Carrying Books as a Safety Blanket: Why the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver Have Been My Travel Companions

A poet and avid reader of poetry explains why he always keeps certain poets’ works at hand. After all, life is never out of curveballs and it helps to be equipped with literature that seems to understand and lend a hand. By Sumeet Keswani

For the longest time, I carried around a thin poetry book, The Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath, in my backpack. No matter where I went, whether it was to the comfort of home in a one-horse town in Gujarat or to an unfamiliar European country in the pursuit of a riveting travel story, Plath accompanied me. Often, I didn’t need her. Diwali trips to home came with enough cleaning chores to clutter my mind so there’d be no space left for anything else; the colours of fall in Luxembourg, the abundance of art in Paris, and the medieval architecture of Prague shed a blinding light of discovery that was enough to annihilate a lifetime of lingering darkness.

But on the days that I needed Plath—like the day when a thick veil of snow ominously covered the Black Forest in Germany, chilling every creature to its bones, or when clouds filled every room of a two-house village straddling the India-Nepal border making silhouettes of friends, or the day I realised I no longer felt at home anywhere in this world—nobody else could’ve done. Nobody but Plath. She, after all, understood what it was like to feel everything intensely. “I don’t know what it is like to not have deep emotions. Even when I feel nothing, I feel it completely,” she famously wrote.

The horizons ring me like faggots
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a solider color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

—Sylvia Plath, Wuthering Heights

Even on journeys that didn’t have me reaching for Plath’s verses, it helped to know I had them to fall back on, just in case. Just in case the despair of everyday life got too heavy to lug around; just in case a brief spurt of joy shone too brightly, like the midday sun; just in case a memory broke open my heart at an inopportune place—like the middle of a Moroccan souk—and I did not know where to put down the vague pain of involuntary remembrance. Just in case. Sylvia Path’s confessional poetry didn’t decimate the darkness, it helped me embrace it. It gave me the courage to wear it like armour, to wield it like a weapon—in my own writing.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

—Sylvia Plath, Tulips

But of late, my personal sorrow has cast a much bigger net. One wide enough to ensconce the whole of the living world. This unparalleled planet—our only refuge in the infinite cosmos—that gasps for breath as humans choke entire ecosystems to death. In this season of rot and decay, Plath’s personal tragedies tend to fall short of expressing my vast helplessness—in saving myself and other creatures that deserve better. 

Enter Mary Oliver.

Much like Plath, Oliver, too, finds immensity in the small moments. But unlike Plath, who often found darkness and death lurking behind a shimmering veil, Oliver finds delight—in nature’s wonders that most of us take for granted. It’s true, familiarity is the bane of ecstasy. While a tourist finds bliss in the ocean’s lapping waves, a fisherman only sees a mundane means of livelihood. But Oliver overcomes that human folly and urges us to notice things more closely—and find the connections that she cannot help but feel. Her poems help you become “less yourself than part of everything.”

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
    reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
    what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
    tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
    ever, possibly, see one.

—Mary Oliver, The World I Live In

While many poets have anthropomorphised other living beings, Oliver has a way of turning the tables on humans. So, songbirds and flowers and trees do not bear the burden of comparison to the one species that exploits them endlessly. Instead, certain humans are elevated in stature with parallels drawn between them and whatever little miracle is taking place in front of the poet.

I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

— Mary Oliver, I Know Someone

I have often heard people recommending that you should memorise poems, especially your favourite ones. I never did, perhaps because as a school kid I was expected to learn them by rote and then recite them to pass my English exams. The unnecessarily harsh terms—and soulless nature of this method—put me off the whole exercise—a result that, I suspect, was completely contradictory to the purpose. But when I read Mary Oliver’s verses today, I understand why people feel the need to remember a poem. It’s so that you can pull it out of thin air at the very moment when it most resonates with your heart. It’s so that the bluebird’s song—and the wonder it births in you—has the perfect accompaniment in the woods of your inarticulate mind. 

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

—Mary Oliver, What Gorgeous Thing

As a poet, I also love how Oliver treats a poem: as gently as the fragile birdling being tended to on the cover of her poetry book, Devotions. This is the collection that I now carry in my backpack as a safety blanket. The book is much heavier on my back than the lithe Plath collection, but it’s so much lighter on the heart—and so full of childlike joy that it makes me look at the world anew.

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvellous
    to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
    mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
    in allegiance with gravity
        while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
    never be broken.
How people come, from the delight or the
    scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

— Mary Oliver, Mysteries, Yes

Which poems have helped you? Is there a book that you carry around as a safety blanket? Let me know in the comments.

Related: Frankenstein and Frankissstein: A Probe into Humanly Monstrosity

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