After reading more than her allotted time
(infuriating W. H. Auden, on stage behind her)
then blowing kisses to the audience
at the Poetry International Festival,
Anne accepts Ted’s invitation
to visit him in Devon.
Lois at the wheel (still unused to
driving on the “wrong” side
of the street), the two women leave London
and head west toward Herefordshire
(where they will meet a young poet,
D. M. Thomas, with whom Sexton has exchanged letters).
Anne, chain-smoking in the left-hand
passenger seat, is no help with the map.
It sits, a crumpled accordion, in her lap.
Having gotten lost on narrow country roads,
the women arrive three hours late.
Thomas, an “exuberant, curly-haired bear
of a man,” is ready with gin. As a fan
he’d written to Sexton: “There is no poet in the world,
not Graves, not Auden, not Lowell,
whose future work I look forward to
with as much excitement as I do yours.”
A few stiff shots and they settle in
for a pleasant evening. Anne reads
some of her poems, Thomas admiring
her courage to use material from her own life—
so free of English conventions of decorum.
(In the eighties, his novel The White Hotel
will bring him fame and notoriety.)
He drives them to the nearby village of Weobley.
As promised, he’d booked the room at an inn, the Unicorn,
where Rilke slept the year before Sexton was born.
Anne asks him up, then asks him
to turn away while she strips
and slides into her white negligee—
bought, she says, with her Pulitzer Prize.
When Thomas is allowed to look,
he breathes in her splendidness.
Anne counts out her colorful pills.
“Please stay until I fall asleep.”
He sits on the edge of the bed,
caressing her hand as she drifts off.
Her husband, he thinks, must perform this nightly duty.
I feel like I’m tucking in Sleeping Beauty.
The next day, Thomas shows them
the border country. At a castle
in Shropshire, Sexton feels too lame
to climb the stone stairs. (She is recovering from
a broken hip.) She says to Thomas,
“Better than stones and castles are my bones.”
Then: “I’ll give that to you.” She tears out
a sheet of paper and writes down the line.
(Later he’ll use it to start an elegy to her.)
As night comes on, they stop at a pub.
Anne plays the fruit machines
and whoops it up when she wins
a “magic jackpot.” In the same breath
she talks about poetry, about death.
When Thomas drops them off at the inn,
he and Anne exchange a passionate kiss.
He thinks: Wow! I’ve kissed Sexton!
The following morning, on their own again,
the women proceed to Devon.
They reach North Tawton in the early afternoon,
easily locate Court Green.
(Ted had told them to look for the adjacent church.)
Lois inches the rental up the crumbling lane,
between hedges and brick cottages,
and parks in front of the imposing manor house.
Painted white, with black trim, its most conspicuous feature
is a primeval peaked thatch.
As both women stare up, they hear the gate unlatch.
Ted and Assia emerge and welcome them.
Less radiant than they were
in London (Ted, one of the organizers
of the festival, seems especially worn out),
the couple ushers them into the cobbled courtyard.
Ted requests that they not talk about Sylvia
in the presence of the children, then leads
them around the property—two acres
teeming with vegetation. There is a sense
of ancient wildness about the place.
Trees that Ted points out—
three huge elms, a golden laburnum—
prompt Anne and Lois to share knowing glances:
they recognize them from Sylvia’s poems.
There the apple orchard, the remote white hive.
Here the old tennis court, the vegetable garden.
There the “row of headstones” (It really is true!),
St. Peter’s Church, the graveyard, the Gothic yew.
Assia takes them inside to freshen up,
and to give them a tour of the house.
This is the playroom, with its black-and-white tiled floor,
like a Vermeer, and the children’s toys and books,
and the furniture Sylvia painted white and
enameled with primitive hearts and flowers.
Across the hall, the “red room,” where Sylvia listened
to French and German lessons on the wireless.
They come to the stairs. These
Anne does not hesitate to climb.
To see where Sylvia wrote Ariel
she’ll put up with a little pain in her hip.
Still, each step is a production.
“Go on ahead, go on . . . I’ll catch up.”
But of course Lois insists
on assisting her. “This was her study,”
says Assia, gesturing toward one of the bedrooms.
In awe, Anne and Lois follow.
By the window: Sylvia’s elm plank writing table.
(“Ted refuses to move it.”)
Sylvia’s typewriter and journals and stacks of pink worksheets
are neatly arranged along its length.
Assia hands Anne the copy of All My Pretty Ones
that Anne had sent Sylvia when it came out,
and in which Sylvia had written her name.
“You should take it,” Assia says.
Anne considers it for a moment,
then sets it down on the desk, runs her slender fingers
along some ink stains in the wood.
They leave Lois with the journals,
scribbling notes for the Plath biography
that she will never complete.
“You must hate me. She was your friend.”
Assia says this to Anne as soon as they’re alone.
When it comes to adultery, Sexton doesn’t throw stones.
Plus she can’t help but admire her dark beauty
and her sexual heat. Assia prepares tea
and they sit under the laburnum.
“All parts of the tree are poisonous,” she remarks
as she pours. Anne praises the banana bread.
“It was her recipe,” says Assia distractedly, staring toward Ted
on the lawn in the sun, with the children.
Shura, her toddler, plays slightly apart.
Assia expresses unease about Aurelia’s impending visit.
(In August, fears put to rest, she’ll write to Anne
that she finds Sylvia’s mother “a remarkable woman—
a kind of near-genius knot herself” whose
generous spirit “makes me feel humbler than I have ever been.”)
Anne tries to reassure with some banter
about her mother-in-law, though both understand
the singularity of Assia’s situation.
Ted joins them and, when Anne shifts uncomfortably
in her deckchair, recommends bone meal
for her ailing hip. “It has to be taken
regularly, but if you take too much
you’ll grow bone all over like a crab, so take it easy.”
They smile. Then commiserate about reviews.
“Both kinds are bad,” says Ted, “but the favorable
are worst. They tend to confirm one in one’s own conceit.
Also, they separate you from your devil, which hates
being observed, and only works happily incognito.”
He spies on his wrist, sharpening her needle, a bloodthirsty mosquito.
Late sunlight floods the laburnum,
igniting its “blond colonnades.”
In less than two years, Assia and her daughter
will be dead; in a little more
than seven, Anne. Ted will live
for three decades; Nicholas, four.
Only Frieda, age seven, who knows more
than she knows, will survive. Shyly suspicious,
she glances over at the adults
now and again. Ted swats his wrist.
Assia slices Shura a small piece of banana bread.
Anne lights a Salem, exhales upward, and watches a bee
bask in the brilliance of the poisonous tree.