“The pears fatten like little buddhas”: Inscribing Sylvia Plath onto Central Java

By Audrey McGlinchy

I opened my notebook on a return flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Chiang Mai, Thailand, my home for the past nine months. In the failing light of the budget airline’s overhead bulb I deciphered a sentence penned days earlier, nearly forgotten to me now: “Sylvia Plath was talking about Asia.” The bit seemed strange and unprompted; I closed my notebook, and fell asleep.

Among the books I brought with me to Southeast Asia is Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus and Other Poems.” My criterion was superficial: only the thinnest books should make it. And, as a direct result of trying to keep the weight of my checked baggage low, my Chiang Mai studio is poetry: Plath, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall.

I read “Manor Garden,” the first in Plath’s collection, before I left for Indonesia.

The fountains are dry and the roses over.

Incense of death. Your day approaches.

The pears fatten like little buddhas.

A blue mist is dragging the lake

On a first read it seemed nudgingly poignant, shouldering me like a winking pal:  “Hey, hey, that’s you. Don’t you see it?” There were lines that tolled – vibrations telling me to pay close attention. I underlined “buddhas” in pencil; “shadows” in pen.

Landing in Surabaya, Indonesia at midnight I was met by my friend Elisabeth and a driver she had hired. He was to drive us to Mount Bromo to watch the sun rise. We nearly missed it – our jeep couldn’t travel to the top of the volcano so we made a hasty decision to hop on motorcycle taxis. Ash-coated and racing the sun, we reached the summit. It is a place I attest to be the crust of the world, where the cliffs overlook not water but sky and sun and a sheer blurring of the two.

Our driver left us in Malang, sleepy, humbled and bewildered. We rested, shaking dirt from our clothes – me, shaking the sounds of Thailand from my canals. In doing so, I made room for new peals: the bumpy, roundedness of the Indonesian language; the multinumerous call to prayer.

Well-rested, we set out the next day to see the city of Malang. Our first stop was the Hotel Tugu Malang; Elisabeth’s guidebook had the hotel cross-listed under ‘places to stay’ and ‘things to see.’ The reason for the latter categorization became clear when we entered the hotel; it is home to a vast collection of art – Javanese and European – like a curatorial microcosm of Indonesia’s colonial history.

Room after room offered sculpture, temple facades, and rich paintings – so rich in color and stroke, and so endless in number. We were overwhelmed, and numbed soon by the vastness. Readying to leave, we came upon a strange arrowed sign that read, “Endless Love Avenue.” We entered a purple vari-hued hall – dark purple, light purple, colors verging on pink – and ventured forward, reenchanted. We turned right, into a venue wider and lighter than the tall, but narrow hall from which we had come.

The open-air space appeared multi-purpose: there was restaurant seating, a bar, a stage. Everything was coated in tiles of muted color: grey-ish purple, seafoam blue, and brown. Despite the multitude of color and purpose – I assumed that during the night, the space would be a hub of activity – the room did not have the sound of recent desertion: the charged silence of a morning-after that manifests as clanging dishware and a reeling hiss of gossip. The place seemed long-deserted: dry leaves littered the ground despite a green – and ever-greening, as rainy season neared – Malang outside. In that instant Plath rang out:

The fountains are dry and the roses over.

Incense of death. Your day approaches.

I pictured the walls as bones, each room a skeleton. Then – as if it were the most natural of associations – I thought about my own skeleton, my own mortality. I thought about the loneliness of this place, and my own feelings of isolation living in country where language, custom, food are strikingly unfamiliar.

Back in the hotel room, I thought of the seamless transition from location to self I had experienced, be it brief. I had used a new physical space as a mirror for personal reflection. Plath writes: 

You move through the era of fishes,

The smug centuries of the pig—

Here, she makes a dim nod towards an Eastern Zodiac, notions unfamiliar with the American and English soils she straddled. She continues:

You move through the era of fishes,

The smug centuries of the pig—

Head, toe and finger

Come clear of the shadow.

The addressee – “you” – makes a discovery. In his ‘movement’ through a history – “era of fishes,/The smug centuries of the pig” – his  body – “Head, toe and finger” – finds new definition and clarity; these parts “come clear.” Yet, the points through which his self-realization come to fruition are so void as to be meaningless; an “era” and a “centur[y]” are such vast counts of time that t is difficult to understand exactly what Plath refers to.

Elisabeth and I wandered farther, growing ever hesitant. Our crawl through the tiled hotel space felt voyeuristic; this was not our faded glamour to assess, to ponder, to capture in words. This was a place – it became increasingly apparent – we could never fully know. Plath writes:

You inherit white heather, a bee’s wing,

Two suicides, the family wolves,

Hours of blankness.

These ‘heirlooms’ – Plath uses the verb “inherit” – are odd, to say the least. The idea of inheritance denotes emotional currency, but what sentimental value can  “a bee’s wing” or  “[H]ours of blankness” possess? As I reread the poem on my return to Chiang Mai, I thought of souvenirs: a traveler’s heirlooms. In the same way that heirlooms may define a person’s history, souvenirs are meant to represent an experience. In my experience though, they often fall short. What does Plath hope to communicate by bequeathing such disparate objects; what do I hope to recall by purchasing a keychain from a hotel turned art museum?

In the Hotel Tugu Malang, three small figures sit atop a fountain: chubby – their fat stomachs rolled over onto their fat thighs – and playing instruments. They look like jolly, pregnant, buddhas. Really, it is this image that prompted the esoteric sentence I discovered later in-flight: “Sylvia Plath was talking about Asia.”

Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. A common reading of Plath’s “Manor Garden” is a mother’s address of her unborn child – an interpretation I find wholly evidenced. But valid too is this extrapolation: birth is not unlike self-discovery, for in reality birth is the purest instance of self-discovery.

Thereby, with Plath ringing in my ear, I reflect upon the act of traveling and self-realization: a new landscape as the catalyst for self-evaluation. It’s difficult to wonder if this process is contrived or true, how clear the “[H]ead, toe and finger” can really become when the place from which they are ‘birthed’ is an unfamiliar garden.

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