Friday, March 27, 2009

Sylvia, Sylvia, You Bastard, I'm Through

When I was in high school, I loved Sylvia Plath. All high school students love Sylvia Plath. All that angst, the self-hatred, the Holocaust obsession, the June Cleaver suicide - what's not to like? I memorized "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" and all the rest in hopes of impressing girls with my deepy deepness.

In my last year of college at UVa, I took a poetry writing class from Hank Lazer, and we had some of the class sessions at his house. It was the usual small, eclectic college professor bungalow - think Donald Sutherland in Animal House. At one point, as we all sipped some cheap boxed wine - ah, the pre-Reagan college days - Hank mentioned that he had a series of rare, obscure LPs of famous poets reading their works. He started pulling them out of the orange crate - Frost, Lowell, Schwartz, the execrable Gary Snyder. And - oh my God - Sylvia Plath!

We all leapt up. Plath! Put it on, man! We were absolutely psyched to hear the favorite poet of our generation - not quite boomers, not quite Gen X, more like the Gilligan Generation - read her works in her own voice. We waited for the pain, the anger, the suicidal shadows ---

Hank dropped the needle on "Daddy."

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe . . .

We all stared at each other in shock. I'm not sure what we expected Sylvia Plath to sound like. I assume we all expected that neutral, sincere interior voice that we all hear in our head when we read, a voice reflecting our own experiences, our deep English-major earnestness.

But Sylvia Plath doesn't sound like us. She sounds like - well, she sounds like Martin Short doing Katherine Hepburn. An elitist, Northeastern rich girl's voice, Margaret Dumont behind the perfume counter, the uppity voice that orders some liveried fellow to bring the car around, the kind of trust-fund girl that, while she may loathe him, regularly calls Daddy to get her out of a jam. Plath was only 30 when she died, but you'd never know it listening to her - there is a matronly and snooty edge to her voice that absolutely puts your teeth on edge. Plath's voice was so out of whack with her poetry and her photos and the way we all pictured her that after five seconds of "Daddy," we all broke into deep, crying, holding-our-sides laughter. We never did here the rest of the poem.

And that recording killed Sylvia Plath for me. I have not been able to read her work since.

Over the last 35 years, I've told lots of people about the record, and no one believed me. Despite decades of prowling record stores, I was never able to find that recording again. But last week, I started looking around on the net because her son, Nicholas Hughes, the one-year-old in the next room when she killed herself, himself committed suicide. (He'd been a professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks - not the place you'd expect Sylvia Plath's son to end up, but we all have our paths to trod.) And, lo and behold, I found the recordings on YouTube. Click here to hear it, but don't do it if you like Plath. You'll never be able to read her again.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington DC

I had a few hours to kill after dropping my daughter off at a Blues Alley concert last month, so I decided to hop over to Ben's for a chili halfsmoke. I'd only been there once before, and loved the atmosphere, the history and, of course, the food.

I got my food and went to sit down. I wasn't in my seat more than 10 seconds when an elderly fellow in a leather jacket hurried over to the table.

"You know where you're sittin', boy?"

I looked at the little chrome and vinyl chair and the wonderful Formica table.

"No. Where?"

"That's where Barack sat."

"Really? Right here?

"Yessir." He pointed to the chair on the other side of the table. "And Fenty sat right there."

Before I was done, two other people, including a little kid who couldn't have been more than 10, breathlessly informed of the same fact. It made my halfsmoke a little more perfect to realize that just a month earlier, Barack Obama's butt was in the same place as mine.

Makes me wonder about the other famous patrons. Did Ella sit here? The Duke? Dr. King?

I think I need another half smoke.