14 July 2019

Guest Blog Post: Cornucopia, Wisconsin

The following is a guest blog post by Amy C. Rea about her recent visit to Cornucopia, Wisconsin. All text and photographs are copyright to her. Thank you, Amy! ~pks

60 years ago, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes undertook a road trip circling America with visits to Canada and Mexico tucked into the northern and southern ends of the expedition. (For a wonderfully detailed and researched overview of this trip, see David Trinidad's On the Road with Sylvia and Ted: Plath and Hughes’s 1959 Trip Across America.)

They began their trek on July 7, and a week later, found themselves in a small north-central Wisconsin town called Cornucopia. There they found a farm on the shores of Lake Superior owned by Andrew and Helen Nozel, who graciously agreed to let them camp on their property for two nights.

Recently my husband and I took a road trip from our home in Minnesota to Bayfield, a charming small town on Wisconsin's Lake Superior shore (called the South Shore, as opposed to Minnesota's North Shore), with access to the Apostle Islands and Madeline Island. While plotting the driving route, I noticed that Cornucopia was right on the way. Obviously we would have to stop.

Ehlers Store, Cornucopia
Peter K. Steinberg provided me the name of the farmers, and some very helpful people at the Bayfield County Land Records Office helped me narrow down my search, getting to a legal property description that seemed to have two potential lots that were likely to be where Plath and Hughes camped: a stretch of road cornered by Spirit Point and Birch Hill roads and Lake Superior itself.

Cornucopia had to wait until the day we returned, as the first day we ran into torrential rains. But driving through the rain made me wonder if this was the same highway they took (in reverse). I knew from Trinidad that they left Brimley, MI the morning of July 14 and arrived in Cornucopia that night. A Google map search has the most direct route cutting inland before getting to Bayfield, but Trinidad’s article reports that they drove all day without leaving the lake. That seems to imply they would have gone through Bayfield, which is a charming, New England seaside-y village right on the lake. That means they traveled on what is now WI-13, the road we took. It's hard to imagine Plath not enjoying the view; Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes, and at points, you can barely see land across it, leading many locals to refer to it as the "northern ocean."

It's a beautiful drive, densely forested with little pockets of farm land carved out of the trees here and there. You can drive for miles and not see another car or house; today, rural fire address signs are at the foot of every driveway, but those mostly came into being in the 1970s-80s, so they wouldn't have been there when Plath and Hughes came through. Traveling in early July, the trees were fully leafed out and densely green: aspen, sugar maple, birch, oak, hickory, and basswood, combined with a wide variety of pine trees (jack, red, and white pine; black and white spruce; balsam fir; and tamarack). The ditches on either side of the highway were full of white, purple, and yellow wildflowers. If that's what Plath saw too, her acute appreciation of the visual must have made the drive beautiful.

Spirit Road from Highway 13
The spot where they likely camped isn't hard to find. Spirit Point Road turns directly off Highway 13, and only a mile down Spirit Point is Birch Hill Road. Spirit Point is currently paved for the first half mile, then becomes a dirt road, well packed down. Birch Hill is a dirt road that tapers down to the lake and today ends in two rutted tire track lanes. Trinidad notes that Plath and Hughes camped on a "hayfield hilltop." Current survey photos don't show any open farmland here; it appears to have been allowed to revert back to forest. But the land does slope sharply up from the lake.

Birch Hill Road
Birch Hill Road, Lake Superior behind Amy
Birch Hill Road with view of Lake Superior
Clearly I was on private property and didn't wish to be the awful tourist who can't respect boundaries. The Nozel family no longer owns the property, so the likelihood of finding someone who remembered their visit seemed beyond small. Driving toward the end of Birch Hill Road, which dead-ends at the lake, I could see some older buildings, including a decrepit shed, and felt that was as far as I could go without being intrusive. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel cautiously excited at this proximity to a spot Plath was at and which, according to Hughes, was his favorite stop of the trip.
Former Nozel property off Birch Hill Road

Of course, such a trip ends up asking more questions than it answers. Bayfield is located on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. The Bay contains the Apostle Islands, which are now mostly part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, overseen by the National Park Service. But in 1959, they were still mostly private, some still having residents and remnants of logging and sandstone mining companies. Surely Plath would have been fascinated with the stories of the sea caves, especially the large ones found around Devils Island.

However, Madeline Island was already a popular day-trip tourist destination with regular summer ferry service. Did Plath and Hughes know that? Did they consider taking a jaunt across the big lake to the beautiful island, full of intriguing history, flora and fauna?

Or when leaving Bayfield and driving through Red Cliff, did they know that they were on the reservation of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, or that Chief Buffalo was instrumental in allowing the tribe to stay there rather than be forced west, as the government of the early 1800s wanted them to do? Given their interest in history, mythology, and other cultures, it seems like this would have been a good stopping point for them.

But we don't know how much they knew about the area they were traveling through. Trinidad doesn't detail their departure from Wisconsin, which occurred on the 16th, other than to say they drove through Minnesota to camp in North Dakota. Our route took us through the twin ports of Superior, WI and Duluth, MN, courtesy of a bridge that opened in 1961 and allowed us to quickly cross the lake between the two towns. In 1959, they could have crossed via the now-historic Aerial Lift Bridge.

As I left Wisconsin, I had to wonder what it would take to get the Wisconsin Historical Society to consider putting up a plaque in Cornucopia. How many other times has Wisconsin had a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a Poet Laureate camping in the state?

All links accessed 10-11 July 2019.

10 July 2019

Sylvia Plath Email Query

In June I received an email asking about something that was said back in 2017 during the Q & A of a talk that I gave with Heather Clark and Karen V. Kukil at the Grolier Club. If I knew it, I had forgotten, that a video was available online of the Symposium which was done in conjunction with the exhibit from the collections of Judith Raymo.

At the start of the Q & A, Richard Larschan, who was a great friend of Aurelia Plath's in Wellesley, asked if we had gotten access to sealed letters at the Lilly Library. He had asked this of me a few times but I never really did much investigating about it.

But later, as we were in the throes of preparing Volume II of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, I did write to the Lilly to ask if they have or had any sealed materials. I was informed that they do not presently have any sealed Plath materials. However, I learned after the good archivists did some digging, that when Aurelia Plath sold the collection to the Library in 1977 that there were in fact two sealed letters. But, fortunately for many Plath scholars, they had been unsealed a long, long time ago and thus were available for researcher use. And they were included in the volume.

The two lettersdated 23 September 1962 and 22 November 1962were from Plath to her mother. Both have footnotes that acknowledge their shared history. See pages 832 and 918 of Volume II. Both letters are famous for the fact that they have heavy black pen redactions made by Aurelia Plath. I transcribed as much as I could but a few words and lines were impossible. I selected these letters to include in the plate section of Volume II so that readers could see what I was up against in transcribing and editing them.

It was fun to re-live the event at the Grolier Club. Ah, times were so much simpler then... While I answered the query of the correspondent directly to her, she had asked originally if I would do a blog post about it. So, this is that!

All links accessed 15 June 2019.

01 July 2019

Sylvia Plath: The Living Poet

One of the most remarkable aspects that the British Library Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath CD—published in 2010 and lamentably out of print—captures and presents can be found in tracks 8-16, or, those from "The Living Poet" broadcast on the B.B.C.'s Third Programme. "The Living Poet" aired just about monthly and featured other Americans in 1961: Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Stanley Kunitz. Plath was the first female that year and shared the reading of her work with the American actor Marvin Kane. He read five poems and she read four.

The introduction to that broadcast, written and spoken by Plath, is very clearly by the author of the poems of The Colossus. What I mean by this is it is eloquent, yet kind of floral. The poems, as they were recorded, are:

"The Disquieting Muses" (read by SP);
"Sleep in the Mojave Desert" (read by Kane);
"Suicide Off Egg Rock" (read by Kane);
"Spinster" (read by SP);
"Parliament Hill Fields" (read by SP);
"You’re" (read by Kane);
"Magi" (read by Kane);
"Medallion" (read by Kane); and
"The Stones" (read by SP).

Though the poems are not read strictly in chronological order from their dates of composition, there is a progression evident.

Much has been written on the voices of Sylvia Plath, and how there are really distinctive phases in her poetic development. That is one definition of voice; the other is her literal voice which was captured by recording equipment. Al Alvarez has perhaps most famously described the Sylvia Plath he knew between 1960 and 1962/3 as being several women and he would have been exposed to both definitions of Plath's voice. When he first met her she was in the shadow of her husbands fame. He writes, "the poet taking a back seat to the young mother and housewife" (Savage God, 22). Then the tables turned and she was very much her own woman. In June 1962, Alvarez said "Sylvia had changed. No longer quiet and withheld, a housewifely appendage to a powerful husband, she seemed made solid and complete, her own woman again" (Savage God, 28). By Christmas Eve 1962, the last time they met, she was "a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult" (Where Did It All Go Right?, 232). In many respects you can hear this transformation throughout the broadcast of "The Living Poet".

Plath was in France with Ted Hughes at the Merwin's farm when the program aired on Saturday 8 July 1961. In her 2 July 1961 postcard to her mother she included a postscript about listening to the performance. I would love to know if Mrs. Plath listened to it and what she thought of it.

The British Library holds the full recording of "The Living Poet". Of the poems read by Kane, however, I wish most of all that Plath, not he, had read "Suicide Off Egg Rock," particularly as I would like nothing more than to hear Plath speak:
"Sun struck the water like a damnation.
No pit of shadow to crawl into,
And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am..."
If you are ever able to hear the full recording I strongly suggest that you do. Recordings preserve the archive of the voice. Sometimes they revivify the speaker in ways that truly blur the past with the present. For example, sometimes one can hear both the intake and exhalation of breath. What is more affirming of life than that! Another is that the microphone picks up dexterous sound executed by hands and fingers in the act of shuffling paper or turning the page.

All links accessed 28 June 2019.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...