisible, who moves his hands as if each finger was about to break open. Sometimes the world is made of knives. I know this. Over our shared table, I slide my best flowers toward him. Sometimes, he wears one. Other times, he stares into my eyes as the dye comes off in his hand and the petals crumble to ash, leaving only wire. Scorched to the root my red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Over the next three years, I attempt again, again. That boy succeeds on his first try, with a gun, the night after coming out. The night after his father’s ultimatum. The night after I tell him there must be room in the world for people like us. Or did my lips just move without making a sound, alone in my room. I need to remember. I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way. I stop eating. I am hospitalized, from one unit to the next and back again. Even with my pockets full of all the change I can find, I weigh just a breath more than I did when I was eight years old and in fourth grade. But my god, the clouds are like cotton. Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.
Seasons, entire years, pass while I watch from inside barred windows. One year, I am admitted in late November and do not see home again until June. Another year, and this time summer is only an idea in this place where split lives congeal and stiffen to history. There is a world where seasons change, but these windows project a movie I can never hear, can never smell, can never touch. I forget the feel of sunshine and wind. The apples are golden, imagine it—and I forget what it is to sweat, despite pressing my hands to any strips of window I can reach, my body to their black metal bars.
Once, accompanied by two aides off-ward for a bone scan, we step into a hallway and I see sliding doors and daylight ahead, and I run, and I run, and I am a lantern aflame in the summer afternoon. The world has never held so much color and sound. Ten minutes reeling in the light. Ten seconds. I cannot remember. But the aides grip me, one to each arm, march me back, back, back through layers of doors and locks and bars, and there are no more bone scans, ever, no more private showers for two weeks. The spider-men have caught you.
I forget the smells of cut grass and the garden at home with okra, tomatoes, squash splitting with ripeness. I forget the cold sharp scent of ice, replace it with the antiseptic and alcohol wipes of the daily blood draw in this hospital of dolls. By the end of my first year, I memorize “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” and “Cut.” By the end of the second year, between medications and treatments, I can hold onto only “The Hanging Man,” because, my god, I now know what it is to have sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet, to live in a world of bald white days in a shadeless socket. I cannot remember anything from the third year. The mirrors are sheeted.
Summer of 2005 and I am alive. I am alive and seventeen years old and, for the first time in years, I live outside of wards and meal plans and hospital beds and bathrooms with no doors. For the first time in years, I can go outside and I can close a door. With long sleeves even in summer to hide my arms, I work at a library and I let this eye be an eagle and I spend every free moment writing, to you and to the world, penning a scribble of little poems that try to describe what it is to exist on a ledge between memory and forgetting, caught in the desire to let go when I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
Each year, I re-read Ariel. No, let me be honest. I re-read Ariel each month. Each year, I remember you have been here and further. My writing becomes a kind of world-making while the day outside glides by like ticker-tape, the world that leaves me on my knees rocked with the beauty of one jay’s repetitive song, and the world and the writing brings me back, and back again. I am not sure I want to remember this, or any of it. Just: there was a boy, once.
And when I meet my future partner at that coffeeshop, when I read two poems and then, in a tangle, walk from the podium out the door and he follows me out, calls to me, “Hey, wait—” and I do, within two years I no longer need those long sleeves and I am no longer on the eight medications I was told I would take forever. I return to college.
As an undergraduate, I learn not to list you as a favorite author nor Ariel as a favorite book, lest I have to hear, “Oh, you still read her? I thought everyone outgrew her by college,” again, again. Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat and a black veil that moulds to my face, they are making me one of them. At a national literature conference, one celebrated poet-teacher announces, “Only teenage girls read Plath.” One student nudges another next to me. “Only girls and queers.” I have climbed out so far, but with this and the precipice and the clot of memory for the boy and for the funeral I could not attend, I will not come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
But later that week, my concealment slips straight from the heart, and I forget. I offer a terse formal poem of bees and winter. The teacher holds it before the class before discussion can begin and declares, “This will never get published. It’s too—Plathly,” with a mock shiver, before turning to the next student’s work. “She speaks to a particular audience,” another poet-teacher says at another conference in another year, “but they eventually move on and look for something deeper.”
I hear this, I hear this, I read this. I read this across all of these years, learning from sources I think I could trust that I mark myself as queer, as other, as less-than by continuing to love you. Alissa Quart’s still-popular 2003 article for Psychology Today explores your ability to “intoxicate” teenage girls—because, according to authorities like English teacher Terry Zlabinger, “boys are never drawn to her voluntarily”—under the leading title, “Dying for Melodrama.” Even poet Marianne Boruch, in a 2013 essay for Poetry, groups and dismisses your readers as “whatever Plath fan/fanatic you choose, passionate young women mostly who have just discovered her.” Will you marry it, marry it, marry it. Described as a “pale Plath” in the only known review of his debut collection, Thomas James, a gay man from Illinois, committed suicide in 1974 soon after his first book of poetry, and this review, were published. Open your hand. Empty? Empty.
Evenings with my partner, and he mentions someone we knew when we first met. “Remember M— who always borrowed my guitar to sing “Hallelujah”? Remember H— and how he would climb the storefront in bare feet?” Sometimes I can see a shadow, like a photograph taken from a distance with the aperture too far closed, turning and turning in the middle air. Sometimes I admit this. Sometimes I just smile and nod. One day he asks, “And what was his name? The boy who came with you the first couple of times? The one with the long bony hands?” And here is a door and there is no key. “I can’t remember. I think I delete people when they are no longer relevant, and we haven’t seen any of these people in fifteen years. Almost half of my life. I deleted them.” At least here is a story with agency.
And I, stepping from this skin of old bandages, I look at those furious poems too and cannot remember who wrote them. I burn them all one fall evening, with all my journals from high school. Pages of numbers, current weights, brushstroke paintings of flowers in red paint, “red paint” I repeat again and again to the nurses who ask, until I almost believe it myself. All my journals and photos from community college. Everything from before the wards, neither cruel nor indifferent, but because I cannot remember the room I have never been in. I will not remember the room I could never breathe in. There was a boy who looked at me, once, a boy who looked like me, once, and the boy who is me escaped so thoroughly I cannot remember his twin. And the bottles of empty glitters. Maybe one of us had to disappear, to fall from the black car of Lethe, so that one of us could continue.
Within five years, I become the first in my family to graduate with a college degree. I apply to graduate school. In my MFA applications, I let her go. I let her go diminished and flat, as after radical surgery. I become like that boy with his correct vowels and poet-clothes and cite as my primary influences those white men with cool detachment and wide reader-acceptance—T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Richard Hugo—even as I describe what it is to be a Native and queer first-generation college graduate from West Virginia, where college, let alone graduate school, was no more feasible or desirable growing up than joining the circus. Let me through to a heaven starless and fatherless. I am accepted at over eighty percent of the schools to which I apply, including one that took four poets out of nearly twelve hundred applicants. Ariel returns to the bookshelf. The “I” drops out of my poetry. There is nothing between us.
Another three years. Another three years I cannot remember, from when the professor who courted me into acceptance throws my workshop poem on the floor on the first day of fall term. To my second year, when that same professor reads aloud a student’s description of self-harm, pulls out her pocketknife, and holds her bare arm in front of us saying, “Is this how you do it? Is this going to make me feel good? Is this how you do it?” until the writer and I run from the classroom, and I fall to the brown-tile floor outside the classroom because I cannot see, and a bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me, falling into my first panic attack in five years and it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me. Why do I remember this. Years lost but never this moment. Or those, as that workshop and the next continued, even worse. The nerves bursting like trees. To graduation with a manuscript so entrenched in personal tragedy that I still cannot read it.
And yes, I know such queer moons we live with, and sometimes I am rocked with the terrible beauty of the world and want to kiss the claw of the magnolia just for its being, but I cannot find my way back to detachment. I write toward and alongside you, and I cannot look at myself afterward. After all I am alive only by accident. A few months ago, a national journal’s poetry reading, and the celebrated host comments after each reader. I read poems carefully chosen, nothing dire, nothing confessional, a parade of clean image and sound beaten in starry metals. And yet. She says, “Thank you for all you have been through,” and I feel the reading a failure. The work is the focus. I never want to be confessional. And yet.
Do I want to be seen as opening my arm in front of you? Do I want to have seen my strangeness evaporate? No, no, no. I want to curl around your words and tremble with the reading of something I had thought only I had felt. I want you to give me the words. I want to sing your words. But a third person is watching. Your poetry is described by Christopher Benfey, in a 2016 article “Getting Over Sylvia Plath” for The Atlantic, as “promiscuous” and “magnificent” even as it exploits “confessional poetry to verbal and imaginative extremes.” In 2018, Johannes Göransson echoes Benfey in “Bad Plath: Excess and Theatricality in Contemporary Poetry,” his dismissive analysis of your work for Spoon River Poetry Review. Is it coincidence that both articles are penned by men? By white (passing-)straight men? Is it coincidence that Helen Kitson shares, “I always expect lips to curl whenever I dare to mention that my favourite poet is Sylvia Plath”? That Louise Erdrich memorized Ariel in its entirety to survive one Minnesota winter, and yet, in a 2019 essay in Poetry, she elides this experience in three quick sentences, slipped in between discussions of Wilfred Owen and Elizabeth Bishop?
A PhD candidate at the university where I pursue my MFA shares the 2013 article from The Guardian commemorating the fifty-year anniversary of your death, and the comments on her social media page range from quiet, almost shamed confessions of your profound influence to dismissive assessments from fellow students and even faculty. I repost the article. I get two likes. People or stars regard me sadly, I disappoint them. I delete it from my page, avoid social media for weeks, and wonder why I did so for months.
But you are there, always there. In the poems that I constantly cut back, striving to make each word essential, remembering how you described Anne Sexton’s poetry in your journal as holding “very good things” but, at the same time, “a lot of loose stuff,” and never wanting you to think I was loose too. I count syllables, lines, fashioning tight poems that read like puzzleboxes, with their knitted columns and metric structures. I ordered this, this clean wood box square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I teach poetry to high school students for one year, a room full of girls and a single boy who is unapologetically and beautifully queer, and even without ever saying your name in class, I am aware of my heart. On the day we all bring in a favorite poem to read aloud, we hear “Lady Lazarus” three times, and “Tulips,” and “Ariel,” and a reading of “Cut” from the quietest girl in the class that gives us all chills. And when it is my turn, I shuffle Keats and Hardy aside to find that single sheet, soft-edged with use, take a breath, and read your Pure? What does it mean?
Why does your work inspire such shame? Why are you dismissed with gender-loaded (and pejorative) terms as “haunting,” “melodramatic,” even “hysterical”? Why is your work “indulgent,” when others are “brave,” or “realistic,” or even “maximalist”? Why do we approach your work so often through your life, while other poets’ writing remains on objective pedestals of truth and beauty and art? Why are your male audiences erased? Is it a way to tranquilize the ways you and your work breaks mid-century gender expectations? Even you write that your desperate butterflies, may be pinned any minute, anaesthetized. Are you asking us these questions when you write? Must you kill what you can?
Would this continued silencing and diminishment exist if you had not committed suicide? If you had not married a fellow successful poet? If we had your poems and not The Bell Jar or your diaries? If you were a man? If you were born forty, or even twenty, years later? What does this continued dismissal, framed and enacted as it is, say about us and our shame and denial and fear and prejudice, now over a half-century after your passing?
In 2018, I turn older than you ever were. I never thought I would live to be as old as I am now. Just before, I start my doctoral program in English. I call you a profound influence in my statement of purpose. But you are not on my comprehensive exam lists. You are not in my dissertation. I have yet to teach your work in a college-level course. And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults. I write this letter, this call across time. I return to these paragraphs, again, again. Wanting less detail, wanting the clean space of the empty benches of memory. Yet at the same time wanting to remember it all, wanting to share so that perhaps another person realizes they are not alone. Wanting to believe I am in control, that I can remember, that this boy was never me. Wanting to believe that he is. Remembering and dismembering. Wanting a rift without the I, because how far he is now, and he cannot remember those years. I, he, are not that boy. And yet. I am not his yet. Oh, and ever yet.
All italicized language is from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965, Faber & Faber Limited).
This essay’s structure was inspired in part by Lucie Brock-Broido’s introduction to Thomas James’s Letters to a Stranger (2008 reprint, Graywolf Press).
Lucien Darjeun Meadows
is a writer of English, German, and Cherokee descent from the Appalachian Mountains. An AWP Intro Journals Project winner, Lucien has received fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, American Alliance of Museums, and National Association for Interpretation. His debut poetry collection, In the Hands of the River, is forthcoming from Hub City Press in Fall 2022.