Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath

Have you had enough Sylvia Plath this week? I hope note, because I’ve got another review for you today.

Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath is the collection between The Colossus and before the publication of Ariel (my review), and it continues to push the envelop between dark and light.  Plath has come to represent the dichotomy of dark and light in all of us, with our deep passions and desires that lie in tension with our duty to family and society.  In this collection, the water becomes a metaphor for the surface veneer that many of us carry, but Plath examines how easily this surface can be shaken and disturbed.

In “Finisterre,” “Now it is only gloomy, a dump of rocks–/Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars./The sea cannons into their ear, but they don’t budge./Other rocks hide their grudges under the water.//”  (page 15)  Plath examines the aging process and the grudges carried from the past into the present and how that sullies the outside like the weathering of a rock face.  The poem further flourishes into a series of worshiping people looking to that which is beyond themselves, particularly the larger “Lady of the Shipwrecked” who admires the sea as the man worships her and the peasant worships the sailor.

Crossing the Water (page 14)

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Many of these poems are about the art of reflection or reflecting the outside world, becoming or acting as a mirror without judgment. Speaking in “Widow,” the narrator runs through the typical emotions of loneliness without the spouse, but later in the poem, Plath explores the weight of the lost spouse’s memory and how it still lies heavily on her life even as the man has died.  It is this shadow from which she cannot escape even in widowhood.  However, there also is a certain distance to these poems, like Plath is holding readers at arm’s length — each poem depicts a sense of control.  But her observances of mindless working zombies on city streets or the attempt to recapture youth through cosmetic surgery are spot on and raise an awareness of the foolhardy nature of hubris.

There is a disquietude in these poems, but yet a blissful communion with nature. It is as if she is recognizing the connection we have with nature, but at the same time calling attention to what separates us from it, like in “I Am Vertical.”  Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath may be the smallest of her collections, but is no less powerful.  It looks at life through the lens of a woman at odds with herself and society.

This is my 11th book for the Dive Into Poetry Challenge 2013.




Click the image below for today’s National Poetry Month tour stop!


  1. When I think of Plath, I think only of dark. The Bell Jar was just so dark for me. I asked to be on the tour for a book about her but they filled up.

    • Much of her poetry is dark, but there are some humorous and satiric moments as well. This is probably one of the least dark collections. I hope you get to read Winder’s book; I highly recommend it because it is so well written and doesn’t once border on boring, which says a lot for biography. It also shows Plath in a younger, more vibrant light.

  2. I especially like the line “The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.” Plath did focus on the dark, but she also understood human nature. We all (and even the fishes) have a big of darkness in us.

  3. Beth Hoffman says

    Lovely, especially this simple line: “Their leaves do not wish us to hurry.”

  4. I like that poem a lot. Usually I avoid her because of the “gloom” factor! :–)