This Old Poem #5:
Sylvia Plath’s Zoo-Keeper’s Wife
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/13/02


  Recently I was reading a book of poems by a Swedish poet named Karin Boye. She was a new poet for me, one of which who also suffered from depression & committed suicide like so many others: Tsvetaeva, Plath, Sexton, & Teasdale. Boye had most in common with Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva: both were bisexual, depressed & killed themselves in the same year: 1941.  I bring this all up because as I was reading Boye, I came across a poem called “Morning Song”. Reminded by Plath’s poem of the same title, after I finished with the Boye poem, I opened Plath’s Collected & read the poem, as well as skimming over others that I have sometimes overlooked. Frankly, as great as Plath is in moments, I tire from her same poems &  find myself reading them less & less. “Lady Lazarus”, “Daddy”, “Ariel”, “Cut”, “Fever 103” are just some of the examples. I read them so many times in my youth, they start to sound like annoying song lyrics that keep popping into my head. (But then again, that’s probably a sign of how great these poems are). These are often the poems that her followers, or fans continually quote from & refer back to.  Plath is an interesting poet when I think of her work in relation to mine, in that we both suffer from the same flaws in our writing. She is usually at her best when the language is abrupt and poignant & at her worst when she divulges in endless melodrama, one of the primary reasons Plathies worship her. Although I do not think of myself as melodramatic, I have a tendency, like Plath, to overwrite, especially when I do free verse. Often when I bring a poem to the UPG, I can count on it being hacked in half. I brought one last month, in fact, that started out as being a 35 line poem & resulted in a 12 line final draft. Dan has best described how I am as a poet. I am a sculptor, which means I often get an idea and develop a glob of thought. Then it’s up to me to chip away at the excess so a detailed face, or vase, or whatever, can be seen. The Plath poem I would like to “repair” is “Zoo-Keeper’s Wife”, which is not a bad poem, just over written & coated in immature melodramatic phrasings that are not necessary. With concision I think the poem could be a very good one.  Lets’ begin with the poem itself before I dissect:


Zoo-Keeper's Wife


I can stay awake all night, if need be ---
Cold as an eel, without eyelids.
Like a dead lake the dark envelops me,
Blueblack, a spectacular plum fruit.
No air bubbles start from my heart. I am lungless
And ugly, my belly a silk stocking
Where the heads and tails of my sisters decompose.
Look, they are melting like coins in the powerful juices ---


The spidery jaws, the spine bones bared for a moment
Like the white lines on a blueprint.
Should I stir, I think this pink and purple plastic
Guts bag would clack like a child's rattle,
Old grievances jostling each other, so many loose teeth.
But what so you know about that
My fat pork, my marrowy sweetheart, face-to-the-wall?
Some things of this world are indigestible.


You wooed me with the wolf-headed fruit bats
Hanging from their scorched hooks in the moist
Fug of the Small Mammal House.
The armadillo dozed in his sandbin
Obscene and bald as a pig, the white mice
Multiplied to infinity like angels on a pinhead
Out of sheer boredom. Tangled in the sweat-wet sheets
I remember the bloodied chicks and the quartered rabbits.


You checked the diet charts and took me to play
With the boa constrictor in the Fellow's Garden.
I pretended I was the Tree of Knowledge.
I entered your bible, I boarded your ark
With the sacred baboon in his wig and wax ears
And the bear-furred, bird-eating spider
Clambering round its glass box like an eight-fingered hand.
I can't get it out of my mind


How our courtship lit the tindery cages ---
Your two-horned rhinocerous opened a mouth
Dirty as a bootsole and big as a hospital sink
For my cube of sugar: its bog breath
Gloved my arm to the elbow.
The snails blew kisses like black apples.
Nightly now I flog apes owls bears sheep
Over their iron stile. And still don't sleep.


  Overall, this is an OK poem with some good moments here & there, but ultimately just drags on. I found myself tired half way through, especially around the 3rd stanza. The title is bland. What about the zoo-keeper’s wife? Why should I care about this person? The 1st line is not the strongest for starting out the poem. It is not a bad line in its own right, but I don’t think the best for this poem. The next 3 lines are weak. Line 2 is not particularly interesting, but line 3 is really bad. There are 2 cliches “dead lake” and “dark enveloping me”. Line 4 is excess detail that doesn’t add much & would be most likely served better in a different poem. So the 1st 4 lines are snoozers & fail to pull the reader in. Line 5 we get a good line & would be much better starting off the poem. The rest of the stanza, along with the 2nd stanza flows smoothly & with the exception of a few poor word choices, work well. Stanza 3 does nothing narratively to strengthen the poem. This is just excess detail that only drags the trope. The only argued clichés would be “sheer boredom” & “multiplied to infinity”. Other than that, the lines themselves are not poorly written, but just don’t help this poem. Stanza 4 there are more clichés: “Tree of Knowledge” & “boarded your ark”. I understand that Plath’s intent is to try to use the biblical references to imply Noah’s Ark & all that BS, but really, does it do anything for this poem? From the 3rd stanza on, we get references to how many animals?: fruit bats, armadillo, pig, mice, rabbits, snake, baboon, bird, spider, rhino, snails, owls, apes, sheep, bears, etc. (Hence the Noah reference). But she’s writing a poem about a Zoo! you say. Yes, but just listing animals does not mean that she succeeds in the subject matter. That does not detract from the fact that this poem is a narrative bore with some good phrases stuck in here & there. Here’s how I think the poem would be a vast improvement:


Without Eyelids


No bubbles start my heart. I am lungless
And ugly, my belly a stocking
Where the heads and tails of my sisters decompose.
Look, they are melting coins in  powerful juices ---


The spidery jaws, spine bones bare for a moment.
White lines on a blueprint
I should stir, think this pink and purple plastic
would clack a child's rattle,
jostling each other, so many loose teeth.

But what so you know about that
my marrow, sweetheart, face-to-the-wall?
Some things of this world are indigestible.


  The title is taken from line 2. Now that most of the poem is hacked (12 lines remain), the original title does not fit. Line 1 is much stronger. I cut air from bubbles because it’s an unnecessary adjective. Ditto with “silk” removed from “stocking”. Both are common adjectives & are what usually consist of clichés. Another example of this would be “dark night” “red heart”, etc. In line 8, note how I dropped “like”. Like is the most overused & useless word in poetry. MAKE IT A METAPHOR! To melt coins in powerful juices is more interesting than melting like coins in powerful juices. Who cares what it’s like. Show me what it is doing. Stanza 2 needed more alterations. I changed “bared” to “bare” because putting a verb after “spider bones” makes the noun more active. When one uses past tense, it is used as an adjective, & the noun is passive, as it is when using “like”. “Guts bag”, is melodramatic & clunky, “Old grievances”  is not only a cliché but also melodramatic. “My fat pork” is terrible & clunky. “my marrow, my sweetheart” is much more unique. The last line is a good one to end the poem, but I tried not to add too much of myself into this. If this were my poem I would play with some word choices in the last line, but that’s about it. I also would like to mention that I think the last 3 lines in the original poem are good lines & again could be used elsewhere. If one were determined enough to make them fit here, the poem would need major rework, something I’m not willing to do for someone else’s poem. Sorry Sylvia! I’m on to you!


Final Score: (1-100)


Sylvia Plath’s Zoo Keeper’s Wife: 72
TOP’s Without Eyelids: 86

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