As well as poetry and novel manuscripts, furniture, sketches, paintings, and domestic items, the archives at Smith College hold personal pieces from Sylvia Plath’s life that spring up from the cardboard folders unexpectedly. What is quite moving about these finds is often how small they are and how well they have been looked after. The petal of a rose is pressed and preserved in an envelope. A lipstick kiss is blotted on a piece of paper, not even smeared.

One of my favourite pieces, and timely for December, is a handmade Christmas gift tag that Plath made for Ted Hughes. Using her pet-name, Ponter, Plath provides ‘a riddle in three tries’ to the present wrapped inside. The residue of the tape she used to attach it to the gift is still visible, with a slightly brown and crumbly texture. The tag itself looks as though it has been cut from a larger sheet of wrapping paper featuring black and cream swirly scrolls. It has a fold down the middle that is starting to wear in the crease. I do not know which year Plath made this.

It is a playful piece and a fitting way to end a year’s look at archival pieces. Peter K. Steinberg and I opened our book These Ghostly Archives with the sentence, ‘Archives are magical places.’

And really, they are.

riddleriddle verso