Homage

The Bell JarWhen I finally picked up The Bell Jar, I’d had my tattoo for exactly six months and three days. Initially, I was so proud of everything about it. People would see my tattoo, and I’d beam at their compliments.

“Wow, that’s so pretty!”

“The handwriting is beautiful!”

“It suits you so well!”

Then, at some point, someone who saw it exclaimed, “Oh, I love Sylvia Plath! What’s your favorite poem?”

I was delighted and impressed that someone had recognized the source of my quote on-sight. But, after a moment’s hesitation, I realized I had no answer for her question. I’d actually never read anything by Sylvia Plath beyond the eleven words on my back, which I’d seen God-knows-where several years beforehand.

What kind of sham of a writer gets the words of another author tattooed on her, and doesn’t even bother to read any of their work? It was an honor to adorn my body with her quote, but it was such a slight to not have any interest in pursuing her writing further. It was as if I was purporting myself to be a huge fan of someone I knew nothing about. In the ensuing months I felt sheepish every time someone saw my tattoo and remarked that they, too, enjoyed Plath’s poetry or book. I resolved to read as much of her work as I could find, or at the very least find a favorite poem, so that I could truly feel like I’d done more than steal a few of her cheapest words.

Thus began my slight obsession with Sylvia Plath–ironically, after I’d already made her a part of me. I took to the internet and read about her childhood, her husband, her children, her depression, and ultimately her suicide. That last one, I admit, intrigued me the most. It was kind of haunting to me; this woman, who so carefully and decisively dismissed herself from this earth, was on me now. When I discovered she published a book the same year she died, I knew I had to read it. It seemed to me to be, in a very morbid sense, like her literary death rattle. I’ve come to crave writing that can leave my psyche feeling violated, that can really break me, and I wondered if her book would have a similar effect. Or, alternatively, what if I ended up not liking it? What if I can’t even get through it? How disappointing would it be to have to admit that, though I have her words splayed across my shoulder, I don’t even consider myself an admirer of her life’s work? I bought the book, but let it sit on my bookshelf for months, trying to decide when would be the right time to read it.

So when I finally picked up The Bell Jar tonight, it felt very important. Nothing really spurred me to do so; I’d just finished a different novel, I looked over at the small stack of recreational reading I allowed myself to bring to school with me, and I decided now was the time. I examined the cover art, read all the jacket copy, locked eyes with the tiny thumbnail of her face on the back cover. I pictured that face with her cheek lying on the metal grate inside an oven breathing gas, mere months after the first person held a copy of this very same book. It felt very intimate, as if she were someone I knew.

I thought about her serene quote, etched neatly in my own handwriting along my shoulder blade. Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.

I opened the book, ready to be broken, and I read.

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