Some Versions of the Necropastoral: Plath's Ariel

by on Jan.14, 2011

Red White and Blue Ariel

In my last post, I thought about Jack Smith’s Normal Love as an exemplar of the ‘necropastoral’, a term which denaturalizes the pastoral by focusing on its always/already unnatural qualities. In its classical form, the pastoral is a kind of membrane on the urban, an artificial, counterfeit, impossible, anachronistic version of an alternative world that is actually the urban’s double, contiguous, and thus both contaminatory and ripe for contamination, a membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego).

I’ve started reading through Ariel again, and it’s striking to me the degree to which this text works as necropastoral. The imagery of Ariel continually construes a kind of abeyance, a sojourn or removal to a blank world continually pierced by images of the would-be natural which reveal themselves as artifice and convey Art and Death to the Artist, whose vulnerability to Art’s impulses is pre-registered by her illness, her body as wound.

From this first poem of Ariel, we see membranes and their saturation, a constant pouring of Art between bodies: “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand”. In this microcosmic weather system, reflection is only a medium for effacement, condensation for distillation, all put in motion to provide measurement for nothing: “I’m no more your mother/than”. The line break after “I’m no more your mother” is a kind of illegal punctuation—a punctuation not by black mark but by white space, by nothingness—which rewrites the rhetorical gambit as a temporal statement: “I’m no more your mother.” As the poem continues, the membrane between infant and mother becomes saturated and crossed again and again; the infant’s “moth-breath/Flickers among the flat pink roses”; the speaker’s response is not only to “stumble from bed” but to become physically imprinted, a fabric and a medium for the infant’s floral imprint: “cow-heavy and floral/In my Victorian nightgown.” The architecture and the weather also responds as inverted media to the infant’s body: “Your mouth opens […]The window square/Whitens and swallows its dull stars.” Famously, the infant and not the speaker gets the last non-word, pouring out the raw material of Art into sonic mediumicity: “The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

“Morning Song” represents a total mediumicity in which Art moves from the infant to the speaker, from the infant into the material surround, creating the body of the poem. It is uncanny because it reverses the conventional agency of the home, the infant’s conventional vulnerability transferred to the mother; Art makes a wound, vulnerability (etymologically, woundability) becomes synonymous with mediumicity, and the mother becomes part of the material surround, mediumistic to the infant’s Art making. In the couplets of the following poem, “The Couriers”, a kind of rejection of Art’s address is rehearsed (“It is not mine. Do not accept it.”) but this structure is finally capsized with “A disturbance of mirrors,/The sea shattering its grey one.” With this convulsing of the membrane, the image of the sea shattering and duplicated in Art’s disturbance, a single, supersaturated line can break through and end the poem with its triple nomination in which non-equivalencies are forced into supersaturated, fluxing body, Art’s diabolical total (and tonal) substance: “Love, love, my season.”

:, , , , ,
7 comments for this entry:
  1. Erin Lyndal Martin

    While I’ve read the original Ariel, I only own the restored manuscript. I’d be interested to know if the restored MS changes your thoughts any or augments your opinion at all.

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Erin– What are your thoughts? Which is the original? I haven’t read the Plath-ordered one yet! I think the Hughes-ordered one is a fraud, a counterfeit, and a ventriloquoy, and a necromancy– four of my fave genres! So I’m partial! But I am going to pick up the other version (the original?) as soon as I can. JM

  3. Citizens of the Necropastoral: Lady Lazarus and Kubla Kahn - Montevidayo

    […] McSweeney on Jan.20, 2011, under Uncategorized This pose is a continuation of my thinking about necropastoral and Plath, with a shout out to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I use the term necropastoral to highlight the fact […]

  4. When I'm not worrying over terrifying "sexual predators"

    […] and Joyelle McSweeney, and especially Joyelle’s idea of the “Necropastoral” (also here and here and….) Perhaps most appealing to me, however, is Joyelle’s idea of the […]

  5. Necro, Necro, Necropastoral | HTMLGIANT

    […] Like Joshua Corey & others, I’m bewitched by Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of “the necropastoral.” (read her posts at Montevidayo) I fear I have little to contribute, but much to wonder about. My inclination is to assume I’m misunderstanding what she means by the term, even after reading her definition: [the ‘necropastoral’ is] a term which denaturalizes the pastoral by focusing on its always/already unnatural qualities. In its classical form, the pastoral is a kind of membrane on the urban, an artificial, counterfeit, impossible, anachronistic version of an alternative world that is actually the urban’s double, contiguous, and thus both contaminatory and ripe for contamination, a membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego). [here] […]

  6. Tim Morton

    here is my brief contribution to necropastoral studies (great term):

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14358125/mortonecoelegy.pdf

  7. Johannes

    Tim,
    Thanks for this essay. Finally have had some time to read it and your other work.
    Johannes