When the cold water soaks through my hair to ice my scalp I think this is your punishment. I neglected to pay my gas bill last month, for no reason beyond carelessness. I thought I’d set it to auto-pay like I had the rest of my bills. Now that I’ve put everything I can on a subscription service—tampons, razor blades, toothbrush head refills—I feel indignant when anyone expects me to remember to pay for something by a specific date. The maintenance guy from my apartment complex looked slightly sheepish, slightly amused when he explained why my hot water was off. There are books strewn all over my floor, some piled atop the long cardboard boxes containing Ikea bookshelves I have yet to assemble. I get it. I’m a mess. And when I tell this story to my friends I’ll make a joke of it, but as I lower my head into the cold stream I ask myself, as I so often have, why are you unable to function in the world?
Incompetent. It’s what my ex called me, shouting through the morning’s peace on a Charleston beach when he didn’t like how I was walking the dog. Swimming away from him, salt water stinging my tear-raw cheeks, I knew I had to do it, finally—leave the solid comforts of the life he’d built around me for the vast unknown which beckoned, beautifully, as the mist cleared and the sun began to reassert itself. All summer I’d be caught between the sad task of nursing a doomed long term relationship into periods of stability and falling in love with a friend who made me feel like I was in college again. I’d been going out dancing every weekend, taking pickleback shots and writing like I hadn’t since senior year, when I felt fancy drinking bottles of Barefoot Moscato, when the dresser I’d put together incorrectly was falling apart and my clothes were strewn across the floor, when I was sleeping with athletes and fretting over nerdy boys who didn’t want to commit and starting fights about feminism at bars with my poet friends with whom I’d roll into class the next morning sporting neon wristbands and last night’s eye makeup. That year, the poems just flowed. Something about the messiness of life, the highs and lows, the devastation giving way to excitement giving way to floods of drunken tears—
I don’t mean to romanticize it. I’ve been working in the Plath archives at Emory, and the letters from the months before her death, when she was caring for her children by day and writing Ariel by night, read as a warning. As Patric Dickinson wrote in a letter to Harriet Rosenstein about his friendship with Plath, “you can’t go without sleep.” You can’t forget to pay your bills, to take out your trash, to stop at CVS for toilet paper, to fill your gas tank. But for me, like many creative spirits, those mundane tasks take on a crushing weight. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, graduating from college terrified me. While I welcomed the bright horizon of starting an MFA program in a new city, I struggled to imagine myself living like a real adult. Doing my taxes, changing my license, paying for car insurance, and making dental appointments all felt like remote possibilities I would never be mature enough to master. I entered a relationship I knew I shouldn’t, with a guy who worked in finance and knew how to fix things. He didn’t read, his friends used racial slurs as jokes, and he told me he wanted a woman to have dinner waiting for him when he got home, but I stubbornly ignored these signs in my quest for stability. Over the next seven years, I floated numbly through adult decisions I couldn’t muster real excitement for, feeling like a supporting character in my own life. I sat beside him struggling to focus at the realtor’s office as he deliberated over mortgage options. I scrolled through my phone in Target as he calculated the most cost-effective choice of paper towels. I cooked beautiful dinners and cried when he’d complain about the mess they left. I wrote poems, but they never came easily. My mind was cluttered with too many rules and lists. I channeled my frustrated creativity into tasks like gardening and making jam with muscadines from the farmers market, but these quickly turned compulsive, feeling more like chores than leisure as I clung to my vision of domestic happiness.
And then one day I left. Freed from the monotonous routine of my former life, I felt my thoughts becoming poetic again. Chaotic, unwieldly, but charged with an insatiable energy. A poem can’t be overdetermined, we know, but neither can a poet. The unstable period that followed coincided with the feminist poetry section of the “Poetry and Politics” course I was teaching. Talking through “Daddy” with an eager roomful of students in my state of sleepless delirium, I was my most animated teacher-self, feeling so intensely the poem’s urgency. Seven years, if you want to know. I thought about Plath up writing Ariel all night, wild with the sting of betrayal, intoxicated by the righteousness of her anger. In the archives, what chills me most is her handwriting, the bubbly script of an ambitious, happy girl. I’m her age now and she isn’t the ethereal madwoman I once took her for. Like so many women poets, I find myself constantly orbiting a fearful desire for and resistance of identification with her. Can you write Ariel and survive? I locked my keys in my car last Friday. It’s happened so many times I immediately felt the nauseous pit swell in my gut—the door’s cheerful beep unaccompanied by the reassuring clank of metal between my fingers. Chaos is hardly glamorous, most days. Having grown up with two artist parents, some part of me has always craved the order of a freshly-made bed, a planned week of dinners, a sorted cabinet. But the unruliness inside me pulling towards disorder is, I have to accept, what lets me write. I don’t have the answers. Even as I’ve acquired some basic life skills, I’ll always be absentminded, always get myself into fixes. I have a partner and friends and family willing to help me out of every mess, and all I can offer in return is the promise of some dedicated poems, maybe. I know I can’t survive forever on charm and art alone, but, equally, I can’t survive without writing, and I can’t write when my inner voice is drowned out by tedious litanies. And every time I fail in some extravagant way, it brings me back to the page; if nothing else, I know I’d better produce something powerful enough to justify my shortcomings.