"That is not your mother but her body": The Corpse Aesthetics of Plath, Hughes and Murder Mysteries

by on Jan.22, 2013

PlathForever-2012-single-duo-v1I was reading Ted Hughes’ poem “The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother” this morning and I started thinking about the Corpse as an icon of art, art’s violence, and the unsettling itneriority-less-ness of the image. This is of course made really obvious in Plath’s own work. “Arrival of the Bee Box” with its horror and fascination with the locked up foreign (African, Roman) mob which she plans to let out to let it devour her is a kind of model for art’s affect (it swarms, it bites, it kills)[1]. “Fever 103” is in many ways about that state of being enswarmed – she becomes artificial (acetylene virgin, a flickering Japanese lantern, ie kitsch). And most famously the kitsch-crowded (atrocity kitsch, freakshow kitsch, shell kitsch) “Lady Lazarus” where she is displayed for the “peanut crunching crowd,” a swarming entity whose “crunching” for me always felt like a “bone-crunching” (ie they’re eating the speaker).

This crunching and devouring of the corpse leads me to think about Ted Hughes’ poem about Plath, “The Dogs are Eating Your Mother”:

The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother
by Ted Hughes

That is not your mother but her body.
She leaped from our window
And fell there. Those are not dogs
That seem to be dogs
Pulling at her. Remember the lean hound
Running up the lane holding high
The dangling raw windpipe and lungs
Of a fox? Now see who
Will drop on all fours at the end of the street
And come romping towards your mother,
Pulling her remains, with their lips
Lifted like a dog’s lips
Into new positions. Protect her
And they will tear you down
As if you were more her.
They will find you every bit
As succulent as she is. Too late
To salvage what she was.
I buried her where she fell.
You played around the grave. We arranged
Sea-shells and big veined pebbles
Carried from Appledore
As if we were herself. But a kind
Of hyena came aching upwind.
They dug her out. Now they batten
On the cornucopia
Of her body. Even
Bite the face off her gravestone,
Gulp down the grave ornaments,
Swallow the soil.
So leave her.
Let her be their spoils. Go wrap
Your head in the snowy rivers
Of the Brooks Range. Cover
Your eyes with the writhing airs
Off Nullarbor Plains. Let them
Jerk their tail stumps, bristle and vomit
Over their symposia.
Think her better
Spread with holy care on a high grid
For vultures
To take back to the sun. Imagine
These bone-crushing mouths the mouths
That labor for the beetle
Who will roll her back into the sun.

Hughes’s poem begins with the line “That is not your mother but her body,” which is just a brilliantly awful line, nauseating. According to the speaker, the corpse is a kind of counterfeit mother – lacking her soul or whatever, just an image, a cinematic body, like the “doll parts” that go into “Lady Lazarus – and not only that, it’s also dangerous, because it attracts “hyenas” – ie readers (hyenas suggest a powerful feminity, matriarchy) – who want to dig up the grave and tear the body into pieces. This is of course a very different body-as-art: instead of the vulnerability of the body (as seen in Plath’s own work, where she will be attacked), here animals are tearing it to pieces. This might of course also suggest a difference between the inspiration of writing the poem and reading it. But fundamentally it’s about art: it both is and is not the mother. And the corpse: it both is the mother and is not the mother. Art is a kind of re-animated corpse. It’s an image without soul. It attracts the inhuman forces of bees and hyenas.

The hyena grave-robbery could be seen as a very intresting take on the kind of “glut” that Plath has produced – ie the very far-reaching influence of her work. The hyenas are terrible, yes, but they do get fed from Plath’s corpse. They are also female, as is obviously the stereotypical Plath lover.
wallander02

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But what really interests me about this grave-robbery and corpse metaphors is the way they for me evoke murder mystery conventions. Murder mysteries tend to start out with a crime scene that is elaborately wrought, like an artwork. For example in Tana French’s recent “Broken Harbor”, there’s a house with walls full of holes and chickenwire and surveillance equipment and two dead kids with no signs of struggle in their bed and two adult bodies dead in a pool of blood in the kitschen. Or that Mankell novel where there are burning swans. Or the one where there are three kids dressed in arhaic garbs dead on a blanket in the woods. The more elaborte, the better. The more elaborate, the more difficult to figure out a narrative, which is what the detective has to do, create a narrative that explains the inexplicable, beautiful, strange crime scene, perpetrated by the unredeemably antisocial artist-killer on someone’s body (the corpse). The more elaborate the more art-like it is. Massacre kitsch.

The narrative-making detective tends to be more connected to the killer than the general public. Wallander likes opera and has diabetes – exhibiting the pathological-aesthetic qualities of a killer, except in a milder degree. Often they are sick or stunted or drunks. It’s as if the art-crime has leaked into them. Like the “Stalker” in Tarkovsky’s movie, who has deformed children and patches of white hair from the radiation of the imagination, the detectives are physically harmed by art/crime. Tana French’s detective in The Likeness looks exactly like the dead woman (and can thus impersonate her, going back into the murderous situation of the dead woman’s life); in In the Woods, the detective is a kid who escaped from another child-killing years ago.

In Hughes’ poem, it is interesting the hyenas who play the role of detectives, digging up the body again and again (just as detectives constantly re-animate corpses by imaginging their deaths). But what about Hughes? He might be something innocent like someone who wants the dead to stay inexplicably dead. But isn’t he also strangely by the logic of the detective genre, infected by the dead body, decorating her grave with “sea shells and big-veined pebbles” (“I rocked shut as a sea-shell…”, Plath’s corpse leaks its ghost-like, grotesque energies into the decorations). He makes a kind of crime scene which draws the attention of the hyenas. He writes a poem infected by Plath.

In the end he advices the children (are our future, which Plath does not have, she’s “stunted” according to so many critics) to look to nature instead; to avoid the artifice of the mother, asking them to cover their eyes to the grotesquerie of the mother and the hyenas with images of nature. But in so doing, he turns nature in a kind of kitsch, a tiny landscape used to cover eyes.

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Another interesting Plath-robbery is Judy Grahn’s poem “I Have Come to Claim Marilyn Monroe’s Body.” As I argued a while back, Monroe here is a *stand in* (or art model of, counterfeit of) for Plath, or at least for Lady Lazarus – the “hubba. hubba…” invoking the baby-talk of Plath, “look at hose lucious/long brown bones” invoking the beginning of “Lady Lazarus” with its necro-gaze, the speaker takes the bones “in this paper sack.”

As in Plath’s poem, this is a poem about the unsettling power of the image. As in the imitation “glut” of Plath’s influencees, “eight young women” have killed themselves in imitation of Monroe/Plath’s necroglamor. But again, the speaker here – like the hyenas – is suspected of wanting to devour the corpse: “They think I/mean to eat you.”

Grahn is simpler than Plath, whose fascination and fear of the image is famously troubling and evocative. In her poem, Grahn’s speaker dig up the bones in order to use them as weapons agianst the camera-wielding men. As if the “real” bones can destroy a culture of the “peanut-crunching crowd.” But of course, in order to do so, she has to make an image of the bones, and becomes infected with Plath’s baby-talk-voice. She may want to play the detective and get rid of the image, but in doing so she is infected as well: “Today I have come to claim your body for my own.” Hughes’s speaker might say: “That is not your Marilyn Monroe but her bones.”

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[1] In her essay “Im/Penetrable Archive,” Maria Damon riffs on the metaphoric resonance of bees and honey: “The an/archive is alive with materials self-created by bees, its geometrically perfect walls dripping with melopoeia. Approaching, we understand the danger to which our investigations commit us: all beekeepers die of anapylactic shock sooner or later; instead of becoming immune one becomes more sensitive. You don’t assimilate it; it assimilates you. Human becomes anti-human, inhuman, or posthuman as your allergic reaction is written on your body; hives and rashes, welts and archive fevers…” (101, “Postliterary America).

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