About writing ‘Atlantic Exchange’

It is not uncommon when reading the biography of someone like Sylvia Plath, to fantasise about saving her from her final act of self destruction. Depressed as Plath was, it is easy to imagine her getting through that last terrible winter and awakening to a spring that heralded a very different world; one that, casting off the last shackles of post war convention and conservatism, she would have embraced.
It’s been suggested by many people that putting her head in the gas oven was a cry for help – that a new au pair or mother’s help was due to arrive the next morning – early enough to raise both the alarm and Lady Lazurus from the dead. If that was the case then it was a deadly gamble.
The idea of saving Sylvia is of course pure speculation – as useless as staying Dylan’s hand as he drains his last glass of whisky dry.
Two poets then, who died too young; one directly by her own hand, the other indirectly – though the reckless self-destructive drinking, smoking and general self neglect is just as efficient, just as final.
I can’t remember when I discovered that Sylvia Plath attempted to meet Dylan Thomas during her Bell Jar month in New York. Possibly it was in Linda W. Wagner-Martin’s 1988 biography, but the reference was unemphatic, so that it slipped by, a vaguely interesting fact that was actually a non-event and non-events by their nature gather in multitudes and must be set aside as meaningless. I must have read further references to this in other books, so that the non-event gained weight and the heft of it seemed to drag on the tightrope of fate, creating a sort of bulge – a kink in time.
What if she had met him? The more I considered it, the less it seemed a random coincidence. Just the fact of their being in the same city for an overlapping period of 24 or 48 hours between her arriving in New York on the 31st May 1953 and Dylan leaving on the 1st or 2nd June. Cyrilly Abels was the key who made the possibility of their meeting less random. Sylvia worked directly under Cyrilly Abels and Abels knew Dylan Thomas and during that period was ardently pursuing him so that Mademoiselle magazine could publish the new play Under Milk Wood in its entirety (which it eventually did in February of 1954).
Sylvia Plath’s image is often at odds with her writing, but strict conventions (such as those imposed by Mademoiselle) demanded hats and gloves and evening gowns, disguised the bitch-goddess behind the smile.
And again I return to what if they had met – might they, like comets colliding in deepest space have thrown each other off orbit so that their respective fates were altered. Might there not be a grand event in Cwmdonkin – a joint birthday party for two elderly poets this October 27th 2014 – Sir Dylan Thomas a hundred years old – remarkable! And Dame Sylvia Plath, 82 – a grand old lady of letters, numerous collections of poems and several novels forming her lifelong achievement.
If they had met I can’t imagine them in love, despite his stature as a poet she wouldn’t have fallen for him, but perhaps falling in love was not what either needed in order to be saved – that is why as I began to create my story they merely sit companionably side by side in Central Park. The park, as all parks are or are meant to be, creating a refuge from the hustle and bustle of real life, an Elysium field, a serpent-free Eden for our poets – outside of space and time.
And if the two are sitting there what could be more natural than for Sylvia to give the horse an apple (which appears out of nowhere as if she’s plucked it from the sky in one of Magritte’s paintings).
And then along comes Vivian Maier, nanny and utterly unknown photographer, whose work was only discovered in 2007 after the contents of her storage unit were auctioned off – all those paper wallets of cheap drug store prints, undeveloped film and more than 100,000 negatives, that formerly only one person ever saw as a body of work – the photographer herself. As the hoard was split into small lots some images may have been lost and so it’s perfectly possible that Vivian (in the imagined place of my story) did photograph the two of them together, not knowing who they were (Sylvia was unknown then anyway) but just liking the composition, the way the light fell. It crossed my mind to put Diane Arbus into this story too, but my research couldn’t quite pin down her whereabouts during the crucial period – like Maier she wandered through Central Park taking pictures – but any photograph she chose to print would have rendered Thomas and Plath freakish and strange – so the gentler, more mysterious and nearly invisible Mayer better suited the story.
Finally there is the scene of their meeting at the Hotel Chelsea. Outside on the sidewalk, like a desperately hungry soul that has transported itself miraculously across the Atlantic, waits Dylan’s daughter, Aeronwy. She stands there aching to be noticed, to be with her father, but he sees her, blinks and she is gone. Then suddenly it is 9 year old Sylvia waiting for her father, wanting to get back to him. The two bereaved daughters are like mirrors of one another, hurt and helpless, like dreamers who cannot wake from a nightmare.


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