Wintering, by Kate Moses

Ruth Padel finds a drowsy numbness in a novel of Sylvia and Ted

Saturday 15 February 2003 01:00
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Like the secret of the pyramids and Kennedy's assassination, the Ted and Sylvia show draws people into obsession and never lets go. If there are readers out there still burning with desire for another re-run of Plath's last days, and the sad private end to a partnership between two of the best poets of the last century, this book is for you.

Wintering is a novel in 41 chapters, called after the poems that would have appeared in Sylvia Plath's collection Ariel, if it had been published as she ordered it in December 1962. Kate Moses has re-arranged these poem titles – and her chapters – according to that order, beginning with the word "love" and ending with "spring". It is a "mythic narrative of defiant survival".

In fact, when Ted Hughes edited Ariel after Plath's death in February 1963, he cut some poems, added others Plath wrote in the six weeks after binding up the file; and re-ordered things. The impulse behind the novel, to restore Plath's order, is to show how optimistic Plath was feeling before she killed herself.

The novel's chronology jumps around in a disorderly kaleidoscope between April and December 1962, trying to identify moments that engendered each poem. Only someone steeped in the Plath narrative will know what's happening and only someone obsessed with it will care, because the novel is so moonily over-written. As Plath gets dressed, her heart is fluttering "like a bird caught at a window, yearning at a freedom it could see beyond the glass". Plath is upset, because "she and Ted" were "something inextinguishable – blood and more, not so simple as love – through the children, through the intuitive alchemical blending of their imagination, of their lives. It's what has burned her down, burned through her, alembic to her heart".

I am not sure what "alembic to her heart" means, and I don't think Moses is either. If you are fictionalising the thoughts and words of two original, exacting poets, you had better be sure what your words mean, and frisk each one for its precision. Otherwise your subject will show up your prose.

Moses cannot let Plath do a thing without throwing at least one facile poeticism at every cadence. You long for a noun without an adjective, for sentences without any adjectives. As Plath saddles Ariel, the horse whose name she gave to the collection, we have "the frozen breath of horses, smoking in the cold violet dark of a nearly deserted stable, a spray of fading stars, an argentine flake of moon melt in rectangles of glassy black on the icy cobbles of the open yard".

Give me a break, you want to shout. Just tighten the girth. Then there is dialogue and credibility, Ted Hughes's careful, vivid language versus this kind of scene: "I was obsessed by pike as a boy; they truly had me in thrall. I fished for them every day," says Ted, turning to lift the kettle off the stove. "I wrote a poem about them once."

He is addressing Assia Gutman, during the weekend in May 1962 she spent with the Hugheses which sparked an affair, split the couple and led to Sylvia's suicide. These words supposedly mark the moment at which Hughes is hooked on Assia and everyone's fate is sealed. If he had really talked like this, the whole thing might never have happened. But then some of Plath's most famous poems, which of course rise far above this sad parasitic fluff, might never have got made.

Ruth Padel's latest poetry collection 'Voodoo Shop' is published by Chatto.

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