Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Like About You, Kathryn Starbuck: Reading "Sylvia En Route to Kythera"

Watteau's "L'Embarquement pour Cythère."

What I like about you, Kathryn Starbuck, is that you wrote "Sylvia En Route to Kythera," which I read in the June 2015 issue of Poetry when I took a break from poring over Timothy Yu's "Chinese Silence #92" and pawed through the rest of the issue.  I like, particularly, how it hesitates over those places where poems start, and makes a little drama out of how we proceed from there.  Some poems begin with an image that lodges itself in the poet's imagination (Charles Simic seems to work this way); others with a powerful emotion (Whitman often seems to begin with a surplus of love, then proceed by looking for something suitably expansive to which he can attach it); but your poem begins with a word, or, more particularly, with the sound of a word:

I never much liked
forsythia, never
liked yellow, but
liked the sounds:
for syth i a
for Kythera for sight
for sky for Sylvia.

When I read the opening lines, I admit I was expecting some kind of anti-Wordsworthian rejection of nature, a kind of "fuck you, daffodils!" gesture, but I prefer what you did instead: taking us into the syllables of the word "forsythia" and sounding them out to discover what those syllables suggest: sight, sky, the Greek isle of Kythera, the name Sylvia.  I particularly admire the way "for" does double or triple duty here: it echoes the sound at the beginning of "forsythia," it serves as a singing kind of anaphora, and it also suggests that you like the word "forsythia" for the things it suggests by virtue of its sounds.

What follows seems to me very much like a little game played with the pieces you came across when you broke up the word "forsythia," something akin to a little Joseph Cornell box made up of things found while wandering down the beach, except there was no beach, just a word. The arrangement you make in the next few lines takes the plant and the name Sylvia and begins to draw a kind of narrative from them, complete with incipient conflict, the sort of thing out of which a story might grow:

Forsythia made an
okay divider between
our place and hers.
Sylvia used to trod
through it to see us
too often so we let
all of it grow massive

and dense hoping
she’d go blind in

The speaker's hopes are a bit on the surreal side—no one goes blind from treading through a massive hedge, and as much as one may find an intrusive neighbor tedious, few if any of us would wish them to go literally blind.  But we're dealing with a recognizable kind of conflict between neighbors, transposed to a real where everything is a bit exaggerated.  This underlines that the real drama in the poem doesn't lie in watching the particulars of a conflict between neighbors, but in watching the imagination sketch figures and find paths out of its original moment of inspiration.

The imagination, of course, doesn't make its sketches on a blank slate: the poetic imagination works in words, and words inevitably come with connotations and associations, and in the final lines of the poem "Sylvia En Route to Kythera" nudges these to the foreground:

      ...then hop aboard
a bumblebee who’d
follow his lovely great
queen as she flew to her
dream isle of Kythera.

Proper names always resound with associations.  When I saw the title of the poem, I thought the Sylvia in question would be Sylvia Benton, one of those grande dames of genteel Georgian-era Oxbridge, an archeologist who conducted significant digs in the Minoan sites on Kythera.  But when we have a Sylvia in a poem associated with bees, we start to associate her with Sylvia Plath, and the association grows stronger when we consider that Plath, like the author of this poem was a female poet born in the 1930s and married to a popular poet (Ted Hughes and George Starbuck being the male poets in question).  This makes the sense of Sylvia as an intrusive neighbor particularly interesting—we can, if we like, accept the suggestion to see her as an influence or perhaps as an angry voice that "we" (and here I am playing with the idea of "we" as "George and Kathryn Starbuck") wish would go away, but can't seem to repress—the voice of woman's anger, of woman wronged, and so forth.  Sylvia is a presence that disturbs the suburban world of neighborliness, domesticity, and border-demarcating hedges.

But what about Kythera?  Kythera, also spelled Cythera, is a Greek island traditionally seen as sacred to Aphrodite, and has been used as a figure for the place of carefree, pastoral love in many works of art, most famously Watteau's "L'Embarquement pour Cythère."  For Sylvia to depart for such a place on a drone following a queen bee is for her to head to a place of carefree love, possibly a place conducted on matriarchal terms.  If we take the invitation to see the Sylvia of the poem as a Plath figure, we can see this as a wish that Plath would have the kind of peaceful and unpossessive love that she never found in her passionate, turbulent, troubled relationship with Ted Hughes.  And we can see that the way to stop the intrusive Plath from entering one's garden uninvited isn't to shut her out, but to create—to imagine—a different kind of love, one without betrayal or resentment.  But for that love to work for Sylvia, she'd first have to go blind to what is around her—an interesting complication, one that makes the pastoral love of Kythera more of a wish or aspiration than an unproblematic reality.  This complication can be seen as a critique of several things: of the desire for love to be unflawed when it is no such thing, for example; or of the artificial satisfactions of pastoral.

This is all offered at the level of suggestion, and can't really be seen as anything like a definitive reading of the poem.  Indeed, more than any kind of statement about love or pastoral or intrusiveness, the poem is a kind of dramatization of the imagination, how it finds potentialities in a word, in a set of sounds, and works out from those toward something larger.

So that's what I like about your poem, Kathryn Starbuck.  But at the same time, there's someone treading through the forsythia and into my reading of the poem—let's call that person The Voice of the Loyal Opposition, and he's saying "Doesn't there come a time when we have to get away from the places where poems start? Don't we want something definite, rather than suggestion?"  I can't silence him, but I can imagine him riding a drone bee out to an island where he'd find what he wants, and keep him there while I enjoy what you've written.


I've just had a chat with the Voice of the Loyal Opposition's living embodiment, and he has some pertinent information.  He notes that there's no way that George and Kathryn Starbuck could have been the literal neighbors of Sylvia Plath (among other things, they married in 1968, years after Plath's death).  But George "knew Plath well from Boston days and the Lowell workshop with Plath and Sexton."  Moreover, says the VOTLO, George "had a torrid affair with Sexton back during the workshop days, but none with Sylvia Plath," though "they were all drinking buddies after Lowell's workshop was over." The VOTLO also directed my attention to George Starbuck's "Catalogue Raisonné of My Refrigerator Door," with its references to both Boston suburbs and forsythia.  Curious indeed!


  1. Forsythia isn't a flower bed. It's a blooming hedge used for borders. Sometime they're pruned and shaped like other hedges. This one isn't.