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Sylvia Plath's "Death & Co."

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Plath's Self-Portrait

Introduction and Text of "Death & Co."

Perhaps Plath's weakest poem to be included in a published collection, this postmodernist screed lacks drama though it makes a strident effort to invoke Greek tragedy. It becomes one to shelve with the many postmodern failures that litter the literary world of the late 20th century.

Plath's talent was certainly uneven, but on the whole, it was much better and managed to produce much more readable poems than this one. And although she has often been misunderstood as well as overrated, she always deserves at least a passing glimpse.

Death & Co.

Two, of course there are two.
It seems perfectly natural now —
The one who never looks up, whose eyes are lidded
And balled? like Blake's.
Who exhibits

The birthmarks that are his trademark —
The scald scar of water,
The nude
Verdigris of the condor.
I am red meat. His beak

Claps sidewise: I am not his yet.
He tells me how badly I photograph.
He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple

Frill at the neck
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Death-gowns.
Then two little feet.
He does not smile or smoke.

The other does that
His hair long and plausive
Bastard
Masturbating a glitter
He wants to be loved.

I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.

Somebody's done for.

Reading of Plath's "Death & Co."

Commentary

This piece is one of Plath's weaker poems, relying heavily on postmodern obtuseness and obscurity; it features seven free verse paragraphs, the final a single line.

First Movement: Two's Company

Two, of course there are two.
It seems perfectly natural now —
The one who never looks up, whose eyes are lidded
And balled? like Blake's.
Who exhibits

The speaker in Sylvia Plath's "Death & Co." asserts, "there are two," referring to the two individuals who make up the entity called "Death & Co." She comments that it is natural that there would be two, as most companies are made up of at least two people. She begins to describe the two; one of them "never looks up" which would suggest he is either shy or trying to hide something.

But she claims that his "eyes are lidded / And balled like Blake's." This line wants to sound clever, but it misses the mark as all human eyes have lids, and they are all "balls," hence "eyeballs." If she is referring to the poet William Blake, she does not succeed in making a proper connection.

Second Movement: A Freak Fantasy

The birthmarks that are his trademark —
The scald scar of water,
The nude
Verdigris of the condor.
I am red meat. His beak

The individual "exhibits" birthmarks, and the speaker asserts that they are "his trademark." This claim subsumes the title of the poem, metaphorically revealing a business whose name is "Death & Co." One of the birthmarks resembles "the scald scar of water," and the other looks like an aged South American coin that features a vulture imprint. The speaker chooses the term "verdigris," which means "Grecian green" instead of merely bluish green, and later she refers again feebly to Greek culture. The attempt to unify her narrative is not effective however.

The possible reminder of a Greek tragedy leaves the poem unwieldy yet shallow with its lack of a tragic character. Her attempt to assign herself in that role looks pathetic, as it becomes clear that she is merely blaming a created entity she calls "Death & Co." for her own doubts and fears. The speaker then places herself center stage in her Greek tragedy when she says, "I am red meat." The reader realizes that the condor of the birthmark on the individual she is describing has become a symbol for the speaker's fear of this person.

Third Movement: The Postmodern Blahs

Claps sidewise: I am not his yet.
He tells me how badly I photograph.
He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple

The speaker reports that the "beak" of the condor, which at this point must be assumed as the manner of the first feared individual, "claps sidewise." A "sidewise" grasp by a bird's beak would fail to secure its attack, and thus "I am not his yet."

Now the speaker reveals her reason for describing this individual so negatively: he has told her that she photographs badly He also tells her that the dead babies look sweet in their morgue container at the hospital. Of course, death would find dead babies "sweet."

Fourth-Seventh Movements: It's Done For

Frill at the neck
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Death-gowns.
Then two little feet.
He does not smile or smoke.

The other does that
His hair long and plausive
Bastard
Masturbating a glitter
He wants to be loved.

I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.

Somebody's done for.

The speaker has given birth to twins (at least twins, since she refers to them as "babies"), who were still born. They lie in "their Ionian / Death-gowns" in a container the speaker calls "hospital / Icebox." The speaker then very briefly describes the other member of "Death & Co": he has long hair, he is a bastard, and he wants to be loved. But the speaker will not respond to either of these death entrepreneurs.

The speaker will remain cold, watching as "frost makes a flower" and "dew makes a star." She will listen for "the dead bell" twice, and realize that "Somebody's done for." The flippant final remark assures the reader that the melodrama is all fantasy. There may, in fact, be no dead twins, no death—just empty rhetorical gestures from two people she does not respect.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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