Unboxed Secrets: The Plath Cabinet by Catherine Bowman

The Plath Cabinet

The Plath Cabinet
BY Catherine Bowman
(Four Way Books, 2009)

The prologue for Catherine Bowman’s The Plath Cabinet may just as well be an epitaph. It is the quote, “This is a case without a body,” written by Sylvia Plath in “The Detective.” All we have of this literary icon is her words and her legacy. For many, Plath’s work is enigmatic and esoteric. For others, the poet’s work is so much more; it is an inspiration, a cause for dissection, and — for Bowman — an exercise in expository form and content.

While we may never truly know the inner workings and personal demons of Plath, Bowman has personified the remains of what was, and offers an exhibition of visual imagery. Much like the contents of an emptied purse, this collection offers us lists, talismans, to-dos and memories spilled with abandon. While offering snapshots of the poet, Bowman draws us in to private living quarters, housed in the poem “Sylvia’s Bed” (p. 6). Here we learn this inner world is “Bigger than a moon christened / and made new, ready for five heavens, add / or subtract a few.” As the outsider looking in, the reader hangs on Bowman’s interpretation of a world where poems were created, made, born amidst “dragons and every other ilk / of instrument to invent in the tongue’s bed.”

Predominant in this collection is the focus on Plath’s little known skill as a visual artist. Revealed in detail only recently, thanks to Eye Rhymes published by Oxford University Press, Plath’s collection of personal drawings, scrapbooks, doodles, and paper dolls has brought to light a twist in understanding the poet’s artistry. Fittingly, the cover for The Plath Cabinet features exquisitely drawn paper doll ensembles fit for framing. Within the covers, Bowman examines the role of paper dolls in nine poems.

In the poem “Paper Dolls: Toy Theatre,” Bowman empties the contents of a tight-lipped secret:

Other things on paper: death certificates, gum wrappers, lunacy papers,
razor-blade wrappers, receipts, folk recipes, telephone cards, perfume
cards, clippings. Kept in a toy trunk, little costumes with transportable
bodies for a toy theater.

— p. 12

What Bowman suggests, then, is that perhaps such trivialities of life are mere costume, covering a reality too fragile to reveal. We all have such trinkets; we possess items and horde clutter. Are these things then, as Bowman suggests, real to us, to our identities? Or are they masks for what lay beneath, in secret?

…Bowman’s collection requires and inspires multiple readings for enhanced appreciation. These are not pieces easily digested; the poems require time, care, and attention in a close reading.

Throughout this collection, Bowman explores Plath’s relationships: with art, with herself, with Ted Hughes. The Plath/Hughes relationship is not so much examined, as it is exposed by Bowman’s speaker. In the poem, “Sylvia’s Sled” (p. 14), we are told how the two were “Not yet wild or old enough to whisper, // the marriage was not a happy one. / Two pilots with no navigational skills.” Later, Ted’s personality is painted wildly in the poem “Things to Eat, Paris 1953” (p. 61), in which it is said that “Ted believed / he was possessed by a ghost-wolf / that wanted to be a real wolf, a devourer.” This ferocious quality counters Sylvia “bit[ing] him until he bled / after several cocktails.” From this surfaces a question: who is the hunter and who is the hunted? The topic of marriage continues to be tackled with vigour, in many poems including the imaginative “Sylvia’s Second Marriage” (p. 18) and the prescriptive “Wedding Invitation I” (p. 20) and “Wedding Invitation II” (p. 33). Within these poems, Bowman confronts the restrictive institution of marriage and points to thieves of feminist freedom.

Admittedly, much of Bowman’s collection is impenetrable. There are times when Bowman’s relationship with Plath limits the possibilities for reader interpretation, in part due to the author’s extensive investigation into Plath’s life and work. Many readers will simply not have the same level of intimacy with Plath as Bowman does, and this can cause a higher sense of ambiguity when faced with dense imagery. Bowman’s work is enigmatic, to be sure, and to the non-devoted, much of Plath’s life remains out of reach despite the intimate portrayals Bowman shares. At times, it seems only true devotees of Plath’s life’s work could appreciate the astute references. Is The Plath Cabinet then, perhaps, only for a select few? Not necessarily.

We cannot know Plath. Not really. For readers even remotely interested in analyzing just a little more of an unattainable icon, works such as The Plath Cabinet persuade further investigation and consideration. As with reading Plath, reading Bowman’s collection requires and inspires multiple readings for enhanced appreciation. These are not pieces easily digested; the poems require time, care, and attention in a close reading. Readers wishing to understand Plath just a little bit more will do well to let Bowman lead the way to inspiration and invention.

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