Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
These three terse lines—with their offhandedly morbid bravado—may be the most remembered from Sylvia Plath’s body of work. The stanza pops out of the center of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” a poem Helen Vendler once called “a tantrum of style.” Like many of the poems from Plath’s late period, “Lady Lazarus” is playfully perverse, alternately shocking readers with grotesque imagery and inviting them to dismiss the speaker with abrupt shifts into insouciant melodrama. It is an unsettling performance, not least because of Plath’s identification of her own suicide attempts with the sufferings of Holocaust victims. Plath introduced the poem quite matter-of-factly:
The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is she has to die first. She is the phoenix…. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.
Fifty-two years after the publication of Ariel—the collection that appeared two years after her suicide—Plath’s final poems have lost none of their menace. And there was perhaps no one better suited to imagine their haunted psychic landscapes on the screen than experimental feminist filmmaker Sandra Lahire, who was completing a doctoral dissertation on Plath before her own death in 2001.
In her 1991 film Lady Lazarus, Lahire takes audio of Plath reading from “Cut,” “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” “Ouija,” as well as excerpts from a 1962 interview. Mixing images of Plath’s obsessions (ouija boards, horses, violent self-harm) with photographs of the poet and her work, the film delves deeply into an existence that Plath herself, in a voice-over interview, calls “living on air.” Lehire describes the film as
a visually woven response to Sylvia Plath’s own readings of her poetry… which celebrates her macabre humour and cinematic vision. A carousel of images in windows, an atmosphere of constant metamorphosis; her poetry as cinema.
Lady Lazarus is the first in a trilogy of Plath films called Living on Air that Lahire shot over a period of nine years. It was followed by In Night Dances in 1995 and Johnny Panic in 1999.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness