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Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath    by Stephanie Hemphill order for
Your Own, Sylvia
by Stephanie Hemphill
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Sylvia Plath said: 'Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.' In Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath, Stephanie Hemphill has created a collage of the life and work of American writer Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Arranged chronologically from Plath's birth to the month of her suicide, Hemphill's verses are written from the points of view of people involved in Sylvia's life. The voices of Plath's mother, and British poet and husband Ted Hughes are integrated with those of fleeting acquaintances. Hemphill has chosen each to underscore a unique aspect of the subject's fiery life and tumultuous literary career.

Hemphill's challenging approach is to capture Plath's life as a poet through poems of her own, in which the author's form is of eminent importance (as it was to Plath herself). Many of the selections were created in the style of specific Plath poems, while others are scattered with Plath's imagery and language. Although Hemphill's work is classified as fiction, its contents are drawn from nonfiction sources, including biographies and Plath's journals and letters. Each of Hemphill's poems is accompanied by footnotes linking Hemphill's imagined scenes with the facts. Rather than write in Plath's voice, Hemphill channels the voices of those who knew the poet in chronologically arranged poems, from the perspective of family members, friends, colleagues, and medical sources. The result is an intimate, comprehensive, imaginative view of a life that also probes the relationships between poetry and creativity, mental fragility, love, marriage, and betrayal.

Beginning with Owning Sylvia Plath, Hemphill writes, 'Who are you, Sylvia Plath? / A cold comet locked in place by gravity? / A glint in the cracked ceiling above my bed? ... Readers tremble over your pages, / believe you spell out / letter by letter / the words of their hearts. / What's your secret, Sylvia? / Are you the moon? ... the sun? / And I wonder who can possess the stuff of the sky?' In the last entry, Your Own, Sylvia, Imagining Sylvia Plath In the style of 'Child', the author indites, 'She could not help burning herself / From the inside out, / Consuming herself / Like the sun. / But the memory of her light blazes / Our dark ceiling. / She could not know how long / Her luminary would map the sky, / Or where her dying would lead the lost. / But for those who gaze heavenly / Or into the reflected pool of night, / She is fuel. She is dust. She is a guiding star.'

Stephanie Hemphill has presented her subject through a unique approach, reinforcing Plath's own works and that of other biographers. The author provides a creative interpretation of how friends, family, and acquaintances view(ed) Sylvia Plath, writing in a fashion that allows readers to better comprehend the backdrop to her life and death. A bright and gifted young woman, and a Fulbright scholar, Sylvia Plath hid her suffering from lurid depressions. Her first poem was published at age eight. She garnered various awards and scholarships, including a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the Collected Poems. Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar - about a summer as guest editor at Mademoiselle and her breakdown - became a classic of American literature, with over two million copies sold. British husband and poet Ted Hughes burnt many of Sylvia's diaries after her death.

Hemphill's book is a must read not only for Plath-lovers, but also for high school students and college English majors. Readers unfamiliar with Plath will relish the protagonist's unpredictable and engaging journey, bringing a gifted talent, Sylvia Plath, into the light for new generations.

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