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"Self-preservation is a full-time occupation I’m determined to survive on these shores I don’t avert my eyes anymore in a man’s world I am a woman by birth." This quote, from Ani DiFranco’s song, "Talk to Me Now," expresses a feminist’s view on a woman’s determination to live her life in a world often dominated by males. The theme of the life cycle and its numerous manifestations is frequently found in feminist poetry. It seems that women writers are particularly intrigued by the subject of life and death perhaps because they are the sex which have the unique role of giving birth to the next generation. In the works of Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith, and Ani DiFranco, the symbols of blood and water are used to represent the various aspects of the life cycle. Plath’s poem "Cut", Smith’s poem "The Boat", and DiFranco’s song "Blood in the Boardroom" all make references to blood. Although, the meaning of blood in these poems varies from suicide, in Plath’s poem, to menstruation, in DiFranco’s song, to death, in Smith’s poem, the subject of blood remains as the central symbol in all of these works. Water, as well, is a symbol illustrated by each of these artists. In Plath’s "Full Fathom Five", Smith’s "Not Waving but Drowning", and DiFranco’s "Circle of Light", water symbolizes such divergent topics as death in Plath’s poem, life in DiFranco’s song, and fear in Smith’s poem. These three twentieth century feminist artists express their opinions through their works, as the topics of their poetry overflow with similar, yet symbolically different, references to blood and water.
Blood can symbolize death, but also life. One can die from the lose of too much blood, conversely, our life is created on the basis of blood as our main bodily component. The poem "Cut" by Sylvia Plath employs blood as the symbol of a woman’s power over her life to create death in suicide through the lose of too much blood. Just days before writing this poem, Plath had accidentally cut herself while cooking, all but slicing off the whole fatty tip of her thumb (Alexander 301). This kitchen accident acts as a Freudian slip of the knife that opens up a whole world of unconscious motives in a woman’s imagination, and leads to an outpouring of Plath’s feelings of castration as a women (Bundtzen 141). Plath employs images and metaphors in a speedy format, which tumble forward as her imagination struggles to name the shifts in feeling that she endures (248).
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The extraordinary transformation of the thumb from oppressor to victimized comrade in retreat form the world can be explained in terms of the archetypal oppressor-figure, which dominates Plath’s imagination (Young 386). The blood of an injured finger takes on the characteristics and properties not usually associated with an injured thumb. This blood symbolizes a masochistic "thrill" of playing with death and suicide. To Plath, control over mortality proved a vital link in the chain of life. The enticement characterizing the ability to commit suicide served as enough of a thrill at times to keep her alive. "Cut" enacts the various forms of mutilation and death, and Plath’s desire to control these feared eventualities (Rosenblatt 30). This urgent control is revealed in Plath’s life as well as her poems, as she attempts suicide twice, on the third time, at thirty, succeeding.
Psychologically, Plath obsesses in her poem about the separation of the ego and the body (Rosenblatt 150). If she abandons her body to free herself, she fears plunging toward her death; but if she props up her ego in its battle with her body, she feels destined to remain in a state of living death. In divorcing herself from her body she addresses her own thumb in hysterical shock (151). Three steps structurally unite "Cut": incision, the flow of blood, and the dressing and bandaging of the wound. The three steps contour the poem through particular lines and images (Young 385). The blood that she sees comes "straight from the heart"; thus, her accident is described as a "celebration". Therefore the "bottle/ Of pink fizz" has a double meaning, simultaneously mercurochrome and champagne (385). The succession of cultural references that follow in the poem call forth notions of constant violence and persecution, just as the escaping blood calls forth notions of a violent side within Plath that begs to be let out.
As Plath’s poem, "Cut" symbolizes a woman’s plea for death, "The Boat", by Stevie Smith, symbolizes a lover’s plea for union in death. Through a blend of the
ceremonious and grotesque, this passion-filled poem reveals Smith’s capacity for intense devotion (Rankin 28). In this poem a dead lover’s spirit returns to ask a women to join her lover in death. While the boat in which he rides symbolizes the death that took him away, blood symbolizes the love that has been lost in his absence. The love has been "wounded" by a death and therefore it "bleeds". The attachment of the two lovers exists at the heart of the poem (29). The only way to slow the blood and heal the wound of a love lost is for the main character to kill herself and join her lover in death. Irony fills the solution of this poem because by committing suicide, she is disassociating herself from everything that life has to offer. A much larger wound is therefore created in most people’s eyes. However, the speaker concludes that she gains more by losing a life on earth and gaining union with her lover in life after death.
"The Boat" seems a meditation on death’s inevitability and allure (Barbera 125). The dead lover utters the unexpected, and once he has expressed his emotions his lover never forgets his wishes (Kosek 293). The lover explains death as a "sleep" which he does not want to experience without his lover. The second stanza conveys the difference between life on earth and death as it exists when one is buried. The speaker claims the "flower, fruit, ant, fieldmouse, and mole" as "his". The similarity between these five objects is that they are all associated with the earth as their habitat. The flower and fruit find their roots buried beneath the soil and the ant, fieldmouse, and mole create homes within the earth. However, the last part of the second stanza "But now a tiger prowls without/ And claws upon my soul" conveys that like the tiger who lives on the earth as opposed to inside of it, he, the speaker, contains a lively spirit and wishes that his love
come share death with him. The blood that bleeds stems from the dead lover’s longing for his love. He is wounded although he has died due to the dejection he suffers because of his solitude. The speaker, in the end, chooses to board the boat and commit suicide in order to join her love in death. A cheerful rhythm and rhyme disguise the true meaning of this poem. However, contemplation bordering on dejection fills the tone of the poem. Similarly, the speaker refers to death as a positive boat ride to join her lost love, furthering the irony.
The contemporary singer/songwriter, Ani DiFranco, also uses blood as a symbol of the life cycle. Blood is the focus of the song, "Blood in the Boardroom". In this song blood symbolizes a women’s thoughts on menstruation. Blood becomes women’s instrument to renew life. In discussing the hassle of a "period" and discomfort associated with it, DiFranco, with an air of pride, pronounces that "It ain’t no hassle, it ain’t no mess . . . right not it’s the only power that I possess." In this song, blood symbolizes a women’s power and innate ability to give birth and experience the beauty of motherhood. In DiFranco’s song, blood symbolizes life, not death or suicide. Although, men may command the power in the "boardroom" of a business, they do not possess the ability or power to give life to another human being. The blood that must be shed every twenty-eight days should remind women of their power, not the hassle many women associate with it. According to DiFranco, women should celebrate their life-giving ability every month, not complain about it.
Water is a second, and equally important, symbol in feminist literature. This central focus is evident in Plath’s "Full Fathom Five". In the last line of "Full Fathom
Five", the speaker asks for passage into the water, which the rest of the poem represents as an object of danger and fear (Rose 130). This poem can be viewed as a pure death wish, in which Plath tends and hurtles toward an inexorable death (131). The poem expresses a danger, but does not reveal what is to be feared. The danger seems to reside as much in the process of giving something indefinable a shape as in the confrontation between identities and elements – between father and daughter, water and air. The danger appears as the passage from obscurity to light (131). In DiFranco’s song, "Hour Follows Hour", she sings, "Hour follows hour like water follows water/Everything is governed by the rule of one thing/leads to another." As the hours follow each other in the process of time, water possesses conforming principles of shape. When water forms and loses its obscurity, the real danger is unveiled. The poem suggests that to "fathom", to give shape to the shapeless, exudes violence. The speaker does not finally give into danger because the danger awaits both inside and outside of her, in water and in air, as well as in activity (133).
"Full Fathom Five" indicates Plath’s growing realization that her father’s ghost will not stay buried (Butscher 236). Death embodies both the enemy of everything that she loves and the ultimate escape from the life of pain. In this poem Plath’s father acts as the explicit subject. Therefore, the family provides Plath with her most ambiguous example of death’s power to undo the entire web of loving relations within the world (Rosenblatt 66). Her father becomes the central conflict; does he live under the sea or not live anymore? (67). In previous poems such as "The Colossus" and "Daddy" Plath shows contempt for her abandoning father. However, "Full Fathom Five" shows her
father’s image as untarnished, and the short consecutive syllables easily cover the abyss that separates father from daughter. The poem symbolizes a fantasy of rebirth in which the waters act as a holding ground for her father (69).
Water also plays an important role in Stevie Smith’s poem, "Not Waving but Drowning" in which a drowned man speaks to a living acquaintance. This poem suggests that although the dead and the living cannot communicate, the living do not do a much better job communicating with one another. No one wants her action misunderstood or her life misinterpreted; however, this misunderstanding is inevitable. In addition, danger lurks when one acts differently or takes risks. Smith suggests through this poem that we are dying all our lives; living seems a kind of suicide (Sternlight 64).
Black humor fills the lines of Smith’s poem. Ironically, the one occasion that the man’s contemporaries on the beach recognize the speaker’s desperation is when they think he is waving, but he is actually in need of help. The viewer’s initial reaction of a greeting from the man only confirms their view that he is an innately merry man. Smith once said, "I think it is true to life, many people do not feel at all at home in the world, so they joke a lot and laugh and people think they are alright and jolly nice too, but sometimes the brave pretence breaks down and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost." (Barbera 187).
The water in this poem acts as the pretence that masks the man’s true feelings. Out in the ocean he appears to wave to the shore, enjoying himself in the water, however, he is really drowning. Just as the water covers his death, it also causes it. Interestingly, the newspaper account upon which Smith based this poem was actually about a man who was not drowning but waving ( Pollitt 24).
"Not Waving but Drowning" sums up two dominant Smith themes; the lack of love and the lack of genuine companionship (Kosek 320). The drowning man complains against the friendless, loveless life he endured, and loveless, friendless death that befell him. Even death disappoints. In this poem, the dangerous waters tempt more than they forbid. Smith loved life, but she loved death almost more, and spent most of her life in an intricate dance with it ( 337). The poem shows a deliberate movement toward death by water – individual dissolution – arrested by incorrect interpretation of cries from the shore, reasserting relationship (354).
In Ani DiFranco’s song, "Circle of Light", water does not harbor death as in "Not Waving, but Drowning", nor does it represent death as in "Full Fathom Five"; instead it represents DiFranco’s chosen path in life. DiFranco chooses to "ride" the tides. She chooses to live life, and see where it takes her. Like water flowing in a river she will follow the twists and turns that life will throw her way. DiFranco states that she doesn’t "Have a grand plan/ for you and me" she continues "Nothing is impossible, nothing is unlikely." As she "rides the tides" she believes that they will "take her out" before they "bring her back to shore." While she lives life the way that it was planned for her to live it, she believes optimistically that she will be taken for a joyous ride on the waves of life thus, the tides represent her fate.
In the song "Work Your Way Out", DiFranco employs another symbol for water, that of the basis of life in the human cycle. She sings, "We’re all citizens of the womb/ Before we subdivide/ into sexes and shades." The womb is the home of the growing baby for nine months. Filled with amniotic fluid, the womb is where we all entered our
journey in life, regardless of our gender, race, or class. This amniotic fluid that "housed" us and that we are "citizens" of is primarily composed of water. We all come from water, the same substance, so why are some people intolerant of others?
As water is our primary home, as stated in "Work Your Way Out", we must follow the path of life as we ride the tides, according to "Circle of Light". The concept of Zen follows a similar theory as is conveyed in "Circle of Light". Zen follows the idea that we should be like water in our path of life. Flow like water, and don’t become aggravated by the miniscule things in life. Like water in a river flows around and over the rocks without care, we should not dwell on hardships that would otherwise become obstacles to our progress through life.
Blood and water are prominent themes in feminist poetry, which stems from woman’s fascination with the life cycle due to their key role in it. The symbols of blood and water in each of the poems and songs referred to is partially related to either life and/or death, the two pinnacle points in the cycle of life. In Plath’s "Cut", the blood oozing from an injured finger becomes the symbol for the control over death, suicide. Smith’s poem "The Boat" institutes a relationship between blood and the passage to death and longing for a loved one. Blood symbolizes the ability to create life that is solely a gift to women, in DiFranco’s poem, "Blood in the Boardroom". Water relates to death and the complexities surrounding it in Plath’s poem, "Full Fathom Five". Water as a façade for the truth in life and also death is central to Smith’s poem, "Not Waving but Drowning". In DiFranco’s song, "Circle of Light", water is the speaker’s chosen path in life, whatever it may be. DiFranco’s song "If He Tries Anything" presents the attitude
that many feminist artists portray, one of a pleasant conformist outer shell, but a risk taker underneath. Plath and Smith embodied this attitude in the way they wrote and lived their lives… "It’s a long long road It’s a big big world We are wise wise women We are giggling girls We both carry a smile To show when we’re pleased We both carry a switchblade in our sleeves…".
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Barbera, Jack, and William McBrien. Stevie : A Biography of Stevie Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987,186.
Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 141, 247-249.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: The Seabury Press, 1976. 236.
Kosek, Jane. Poetry Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1990. 291-354.
Pollitt, Katha. "Not Drowning but Waving." New York Times Book Review (1987): 24.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. 130-133.
Rosenblatt, Jon. Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979. 30, 66-69, 150.
Sternlight, Sanford. Stevie Smith. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. 55, 63-67.
Young, Robyn V. Poetry Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1980. 378-389.