Phoebe Farrell-Sherman

It is well known that much of Sylvia Plath’s work comes to us altered by her husband, Ted Hughes. Everything published after her death bears his heavy-handed revision and redaction, from her most famous book of poems, Ariel, to her journals. The extent of Hughes’ influence, however, stretches beyond his management of her literary estate to even the basic facts we’re willing to believe about his relationship with Plath.

In 2017, newly surfaced letters from Plath to her longtime psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, made headlines. Plath wrote that Hughes’ physical violence had caused her to miscarry, and that Hughes had told her he wished she was dead. The Guardian called the letters “shocking,” and added an addendum from Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes, that the “suggest[ion]” of abuse was “absurd . . . to anyone who knew Ted well.” Yet though the letters were new to the public, there were long-published existing accounts of Hughes’ abuse of Plath. 

Stockton University professor and Fulbright recipient Emily Van Duyne wrote as much in an op-ed for Literary Hub that went viral, “Why Are We So Unwilling to Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?Loving Sylvia Plath is Van Duyne’s longer answer to that question, a deeply researched analysis of how the popular myth of Plath’s life, one that depicts her as an unreliable narrator and subordinates her poetry to her depression and her suicide, was constructed by Hughes and maintained by critics from the time of her death in 1963 to the present. The book examines how evidence of Hughes’ emotional and physical abuse has been repeatedly minimized, erased and outright dismissed by critics and scholars alike. 

Van Duyne’s scope includes the cultural context in which Hughes’ narrative has thrived, bringing in philosophy of intimate partner violence, as well as reflecting on her own personal experiences with an abusive ex. A chapter is devoted to Assia Wevill, a translator of poet Yehuda Amichai and the woman Hughes left Plath for. Hughes didn’t just control Wevill’s story; he completely suppressed it after her death by suicide. Van Duyne also follows the writers who first endeavored to tell Plath’s story, particularly Harriet Rosenstein, who held onto Plath’s letters for almost half a century before trying to sell them in 2017. 

Loving Sylvia Plath concludes with a note of caution about distorting Plath’s memory in a different way through the temptation to “restore” her from Hughes’ interference. That warning’s well-taken—for all the scholarship about her, we can’t expect to know Plath. But we can know her work, which is extraordinary. And, where it remains unaltered, we can take her at her word.

Unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath may have shocked the world in 2017, but Loving Sylvia Plath shows we’ve long had all the evidence we needed to condemn her abuser, poet Ted Hughes.

Each of the poems in Victoria Chang’s latest collection responds to a painting with the same title by abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). If you aren’t familiar with Martin’s work, or typically feel unmoved by minimalist paintings, this conceit could seem like a barrier. But turn to the first poem in With My Back to the World and the magnetism of Chang’s language will convince you of the power of her project. “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world,” Chang writes, “The best thing about emptiness is if you close your / eyes in a field, you’ll open your eyes in a field.” Should you be suddenly filled with a desire to see that emptiness swarm on a canvas, you can find the titular painting online.

Many of the poems directly reference their painting’s shape, color and structure. Martin was known for painting grids, and Chang’s accompanying illustrations evoke this: scraps of poem arranged in a grid, or obscured by ink drawings. To organize a book of poems so tightly around a concept and a form isn’t new for Chang. In her 2020 National Book Award-longlisted Obit, written after the death of her mother, each poem took the form of an obituary. Chang’s father has since passed as well, and the middle section of With My Back to the World is a guttingly specific grief sequence.

As the collection unfolds, Chang lets us in on the intense relationship an artist can form with another through their work. Some poems deliberate on Martin’s dictates about solitude, while simultaneously longing for attention, connection and an audience. Other poems describe the risk of violence that comes with being visible for women, especially Asian women. “On a Clear Day, 1973” responds to the 2021 murder of eight people, six of them Asian American women, by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta.

Like Martin, Chang etches meaning into her chosen structure down to the smallest detail. Again and again, there’s the moment of recognition that readers come to poetry for: Here is a feeling you know well, but have never been able to witness outside of yourself. Isn’t it liberating to put these words to it? Don’t you feel less alone in your loneliness?

From the first poem in With My Back to the World, the magnetism of Victoria Chang’s language will draw you in: “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world.”

In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the area of China where most Uyghur people and other Muslim ethnic minorities live, state campaigns ostensibly against terrorism and religious extremism have expanded surveillance into every aspect of life. Tahir Hamut Izgil’s beautifully written memoir, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, describes how he carved out a life writing, making films and participating in a remarkable community of Uyghur poets and intellectuals while enduring systematic repression, as well as the circumstances that led to his family’s flight from China in 2017.

Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is one of the only firsthand accounts available of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur people by the Chinese government. In clear and relentless detail, Izgil recounts how state suppression of Uyghur religious and cultural practices escalated from lists of banned names, to Qurans collected by the government and burned, to police checkpoints on every corner and boarded-up shops abandoned by the disappeared.

In one of the book’s most profoundly terrifying scenes, Izgil and his wife, Marhaba, receive a call asking them to report to the police station to get their fingerprints taken. At the station, they are directed into the basement where, in a hallway across from blood-stained interrogation chambers, they form a line with hundreds of other Uyghurs from their neighborhood. One by one, they are required to give not only their fingerprints but also blood samples, recordings of their voices and elaborate facial scans, all of which will presumably be added to a vast surveillance database. Well-founded rumors suggested that the selection of who would be arrested and disappeared next was performed by an algorithm using this database.

Izgil’s writing is vivid, made even more so by the inclusion of a few of his haunting, startling poems, each expanding on a moment from the previous chapter. Although the level of detail in the narrative sections can be disorienting, that disorientation effectively conveys the difficulty of navigating constantly changing laws and contradictory bureaucratic processes. Readers can also rely on translator Joshua L. Freeman’s introduction to provide context both for Izgil’s life and for the situation of Uyghur people in China.

Throughout the memoir, Izgil’s stories about his friends, family and community are suffused with love. This palpable love makes it beyond heartbreaking how little could be communicated about his plans to leave China with Marhaba and his daughters without putting those he would leave behind in danger. Although he would almost certainly never see them again, he left without saying goodbye even to his parents.

That is the violence of disappearance and displacement: millions of people removed from their communities, families abruptly and permanently broken apart. Knowing that there are so many stories we will not ever hear, it feels essential to pay attention to the words of those like Izgil who manage to make it out.

 

Tahir Hamut Izgil’s beautifully written memoir is one of the only firsthand accounts available of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur people by the Chinese government.

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