03 December 2010

Sylvia Plath, David Trinidad and Black Telephone

Our friend in Plath - David Trinidad - has a poem entitled "Black Telephone" published in this year's Best American Poetry (edited by David Lehman and Amy Gerstler).

David sent the following "Process Note" to me about his "Black Telephone," which originally appeared in Tin House.

"The actual telephone that inspired this poem is in an unwatchable Natalie Wood film from the early sixties, Cash McCall. There's a closeup of it at the beginning of the movie. But I had telephones on the brain; that’s why it captivated me. I was in the middle of writing an essay about the telephone incident that precipitated the end of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's marriage (Plath pulled the phone cord out of the wall when she intercepted a call from Assia Wevill, with whom Hughes was having an affair), and the way that incident reverberates in such poems as Plath’s "Words heard, by accident, over the phone" and "The Fearful" (and even "Daddy") and Hughes's "Do Not Pick Up the Telephone." Thus I was thinking about the telephone as "trauma object" (Catherine Bowman’s term) and as an instrument of terror in movies like Sorry, Wrong Number and Midnight Lace. So deep was I into research about Plath and Hughes, I knew that their Devon telephone number, before Plath severed the connection in July 1962, was North Tawton 370; after it was reinstalled a few months later, in early November, it changed to North Tawton 447. I was astounded to realize that Plath was without phone service when she wrote the bulk of her Ariel poems that October, a fact that explains, in part, the urgency of the work.

"Certain that Plath would have appreciated my attention to detail, I had to find out the model of her telephone. It would have been from the 700 series (706, to be exact), available in Britain from 1959 to 1967; "subscribers" rented their phones from the General Post Office, and had to wait several months to have them "fitted" by a GPO engineer. The interval, then, during which Plath was cut off from the rest of the world, which ironically helped facilitate her great poetic output. Of course once I knew the model, obsessiveness (or should I say fetishism) led me to Ruby Tuesday, a store in Shropshire that sells vintage telephones on eBay. From them I bought (for £65, plus another £30 for postage) an example of the very phone Sylvia angrily ripped from the wall. It sits here on my desk, magical by association, and beautiful (to my mind) in its shiny black obsolescence."

Congratulations David! Read the poem here.

The black telephone images here are supplied courtesy of David Trinidad. Trinidad, as you may know, had three poems published in Plath Profiles 3 and the essay “Hidden in Plain Sight: On Sylvia Plath’s Missing Journals” in Plath Profiles 3 Supplement this year. If you haven't read these poems and the essay yet, please treat yourself this weekend.


P.H.Davies said...

This is a great post - I can't believe he actually found the same model Plath would have used herself. Such dedication!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks! If you or anyone else has a Guest Post in mind or something you found or find interesting please consider sending one to me!

David's dedication makes my own look like amateurish.


Kristina Zimbakova said...

The post just blew my mind away. David, I am becoming your fan, and you are lucky to have a Plath art installation on your desk now. Well-done! This is one of those things that makes a seemingly ordinary day worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

This is so amazing - I would strongly suggest to anyone who hasn't read David's paper in PP3 to download it NOW - it is equally as amazing as his telephone!

Anonymous said...

This is, indeed, an interesting bit of research. I have to say I remain mildly sceptical. In Anne Stevenson's bio of Plath, she describes this incident this way: "After Ted had taken the call, Sylvia yanked the telephone off the wall." (Bitter Fame, p. 251) Butscher describes it this way: "...as he went to speak, she moved suddenly, vicioiusly, ripped at the cord and pulled the telephone off the wall." (Sylvia PLath: Method and Madness, p. 352) These descriptions lead me to believe that the telephone was a wall-mounted model. However, it is true that both Linda Wagner-MArtin and Ronald Hayman say that she "pulled the wires (or the cord) out of the wall". Does anyone know; What is the primary source for the account of this incident? We don't have Plath's journal for this period ... and she certainly didn't write of this incident to her mother, and I don't think Hughes describes the incident anywhere (unless it's in his letters somewhere, which I don't have available to me at the moment) so where did this story originate? Could their phone have been an earlier model that remained at Court Green? Where did Stevenson get the image of Sylvia "yank(ing) the phone off the wall?"
--Jim Long

panther said...

Loved this article. Thank you, David ! You are a very devoted Plath-ee.

And I was prompted by it to go back to those poems. Have just read Hughes' "Do Not Pick Up the Telephone" and felt how unpleasant it is. "Cunt is proclaiming heaven on earth" ? It's not the use of the "c" word itself that disturbs me. (It CAN be used. IMO. With more care than most words, though.) But given that this poem alludes more than a little to that famous incident when Assia Wevill telephoned Ted and SP intercepted the call, I think it's a poem that feels very blame-y and misogynistic.

And again, there's that feeling, isn't there ? that everything that's gone wrong is due to Fate. Fate in the guise of another woman. Fate channelling through a telephone.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Maybe I read part of your comment wrong, Jim, but Aurelia Plath was with her daughter in the house when the incident happened, so therefore no letter need be written. Is that what you meant when you said that Plath certainly didn't write to her? Not a big deal...

In the poem "Words heard" Plath makes reference to a telephone table, which leads me to believe the phone was as illustrates this post and not a wall mounted phone. From the sounds of it, and I've done no research into this, the telephone options in England back then were very very few and far between. And Plath gives the phone a "tentacle" which I take to be the cord connecting it to the wall.

While Stevenson's book remains the only authorized biography to date, it must be read with a grain of salt. Not every detail in that book is accurate, reliable, etc. Particularly when she was pulling from Butscher. I'm preaching to the choir here I realize. But, the fact is that the biographies all differ in some cases in a minor fashion, in other cases to an extreme degree.

Wow, so in addition to some of the strange keywords people type in that find my site, we can now add the "c" word as one of them!


Ed Baker said...

that is the model telephone that I still have and use...
some-how the Rotary Dial-tone is yet accommodated
by Bell Atlantic (now Verizon)

it must weight about 3 pounds..

the ones that you can buy now that look like it are knock-offs that are made in China and weight, maybe 10 ounces!

call me sometime... or better yet come visit

write me a letter ... Remember letters? aND WRITING?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter. I had forgotten that Aurelia was present during the telephone incident. The "tentacle" could as well be the cord that connects the phone and the handset. I guess it seemed to me that Stevenson, having colluded so closely with the family in the writing, may have had an inside line as to what happened. And it just seemed so specific to say that she "yanked the phone off the wall" -- surely it was meant to be taken literally -- such was my thought process in thinking of a wall-mounted instrument. -- Jim Long

Peter K Steinberg said...

I just wanted to say that David Trinidad confirmed, in a phone conversation with Elizabeth Sigmund, that the phone at Court Green was a desk (versus a wall) phone. Sigmund visited Court Green when Plath was alive, and lived there for a time after her death. Also, in Elizabeth's memoir of Plath, written in the 1970's, she writes that Plath pulled the wires from the wall.


panther said...

Particular difficulty, isn't there, with an authorized biography ? As Anne Stevenson found out !

"Pulling from Butscher" ? Please refresh my memory. Is this Edward Butscher ? What was he saying that diverged so markedly from what AS was saying ?

Peter K Steinberg said...


Yes, I was referring to Edward Butscher. By "pulling from Butscher" I meand that he seems to have been the source for that detail in the life of Sylvia Plath. The other comment I made, that the biographies differ in bother subtle and major ways, would be too difficult to get into now: in fact it would be a wonderful book in and of itself! That's a non-answer, which must be frustrating, but... Overall, I dislike with the way he reads Plath: all that "bitch goddess" stuff. And I've never been a fan nor found use for psychoanalytic or pscyhological readings, either.

Envious I should be because he had access to material & people & memories much closer to the time of the events.

I wish I could answer your question more specifically but they are big books, both with successess and failures. I'd suggest we both read them but also suspect we'd see them differently.

Going back to Jim's original comment, Stevenson and Butscher both have Plath ripping the phone off the wall. But Butscher would have had access to Sigmund's comments,(or it seems should have, after all, his Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work reprinted Sigmund's memoir "Sylvia in Devon: 1962"). Confirmed by David Trinidad, Elizabeth's memory is that the phone was a table phone, not a wall mounted phone, so it was Butscher's responsibility to tell the story right but he clearly didn't.

Certain biographers have agendas and this necessarily and unfortunately clouds their interpretation of Plath's life and work. Butscher - like Alexander and Stevenson (& Olwyn Hughes) and others - falls into this category I think. The best work on Plath I think is done with an open mind, with the truth being the aim, or obvious something as close to the truth given the lengths some people went to cover it up...


Julia said...

Panther's comment about Ted Hughes' poem on this subject made me want to let readers know that Assia's name means "Assiah"--the lowest part of heaven upon the earth. Google it, or read more here: http://www.thelemapedia.org/index.php/Tree_of_Life:Assiah It's a Kabbalah reference.

Loved Trinidad's poems. Google Books is such a blessing, too. It's page 144 of the 2010 Best American Poetry, for anyone who doesn't want to look it up.

Question: at the top of page 304 in the PP with Trinidad's "Underlined in Sylvia Plath's Copy of Tender is the Night", the word/name Trinidad is at the top of the page. Had Plath underlined that word, or is that PP continuing his poem? I ask because no where else in PP does the style do that.

Peter K Steinberg said...


Odd numbered pages have Plath Profiles and a graphic in the header, page numbers on the right. Even pages have the authors name in the top left and the page number on the right. The exception is when the first page of the essay or poem is an even number, in which case the authors name will be present beneath the title. This is consistent the whole way through the issue. Please see, for example, pages 318 and 322 (two of the five poems by Luczak). Everywhere in PP3 the style is this way.

The spacing should be better and we'll fix that next issue.

So, no, the word Trinidad is not part of the poem.

Julia said...

Thanks! :-)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.