Amanda’s Third Review

Amanda Rutstein
Poetry review #3

Stephanie Hemphill’s poetry volume, Your Own, Sylvia; a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath attempts to create a timeline of Sylvia Plath’s life through the voices of her family and friends using Plath’s unique sound. This is an incredibly ambitious project and could truly have transformed Plath’s biographical landscape, but it seems as though in an effort to complete the book quickly, Hemphill falls short. Because of my obvious and often stated obsession with Sylvia Plath this semester, I was incredibly excited to find this volume of poetry, I was slightly worried by the lack of quotes on the back cover, but still hoped that it was just under-recognized. Apparently the quotes or lack-there-of is a telling feature. However, the copyright is 2007, so I suppose there is still time for this book to gain a modicum of attention.
As stated, the 151 poems chronologically chronicle both the small snapshots and huge milestones of Plath’s life, and are all written from the viewpoint of a large variety of people living around Plath, from her mother to the paramedics who found her body. To complicate matters further, some, not all of the poems are written to mimic Plath’s poetic voice and other poems are given the same title as actual Plath poems. The poems themselves are relatively short and matter-a-fact. I think Hemphill fails because although impressive, her overall goal is impossible. She essentially loses her own voice to the voice of Plath and the imagined voices of the people she assigns each poem to, all this while trying to simplify and summarize a life. For example, in the poem where she relates the suicide entitled “Monday Morning; Myra Norris, nurse hired to care for Frieda and Nick February 11, 1963” she has Myra Norris say, “Inside the flat, we rush to turn off the gas,/ Mrs. Hughes’s head inside the oven/ like another awful fairy tale, the one/ where the witch dies inside the stove” (235). In a sense, having an actual account of the situation by the nurse who found Plath would be interesting, but having only an imagined reaction comes across as awkwardly irreverent.
In another poem Hemphill tries to embody Plath’s supposed manic depression mimicking the form of Plath’s poem “Aerialist” found in The Collected poems. This poem is called “Manic Depression: Imagining Sylvia Plath In the style of “Aerialist” December 1952” and the first stanza reads: “She balances night./ She floats on days./ She cannot see the shift–/ Her smile of light,/ Her frown of haze,/ She’s constantly adrift” (54). She is clearly working so hard to maintain the meter and rhyme scheme of Plath’s poem, that she loses the conceit and the lines come out sounding incredibly contrived and once again, rather irreverent. I characterize these poems as irreverent, because I believe by creating or conceiving of this project, it was Hemphill’s mission to honor Plath’s life as a poet (which is a noble goal) but by failing to create actual great poetry herself, she often sounds like she’s mocking Plath.
Overall, I am glad that I own this book because it has some interesting biographical footnotes at the end of each poem, as well as a nice collection of photos in the center, but the poetry is severely lacking. I commend Hemphill’s goal and effort because 151 poems is a ton of poetry, but the poems fail to convey anything new about Sylvia Plath’s short life, if anything they simply highlight the fact that Plath’s poetry is wholly unique to Plath.