James Joyce claimed that absence is the highest form of presence. When you encounter an empty space in the Sylvia Plath archives, the temptation is to fill it with speculation. But sometimes an absence can force a different perspective, as though a loss of some sort needs to be filled. It is hard to leave a visible vacancy alone.
Sylvia Plath’s 1962 Letts Calendar held at the Smith College archives has two missing pages, and the absence of these pages fascinates me. The first covers the dates 9-15 September, when Plath and Hughes engaged in a disastrous trip to Cleggan in Connemara, Ireland. The second missing page covers 7-13 October when Ted Hughes returned to Court Green after the breakdown of their marriage to finally pack his possessions and leave for good. The pages of this calendar are held together by a sort of black, spiral spring-binding at the top of each page. Given this document is fifty-six years old, it is in remarkably pristine condition. There is no evidence whatsoever that two pages have been removed. No lingering trace of torn out paper in the spiral. It is simply as though they never existed at all.
We do not know who removed the pages, or why. What we do know is that the pages were used at some point. When I worked with this document, I was able to see vague imprints of the missing pages on each surface underneath. In particular the week of 7-13 October had at some stage quite violent strike-throughs of whatever was originally written on that page. It was not possible to decipher what it was. The pages either side of that date show standard domestic and business matters – baking shortbread, neighbours to afternoon tea, riding lessons on Ariel, learning German for beginners.
What happened during the missing week? Intertextual reading shows Hughes spent almost the entire week at Court Green; ‘Ted is in love, humming, packing, leaving this week.’ While all of this was going on around her, Plath not only wrote letters to her mother, to Ruth Beuscher, to Warren and Margaret Plath, but corresponded with Howard Moss at The New Yorker about the publication of ‘Elm’, and within the same week sent out two batches of poems, one set of which was the bee sequence. Also during this week, she wrote ‘Wintering’, ‘A Secret’, ‘The Applicant’, and ‘Daddy’.
Hughes finally left on Thursday 11 October (the day Plath wrote ‘The Applicant’) and she rounds off the missing week in the calendar on the final, silent, absent day with the lines ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’ In one of the most tumultuous and creatively productive weeks of her life, I am fascinated by this missing page. What did it contain that it had to be removed? Who removed it, and why? What had been so violently scribbled out and erased?
I suppose we will never know the answer to these questions. Yet I come back to one poem Plath wrote that week, ‘Wintering’, a poem that never fails to move me. Those final three stanzas. The missing calendar page for Tuesday 9 October blasts us with its absence. I see Plath in her study, long elm-plank desk on her red rug. A view across to the church and the gravestones, to the yew tree, her flower beds, and her peach tree. She surely must have been listening to part of her life being packed up, ready to leave. She asks if her brother and his wife will take her on holiday in the spring, she needs something to look forward to. She does not know what will happen or how she will recover. And then she writes the words that, for me, fill that missing page:
Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.