The Munich Mannequins
I am lucky enough to be combining some of my great loves, literature, sociology and criminology. I am sat here writing an application for a training course and am thinking about which poem has helped me in a personal way.
There are so many, but yesterday’s blog post on Beauty Hurts got me thinking about Sylvia Plath’s The Munich Mannequins.
The Munich Mannequins
Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb
Where the yew trees blow like hydras,
The tree of life and the tree of life
Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose.
The blood flood is the flood of love,
The absolute sacrifice.
It means: no more idols but me,
Me and you.
So, in their sulfur loveliness, in their smiles
These mannequins lean tonight
In Munich, morgue between Paris and Rome,
Naked and bald in their furs,
Orange lollies on silver sticks,
Intolerable, without minds.
The snow drops its pieces of darkness,
Nobody’s about. In the hotels
Hands will be opening doors and setting
Down shoes for a polish of carbon
Into which broad toes will go tomorrow.
O the domesticity of these windows,
The baby lace, the green-leaved confectionery,
The thick Germans slumbering in their bottomless Stolz.
And the black phones on hooks
Glittering and digesting
Voicelessness. The snow has no voice.
Poetry is often understood as a middle class pastime, but I quote Jeanette Winterson here:
“I had no one to help me but the T. S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes…I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language- and that is that poetry is. That is what literature offers- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place” (Constantine, 2013, p.55).
Poetry is for everyone. I wasn’t engaged with most subjects at school, but I loved English and drama. Loved them. There were an escape but also an exploration of the self through writers who conveyed my feelings far better than I could.
For a long time in the depths of depression and anxiety I stopped reading and stopped listening to music, because it was too real, too alive. It touched too many nerves and scraped along my insides, and I didn’t like its jagged edges. I wasn’t ready for the frightening possibilities of feeling.
When I read Plath I still get that kick in the stomach, that punch. Her language is hauntingly sterile, removed and yet utterly felt at the same time. She embodies the distress of being trapped inside yourself, inside your structural position as a woman, that can often seem so hopelessly futile. When our options are presented as so many yet are actually so few.
Plath’s poems often make me think of one of my favourite paintings, The Scream by Edward Munch. I know zero about art, but I feel this painting in the same way I feel Morning Song, or Ariel, or The Applicant.
Poetry is real, it takes you outside of yourself but then also burrows deeply into your core. It has the words you’re missing and strings them into neat bunting that you may display. Even if you’re not ready for a full poem, you can snap the words into fridge magnet syllables, and play around with them. You can clench them in your fist, cold, hard, tangible, real. That your experience is not so abstract, not so unusual. You might not be able to describe how you feel, but the poem allows another to share that moment.
Writing this has reminded me of the amazing Australian Academic who delivered the most beautiful haunting aching paper I have ever heard in my life, Karina Quinn.. I heard Karina speak at Talking Bodies at University if Chester March 2013, a 3 day international conference that is hands down the best academic event I have been to. Talking Bodies 2015 is here.
What Plath, and Quinn, and poetry, and using this as a PhD method show me is that I need to be pushed out of comfort. We all as women need to push against sterile passivity even when the discomfort moves into waves of fear or deep cramps that grip us and won’t let go.
We need to open up as many spaces for marginalised voices as we can, we need to punch plastic feminism in the head so that more women can engage with women’s issues and understand that women are being f*cked over.
We are still being judged on whether we decide to bear children, or whether we decide to marry or cohabit. A woman who dares to shirk any one of these assumed roles is a dangerous power indeed. 2014 and the final 3 verses of Plath’s The Applicant ring as true as ever:
“Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it”.