Sylvia Plath’s Room

Translated from Russian by Andrew Wachtel

Last night an icy rain fell, and in the morning it got cold. I wake up at six fifteen thinking about the cleaning lady, who is supposed to come at eight. Wednesday is my day. According to the shiny paper schedule hanging in the front hall, at quarter to eight you’re supposed to open your door, thereby letting her know you’re ready to have your room cleaned up. If you don’t, then changing the sheets, taking out the garbage with the banana peels sticking to the sides of the bin, cleaning hair out of the sink and washing the floors becomes your problem. I suffer from chronic insomnia and every time I have to get up early the night becomes torture. I can’t help thinking about it. Rolling around in bed, I listen to every nighttime noise, trying to guess how much time I have left before the alarm clock goes off. I observe the outlines of the breaking dawn with a kind of schadenfreude—there’s the first bird song, now the sky is brightening through the tree branches, and now the streetlights have gone out. The more I try to hang onto the last shreds of sleep, the more pitilessly the eyes in the white ceiling stare down at me. Sometimes, especially during the winter, I can feel time with my skin to the minute.

Someone upstairs has flushed the toilet, and then slammed the door. Another one. “Wouldn’t it be possible just to close the door? Quietly let it shut.” It wouldn’t be that hard—just hold onto the closing door with your hand or hold it back with the toe of your shoe, to avoid twisting everyone else’s insides around. Unable to wait any longer, I fly out of the warm bed into the cold night air, shivering from too little sleep. While the house is still waking up, I need to sneak silently out into the hall and turn the dial on the wall thermostat to get the heat up. This is an invisible contest. The thing is, I have a big room here at Saratoga Springs, with an office and a large bedroom. When it’s cold out, the temperature needs to be set at no less than seventy degrees if I want to get from my bed to the bathroom in my pajamas without turning into an ice cube. But by the time my rooms have warmed up, those of my neighbors, which are the size of a closet, have turned into the ovens of hell. Coming back from dinner, as if fearful of being caught committing some kind of crime, I turn the wheel of our ship sharply toward the sands of the Sahara, whose sun-drenched arid landscape is so dear to my soul. For I am a woman of the desert. But some kind of unknown power turns it back a single twist, toward the kingdom of permafrost, where a bunch of gray corpses in their ripped tents lie on the slopes of Mount Everest. We are enemies. My neighbors and I. Though we eat the same bread and share the same wine. It is true that a ship can only have one captain.

The heavyset, middle-aged woman asks me if she can come in, and I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do with my body. One idea is to go to the kitchen and make myself a cup of coffee with cardamom, but the thought that I might meet someone there who would greet me with a life-affirming smile, energetic and squeaky clean, forces my body to collapse onto the revolving chair in the study while listening to the happy streams of water splashing behind the partition. Outside, there’s a depressing December darkness, with a bluish tint. It’s seems as if the trees are just about to walk inside, but even if they do, I’m not moving. My skin seems to have been covered in glass shards, my eyes sprinkled with sand. I don’t go to breakfasts. In the mornings, at the communal table, I feel like an idiot. I simply don’t have the mental energy to sit there and make empty small talk. It’s as if you’re blowing soap bubbles. You sit there, head in a book, not understanding a single word, just to avoid seeing how pieces of food drop into the black maws of mouths.

My dream has always been a solitary bathtub in the middle of a room, as happened once in the mountains when a nameless person poured whiskey into my glass as I luxuriated in a tub of hot sudsy water after a day of swimming in the sea. I trusted him too much—stood straight up, completely naked, rather than hiding beneath the protective water and merely holding out my hand with the glass. I showed every cell, vibrating in the twilight. What could I provide? Authenticity. It’s the finest alloy, harder than any diamond. Like an insane mathematician who searches for the one possible solution, I searched for wholeness in everything, perhaps in order to give it away to someone else. But that person said, “I don’t need your words, you don’t know how to live.” And the crystal sounds of Cyrillic beads rolled away, crackling underfoot. I said, “That’s cruel,” and nothing else. I wouldn’t even have said that had he not known that I was naked in front of him. But he’d heard my monologue for many years, and he hit right on the mark. I was retching like a pregnant woman, throwing up an endless flood of words, ugly, dwarfish, and preterm. But these dwarfish and unnecessary words, conceived in baseness, demanded their place in the sun. And when nothing but bile remained, a quiet and vibrating pain arose within me, flapping like an empty window frame in the wind. It merged with other sounds in the world. It is said that pain is protective, otherwise we would die from a simple burn, but that’s not right. Pain leads to slow death, and there’s no antidote for it. Or it turns up too late.

When Daniel showed me the room where I would be spending two months, he said: “I love this room; by the way, this is where Sylvia Plath stayed.” A kind of ambivalent feeling came over me—the room was truly wonderful, but everyone knows what happened to Plath; I’m not superstitious and, even more to the point, her self-destructive tendencies were already apparent when she was a young woman, so it isn’t obvious what role Hughes’ leaving her alone, face to face with death, even played. Still, it would have been better if Daniel hadn’t mentioned this. Standing by the window, I’d start to think: “Did you stand here just like me, half concealed by the blind? Did the streetlight’s beam shine on your face? Did some casual passerby, attracted by the light, turn this way to see the figure in the window? Looking through the panes, what did you see? The trees of the desolate winter forest from which some otherworldly silence emanates, or did your eye alone perceive something shooting through the scattered fragments? Did a deer run across the field and suddenly freeze, its dainty leg raised? As you walked by the lake did you shiver at the sound of a twig broken by a squirrel? Alone or with him. Questions and questions, but not a single answer. I kept up my mental dialogue with Sylvia, trying involuntarily to sense our shared blood, as often happens with people who share an occupation. I would lie down on the sofa and imagine another woman stretched out there, perhaps paralyzed by terror. The liminal poetic state, just before a verse comes to you, is like a feeling of despair, which takes away your will. And your will returns each time you get a salvific line down on paper. Even if it isn’t perfect. But it has to be that way. If even once, before you begin, you weaken then you might not find your way back. I think about how Sylvia walked around the room in search of lost meaning. Was the same arabesque on the chair’s upholstery then? The same old-fashioned desk with hidden drawers for writing tools. A few old ink blots. Did she rip up the pieces of paper she wrote on? Or did the poems come one after another, the words simply laying themselves out in the right order. Did she take up a knife to peel an orange, nervously swallowing the sections with their tender membranes, not wasting the energy to separate them from the fruit; did she lean up against the wall of the house, a tree trunk, panting from a sudden desire, waiting until the wave passed?

“Who can tell me what desire means?” Whiskey shaking in my glass. Rational action, which my lover brought to a level of automatic perfection somewhere in a provincial hotel room, effectively hidden from the world. To prevent the world, in the person of some accidental acquaintance, from screaming out: “Look, she exists!” When the metal belt buckle opens and you know what will happen down to the final chord, but you still continue like Breughel’s blind man. Into the pit of all-encompassing indifference. And not for a little while, but for years. No, it was not I who didn’t know how to live. Life itself was mendacious. With its splinter, dug out of my foot with a blazing needle prepared in advance. “Why bother to dig out a splinter when there’s a hole in your chest the size of the entire world?” Made by someone whose best years had already passed. Glass beads in exchange for precious stones. Tinfoil rain watering heads driven crazy by cheap happiness. Sometimes a person in ties and pins turns back into the poor sap his mother once brought into the world. Into a state of spiritual poverty worse than that of the bums by the station fence. Into mediocrity.

Maybe I’m totally mistaken, Sylvia; perhaps these are just my personal thoughts and you were as happy here as you ever were with your Ted. And there was no emptiness, no terror, no half lies, no narcotic dependence on a man who, in the end, would betray you. Trade you for glass beads, perhaps, he would have dared. But both then and now, beyond this door, I hope that you knew desire mixed with mutual love, the reality of that jeweler’s mark saved only for the chosen. “I don’t know anything about you.” I’m just trying to paint the room in bold strokes, slapping down some of my own paints on canvas. “What do you say, Daniel?” Daniel remains silent. He doesn’t know either.

It’s almost Christmas. The village is lit up. The silvery figures of reindeer that have galloped in all the way from Lapland are blinking in the yards. The streets are quiet, and the store windows are laden with more things than anyone could use in an entire lifetime. The most trivial thing, a rag, will outlive its owner by centuries. I love American Christmas—it’s mysterious and melancholy. Every real holiday contains some sadness. Daniel in his flat cap, the kind that the party secretaries in the USSR used to wear, has left long ago. I also begin slowly to pack my things, as my flight to Moscow leaves in a few days. They’re waiting for me at home. Running ahead—it will be my last New Year’s with my family. It will remain in my memory separated from all the previous ones. The last.

I’ve written a certain amount. With luck, some lines will remain. About something very important. About the sun. I always wanted to say that nothing is more perfect than the sun. Maybe the sea? But what would the sea be without the sun? And a conversation never works out quite the way you expect it to. Which means it makes no sense to wait for a perfect poem. The spaceship in which you get as close as possible to the stars—some well-connected words. And the search for them is what life is about.

On the twenty-eighth in the morning I go to the kitchen to pick up my sack lunch. There are two sandwiches, a bottle of water, and two apples. On the lid of the Thermos from yesterday’s meal you can still see a tag with my initials. A taxi picks me up along with a random fellow traveler. En route the driver asks: “Where are you from? I can hear you have an accent.” I don’t want to tell an overlong story so I make a noncommittal gesture with my hand. He understands and laughs. Coldly. We stand waiting for the train to New York. With horror I think that I’m going to have to listen to the chatter of my fellow passenger for the whole four-hour trip. But fortunately the train cars are packed and we get separated. I happily nod to her from my seat. The train shudders and slowly begins to move. The landscapes out the window change, station after station. And Sylvia Plath remains standing behind me.


Cover of TLR's "Women's Studies" issueAnzhelina Polonskaya has been a member of the Moscow Union of Writers and the Russian PEN-centre. She has published translations in World Literature Today, Descant, Modern Poetry in Translation, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, New England Review, and The Kenyon Review, among many others. In 2013, Paul Klee’s Boat, a bilingual edition of her latest poems, was shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award and for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Polonskaya continues to live and work in Malakhovka as a poetry editor for Russian Switzerland magazine.

Andrew Wachtel is president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Previously he was dean of the graduate school and director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, his interests range from Russian literature and culture to East European and Balkan culture, history and politics to contemporary Central Asia. His most recent published books are The Balkans in World History, Russian Literature (with Ilya Vinitsky), and Remaining Relevant After Communism: The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe. He has translated poetry and prose from Russian, Bosnian/Croatian/ Serbian, Bulgarian, and Slovenian. Currently he is working on a project relating to cultural nationalism in Central Asia, particularly Kyrgyzstan.
“Sylvia Plath’s Room” originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015).