I started thinking there was something seriously wrong with my body the winter I first heard her voice. An irrepressibly feminine 19-year-old boy, I had a habit of cropping “women things” out of my selfies and redacting them from my fiction—my love of lingerie and long hair had no place in my work, and only homophobic caricatures of gay men still crossed their legs like I did. I strove to pare away any part of me that jeopardized the virility I needed to be modern gay, the Sean Cody machismo I believed was a prerequisite if I ever hoped to earn love. That winter, I couldn’t sleep without imagining a tenderness I feared I was forbidden from. I harassed the guys who ignored me on Grindr. I began drinking in earnest.
Walking into Literature of the 20th Century one November morning, they were projecting the audio from Plath’s 1962 reading of “Daddy” over images of crystal balls, black horses, and undersaturated childhood photos of the author. If the poem is great, Plath’s reading is a masterpiece: her voice is haughty without sounding confrontational, violent without any rage.
I would have given up my legs for that voice. I used to spend hours attempting to correct my own, trying to grind down its insistent, imperious edge, hoping to dock an octave overnight just as cleanly as a breeder clips a Doberman’s tail. In middle school I would listen to men’s voices on TV and try to imitate them, forcing a hollow, floppy alto. It didn’t stick. With Plath, I found a voice whose power I could recognize, the timbre feminine without being soft. I had finally found something in my range.
The rest of the semester found me listening to Plath read “Lady Lazarus” or “Daddy” while sewing or knitting hats. As if the universe could smell my new source of confidence, I met a handsome man in D.C. whose brute charm drew me to the city every weekend as fast as Amtrak could take me. I wrote whole stories based off single lines of hers: “I am a miner” finds a masculine gay man struggling to control his otiose and insouciant boyfriend; “The vampire who said he was you” follows a transwoman in a cabin in winter, staving off real and imagined demons. These were violent, confessional worlds I was styling, more Hieronymus Bosch than Love, Simon, and I shared them with absolutely no one, certainly not my lover. I couldn’t admit I didn’t just like her. In the atavistic reaches of my reptile brain, I had become her.
Because at 19, she was me. Aching for greatness, stressing over boys, and falling victim, on random days, to an oppressive, selective numbness. Not to mention we share a taste in men. She fell for a fellow poet whose physical size stood testament to his literary heft: Ted Hughes, whose bulk promised Plath a warm sort of oblivion. She fell in love, moved camp to the United Kingdom, counted all the trees on their new property and explored her poetic depths with fresh vigor. Years of growth and greatness followed. She started keeping bees. Then, during the coldest winter in British history, Hughes chose the other woman. Betrayed by the embodiment of inconstant masculinity, could I be blamed for seeing, in her pain, my own? Winter feels the same every year.
In March my lover stopped responding. I quickly fell ill. I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone about how raw it hurt, how it felt to wane so suddenly. In desperate need of some structure, I set myself a task: I would memorize two of her poems a week until I felt better. I wrote out the poems by hand, carried them around in my breast pocket, muttered them at the dining hall and during down time between class. Piece by piece, I replaced my voice with hers. I, too, started thinking of myself as “infinitely precious,” a weapon of cruelty, of beauty. When she writes “I do not fear” the pit, it is because she has “been there… I know it with my great tap root,” it’s reassuring. She touched it and survived. That month I wrote about snowy hellscapes, the apocalypse, poison; I killed my lover with an axe, he killed me with a Metro car, and children were plucked from their beds by pale, toothless monsters, never to be heard from again. I got my strength back and, when spring finally came, I started putting flowers in my hair.
It was years before I actually bought Ariel. By then I was wearing more dresses, experimenting with makeup, referring to myself—at least, in anonymous surveys—as trans. What shocked me was not how sharp the poems looked on the page, but how tender. I never noticed “Nick and the Candle-Stick” was sweet, never saw—in “Morning Song”— a paean to love between mothers and daughters. Plath’s reading voice is so fierce you don’t realize the words are lovely. Following her example, I let myself melt, and learned to appreciate my power as well as capacity for mercy.
My ideal silhouette is sharp and slim. My ideal self wears silver. My ideal hair is thick and wound in a chignon. I still struggle to write my truth, still struggle to understand where I fit in a queer world obsessed with guileless manhood. But thanks to her, I am starting to put the pieces together. Across decades, genders, and continents, a voice like hers carries.
Drew Kiser is a writer based in Le Havre, France. His works have appeared in Spider Mirror, Vanilla Sex Magazine, and Maudlin House. He can be reached on Twitter @drewkiser666.