Poem of the Day: Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

Fascism and Germany have been on my mind lately; it's no secret that actually I've been more than a little obsessed with the whole thing since I went on a guided London walk that illustrated how close Britain came to becoming a fascist state itself during the fervor and uncertainty of the 1920s. And given the wonder and joy of cross-referencing and hyperlinks, that obsession led into an obsession with the Mitford sisters, which led to a brief passion for new journalism, which led to Joan Didion, and so it goes.

These days I flit from obsession to obsession like a butterfly to a flower, taking what I need before moving to the next. But when I was younger, perhaps I did flit, but I spent far more time on each subject of interest, far more focus and holistic study before I tired of it. One particular interest was Sylvia Plath. Perhaps I made myself romantically damaged to be like her. Perhaps I already was damaged and saw a kindred spirit when I read Bell Jar. But I am not Sylvia Plath, though if I so desired, I could cross Regent's Park and stick my head in her very own oven. Luckily I have grown past such desires.

What I always find surprising, though, is that she's still with me. That I can find beauty in her work despite the fact that I've grown up and am stronger than her in so many ways, better blessed in so many others. I still carry my small hardback everyman collection of her poetry everywhere I go, so that I may take quick sips when thirsty. (This is the same reason I always have at least one Tori Amos song, one Abba song and one Bangles song on my iPod, in case of emotional emergencies.)

Desultory am I, it is obvious. But here we journey towards the point. Why did I choose "Daddy" instead of a hundred other less obvious choices? Because it's impossible to get the first stanza out of your head. It's impossible not to be drawn into the strange rhythm of her words, like a steady march. It is superficially evocative but still rewards study.

This won't be the last Plath poem I feature, but this is the right one for this moment.

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time---
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been sacred of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two---
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

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