CONTENT WARNING: MENTIONS OF SUICIDE
Spring has arrived early and eager, bringing with it an aggressive heat. The campus is thriving: everyone is out on the Green (which can be called the Green again), playing ultimate frisbee and reading on newly sprouted grass, their bodies catching the sun. Deciduous leaves are unfurling quick and tender at every corner.
All this newly awakened life fills me with a kind of sickness I’ve never experienced before.
I have an appointment with a psychiatrist at the college health center. Last week, I booked a late afternoon slot so I wouldn’t have the excuse of oversleeping. I’ll find excuses wherever I can. My days have been flipped since winter. I am sleeping through class more often than I am attending. I see my friends, but only for dinner.
When I leave the dorm, I spot a green inchworm dangling from the doorway on a thread of silk. I lean to the right to avoid touching it as I exit.
An hour later, I will leave the health center with a new prescription for a popular SSRI, one I’ve read about in books and magazines. A little green-and-white pill that marked the early days of mental health awareness, affording those prescribed a dark sort of glamour and sparking so many conversations amongst the healthy and ill alike. A common refrain: did it work? Was it necessary? People didn’t really know how to talk about these things.
In two months as spring comes to a close, I will feel the medication begin to work, but by that time, it will be too late. It is 2004 and I am 20 years old. Two months from now, I will take leave from school and Lea will be dead.
* * *
In the middle of spring term, the college IT department cuts off my internet. My desktop computer is riddled with viruses and worms. Apparently, it’s so bad that my machine needs to be quarantined to prevent it from infecting others on the network. The diagnosis isn’t so surprising; I spend most of my nights downloading and listening to music from peer-to-peer sharing sites like Kazaa and Direct Connect.
I receive an e-mail from IT informing me of my computer’s condition along with a request to bring it in so they can fix the issue in person. My computer is heavy, an ugly and inelegant thing. It’s a Gateway that came in a cardboard box covered in black-and-white cowprint. I remember picking it up during freshman orientation alongside a thousand other incoming students.
I put off going to the IT department for as long as I can. I haven’t really left my room since I picked up my prescription for Prozac. Three days. That’s the threshold for how long I can go without internet access. Three days is how long I go without talking to my friends.
I have not seen or heard from Lea in longer than three days, though it’s hard to keep track. Time feels both slow and compressed, all my restless nights blur into one. The days of the week shed their names. How do I spend my time? The answer gets lost somewhere in the confusing and predictable uniformity of hours and minutes wasted.
I am not aware yet that Lea is in pain. Because I am also in pain. I’m only learning now that I’m sick—accepting and acknowledging this has taken up all of my focus and my very limited energy. The silence of my inbox reflects our respective withdrawals: absence on both ends.
The day before my internet was disconnected, I received an official warning from one of my professors that I would likely fail his course. I have attended class so infrequently and missed enough quizzes that even if I were to ace the final, it would not remove the possibility of failure. It’s too far into the quarter to withdraw.
Still, I feel no urgency around the matter. I can only solve one problem at a time. Right now, that is fixing my computer.
I haul the computer tower across campus. It is so heavy that I have to stop several times to catch my breath. When I finally make it up the stairs to the IT department, my arms are shaking. As I push open the heavy doors with my shoulder, a dangling caterpillar finds purchase on my shirt. I can’t brush it off. My hands are full. I watch it crawl over me, wriggling green all the way.
* * *
Nine years from now when I am 29 years old, one of my friends will go missing. When I open the e-mail from his father that says K hasn’t been seen in eight days, I’ll just know. I won’t admit it—to anyone else or even myself—but I will know. When I think of K, I will think of Lea.
* * *
Three years ago during freshman year, Lea and I meet in a women’s poetry class. We study Sylvia Plath together, reading her poems in the library, on the Green, on the carpeted floor of her dorm room single.
We comb through poem after poem, looking for words, symbols, colors that might foretell Plath’s inevitable suicide, sifting past all her precision and craft for precious grains of autobiography.
a heaven starless
nine black Alps
nine times to die
the vivid tulips
a dozen red lead sinkers
After the course wraps up, I continue to read Plath, further doing a disservice to her work to satisfy my own obsession with fatalism, in what is a clear and regrettable example of eisegesis. I read into her careful arrangements of words only what I wish to see, undermining her legacy with my misguided romanticizing of the illness that came to consume her.
the dew that flies suicidal
the dead bell
the yew tree is blackness
that long white box
this clean wood box
During this time, my understanding of poetry is thin. Decoding is my only means of analysis and I approach each new poem armed with an index of symbols—a practice I’d picked up during my days in public school where literature was unpacked, reduced, and digested on a timely schedule. The formula does not work; Plath’s poems remain opaque. And though my relationship to poetry will improve in the coming years, her poems will continue to elude me.
Yet even so, I cannot deny the visceral impact of her words. Reading Plath can often feel like a collision, like seeing innards laid bare and recognizing them as yours. When I started reading her work in high school, the experience was acute, thrilling. The words grew like glass deep inside of me, and for the first time, I could feel all the sharp edges I’d carried unknowingly for years.
a red shred
little bloody skirts
the blood jet is poetry
the mirrors are sheeted
her hood of bone
a white skull
the bottom of the pool
* * *
In the weeks, months, and years following Lea’s death, my friends and I will look back on the times we shared together for evidence, for some sign that we should have seen it coming. But how can we remember what went unnoticed? Some of us will look to absolve our own guilt while others, like myself, will accept that guilt willingly, sinking deeper in our search for signs of complicity.
The concept of responsibility changes permanently. We will feel doubly culpable because we are already familiar with the signs and symptoms. After all, we exhibit them ourselves. We know how to read the surface of things, what at first glance appears to be normal—the stillness of water undisturbed. For want of a ripple. We know how to interpret the quiet, recognize when silence is more than just a lack of noise. The presence of absence as it grows heavy and palpable, about to reach its tipping point. That subtle shift in the air.
Sometimes, what’s wrong is right there floating on the surface like a layer of film, barely set. The appearance of normalcy is just that. I know what it’s like to leave the phone unplugged. It’s the same reason I know not to call more than once.
Regardless, we are so young. Experience has not yet granted us the tools with which to help one another. At first, we will say: it is unthinkable, it will never happen again. But time will force our hand as people take turns leaving their lives, and us, behind. And because it is unthinkable, many of us will continue to fail again and again.
After Lea dies and later, when K dies, people will tell me that there was nothing I, we, any of us could have done. I will agree and nod, even if I do not believe them. This sentiment will never change. Blame has nothing to do with it. I myself will become the example that demonstrates this very point.
* * *
On his blog, K leaves a trail of images. His final set of posts consist of the following:
A John Baldessari work from the Goya series—a photograph of a vase of flowers. The text underneath reads in all caps, “There isn’t time.”
Two pictures of the ocean shore, one in black and white, the other in color. In the first, a man lays across the sand.
A photo of an open, torn box holding a pile of dirt. The cardboard flaps resemble the wide collar of a button-down shirt.
A postcard sent by Ana Mendieta. The back reads, “Hope you can come and see my exhibition,” signed by the artist’s hand. On the front is a photo of what appears to be a body covered completely with dirt, the backdrop, a cemetery.
A Vivian Maier photograph of a sleeping couple embraced next to a train window. Behind their heads is a forest blurred by the speed of the moving train.
A pink heart enamel pin that says “sad forever.”
There are other images that I do not understand, like a still from a film titled Una Iena In Cassaforte.
K finished his master’s in curatorial studies just one year before his death. In dying, he leaves behind no note, just these last few posts knowing, I imagine, that we would all look to them for answers. Not quite enough to be called an exhibition, rather, a visual index of pain and resentment. No white walls, just one of many windows conjured on our screens, scrolling endlessly.
* * *
I met K at the end of graduate school when he came to my thesis exhibition. We later met at my tiny studio to discuss my work just a few weeks before I stripped the walls and packed everything up. After I moved to the east coast, we kept in touch over e-mail and he would sometimes send me PDFs of essays that he thought would be relevant to my art practice. One of the last documents he sent was Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever.” It’s still sitting in my inbox, unread, buried deep behind years of old correspondence.
Shortly after K’s death, I get in touch with an old college friend, James. We first met when I was 20 years old and he was 26. He’d taken three years off from school, also on medical leave. A year after he graduated, I landed myself in the psychiatric wing of the local hospital just outside of campus. James reached out and made it clear that he was angry with me. Someone he’d been close to had recently killed herself. I understood; we both did. Of course, I would come to understand his point of view more acutely after K’s death.
By the time we reconnect, his anger has smoothed over, replaced by a kind of calm insight that can only come with time. We’ve been on both sides. Because of this, our minds have changed, successfully swayed by the stark reality of consequence. When I look at the blade of a knife, I can see another face besides my own, reflected back with startling clarity.
And yet, the pull is still there. Some days are harder than others, but looking into the darkness, rather than giving myself over to it, is enough to sate me.
James recommends that I read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The book both accepts and reasons away the motivations of suicide, positing that the mere act of persistence is enough to keep a person going, keep on living. I send him a Randall Jarrell poem, “Well Water,” that echoes a similar sentiment about the tedium and beauty of daily life. In the poem, the narrator finds solace in a specific kind of mundanity—the routine act of pumping water from a well. Its simplicity is nourishing, refreshing, and the strength to be gained, cumulative.
What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
Pull the heavy lever once more. Keep the water pumping, keep it flowing. Sisyphus, his shoulders sore, readies himself to begin again. Stone and water. The simple truth of such hard, cold things.
While K’s death is still fresh and those of us left behind are still reeling, we consume and circulate essays, books, poems, anything. Together, we seek refuge in theory and art, trying to find reasons for each side of the argument, electing to stay or to go.
Randall Jarrell steps in front of a moving car. John Berryman writes The Dream Songs, and in these poems, his friends—Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton—all fellow poets, are dead by their own hand. Berryman follows after them a few years later. Sexton memorializes her late friend Plath in a poem lamenting that she’d been the first to go, go before Sexton herself (though eventually, her time will come).
I will not speak to James for years. In 2018, I will move to the city of Los Angeles, where he also resides. I will not reach out. I will justify this as self-preservation; I don’t want to think about those things anymore. Not about the person I used to be or the choices I once made so easily.
* * *
In 2004, nearly four decades after its original publication, a new version of Ariel is released. The galvanizing work gains new form, its full title: “Ariel: The Restored Edition. A Facsimile of Plath’s Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement.”
As stated, this new version preserves the final draft of her collection as Plath herself had intended it to be published. There are major differences between this Ariel and the Ariel Ted Hughes edited and published two years after his wife’s death. The restored edition features new poems not originally included in the 1965 version. Other poems, such as “Edge,” are notably missing. These changes result in an almost entirely different book.
As I read the restored Ariel, I will find myself preferring the 1965 edition. I will be surprised by my own reaction. The weaknesses of the restored edition emphasize the strengths of the original. The first Ariel is darker, with a tighter, more cohesive narrative. Its path goes in one direction only— away from the reader, further and further, never looking back.
The reviews roll in and it becomes clear that the conversation has shifted. It is impossible, however, to talk about either poet—Plath or Hughes—without delving into their mythos. But enough time has passed that the narrative of the work and the narrative pop culture built around the couple can both be addressed. There’s enough distance from the melodrama.
When Ariel was first published in 1965, the tragic story of the young American poet and her adulterous English husband was already well known within literary circles as well as outside of them. For the burgeoning feminist movement, Plath quickly became both victim and heroine, and her husband, a pariah. Hughes’ editorial hand in the 1965 version of Ariel was considered blasphemy, and the outcry over his perceived censorship sudden and dogged. To newly liberated second-wave feminists, this was yet another case of a long-suffering woman silenced and overridden, even in death, by a man who had brought her so much misery in life.
Except, this was not the voice of a woman stifled. With Ariel, a new voice was unleashed upon the world. And whether that world was prepared for her arrival or not, she did not care. Defiant, unapologetic, and exacting, Ariel eventually went on to captivate generations of young writers.
The undeniable fact remains that the two poets shared a special kind of intimacy reserved for creative couples. To love and to cherish—the person, the pathology, the poetry. Through marriage and separation, Ted Hughes understood his wife’s work, enough to sit with her final manuscript in the wake of her death and make the necessary edits that would help actualize Ariel—fever dream or not—and allow it to become the force of nature that we now know it to be.
The original 1965 Ariel hurtles unmistakably towards death. When Hughes reads and re-orders these poems, he has the benefit of knowing the ending to his wife’s story. The manuscript is a promise made and a promise carried through. Ideation becomes action. We all know how she died, we all know how it ends.
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.
But you cannot control the narrative forever. Anonymous feminists chisel away a husband’s name from a gravestone year after year. In a moment of irony in 2012, her maiden name is removed, and her husband’s left intact. Change is inevitable, the act of defacement included.
* * *
The general consensus is that the restored edition of Ariel, however scattered, is the more optimistic of the two. The selected poems form a new context and within this arrangement, a different kind of trajectory emerges: one that fully intends to keep going. It’s what you would least expect from a mind coming apart and half-frozen, the poet at her lowest during that last, frigid winter in Devonshire. In a way, the manuscript feels like a reclamation.
When I think about endings, I think of Plath’s best-known work, The Bell Jar, and her stand-in, Esther Greenwood. The novel ends on a relatively happy note with the protagonist not quite cured, but better. A hard-earned future blossoms for Esther in those last few pages: she receives proper treatment and is discharged from the hospital, finally allowed to resume her life once more and return to university with a clear mind.
If you take the end of Esther’s arc and match it to the events of Plath’s life from that time in 1954, the two paths merge and continue onward. Plath returns to Smith College, graduates, then heads to England to attend Oxford University. It’s good for a while until it isn’t.
Even the protagonist’s name in The Bell Jar—Esther Greenwood—connotes newness and promise.
Two weeks after Lea’s death, I will take a medical leave of absence from school. Back home in Southern California, I will receive treatment on a weekly basis and three months later, bearing a note signed by a psychologist, I will return in time for the fall quarter. Five months later in the middle of winter term, I will leave school once more. I will not return for at least another year.
* * *
I am about to tell you that Lea is not real. Even though Lea is not real, you know who she is, and if you don’t recognize her now, chances are you probably will at some point in your life.
Lea is the first person you will ever know to die this way. Every time this happens, you will think of her. A constant reminder that possibility and finality can co-exist in a single life. Even as she fades from memory (which she will), you will re-pay the price of inaction over and over. Because that is the cost of helplessness.
* * *
The caterpillars arrive in the final week of spring term, appearing as suddenly as the premature summer heat. April rains and soaring temperatures combine to create the perfect conditions for an infestation. All across campus, swarms of green larvae bloom in the heavy, hot air. Thousands and thousands cover brick-and-mortar walls and clapboard white wood, painting over the centuries-old facades with excited new life.
The color green in excess, always moving, never still.
Three days ago, the school gave me an ultimatum: take a medical leave of absence or fail all my classes and be placed on academic probation. I have already decided to take option one, but only after one of my three professors refused to grant me an incomplete. One potential future has already closed itself off to me.
Later today, Lea will be dead. Another door shuts; all the doors shut.
Just yesterday, my friends helped put my belongings into storage. Most of it sits in the attic of the house they’ll be sharing over the summer. I was supposed to be there with them. We drove back and forth between the house I’d never get to live in and my stale, messy dorm. The boxes stashed in the attic are mostly filled with media, complete box sets of anime DVDs, a Mazzy Star concert flier I bought on eBay with my first credit card, a few spools of CD-Rs (both mixes and blanks). These objects would eventually go on to join the list of things I’ll never see again, abandoned in the corners of spaces and memory I will go to great lengths to avoid.
Another lost item: my copy of Girl, Interrupted. I’d lent it to my friend Elizabeth, another undergrad who took a medical leave earlier this year. Elizabeth’s father had died while she was in high school. It was something she mentioned once or twice. The last time I saw her, she had impulsively shaved her head.
With the paperwork for my medical leave in hand, I make my way across a campus drowned in light. My destination: the Dean’s office. I am as awake as I’ll ever be. Caterpillars dangle from the trees, the eaves, the lampposts. There are so many that I have to stop and swat them out of my hair, off my shoulders.
I walk past dormitories and watch men with hoses spray down white walls and juniper doorways with pesticide. The caterpillars fall away in writhing green waves.
In the distance, I can see the oldest tree on campus, a giant oak that’s hundreds of years old. As I get closer, the trunk appears to shimmer like a ripple in desert heat. Burls and knots tremble ever so slightly under the bald light of high noon. Two years from now when I try psilocybin for the first time, I will remember this moment while watching the boards of a hardwood floor decay and reassemble in perpetuity.
I begin to walk up the marble steps leading to the Office of the Dean. The giant oak is close enough to touch.
I stop to look—the surface is moving. The tree teems with caterpillars.
Undulating, shifting. Restless larval state en masse choking the still wood that lays dormant just underneath. Their small soft bodies and the spaces between transform into a new texture, green bark and grain come alive.
Sydney S. Kim is a queer, Korean-American writer and artist based in Los Angeles. She received her MFA from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and BA from Dartmouth College. Her literary work can be found in Wigleaf, American Literary Review, and Wildness (Platypus Press). She is represented by Tristan Kendrick at Rogers, Coleridge & White. Her middle name is Sujin.