The literary fate of Sylvia Plath brings into high relief the process by which a writer—a person—becomes an icon, frozen in time, reduced to a definitive set of contours. The Plath Cabinet, inspired and driven both by Plath’s published work and by the hundreds and hundreds of pieces in the Lilly Library at Indiana University’s Plath archive, houses a suite of poems that exhumes, examines, and ultimately troubles our preconceived notions of “Sylvia Plath.” Fueled by the ephemeral—a lock of hair, paper dolls, childhood To-Do lists—as well as the monumental, The Plath Cabinet is by turns analytic, whimsical and ecstatic as it takes out and re-arranges the pieces of our collective understanding of Plath and re-introduces us to her as a living, breathing force.
Bowman here plays off Plath’s place in the cabinet and the canon. This collection is an homage to, exploration of, and conversation with the work and myth of Sylvia Plath—an obsessive Virgilian expedition into the ways Plath and her legacy inhabit us. Creating a book that acts as a pseudo-archive, Bowman examines objects kept protected under lock and key: Plath’s wedding invitations, her passport, her instructions to her nanny. The Plath Cabinet presents several ekphrastic poems responding to the enchanting, voluptuous paper dolls Plath painstakingly designed when she was a young girl. Elsewhere, Bowman creates an original bestiary out of animals in Plath’s poems, including, hauntingly, the “zoo-keeper’s wife.”
The Plath Cabinet is not simply an unparalleled biography: it is a memoir in poems, telling the story of Bowman’s relationship to Plath and to poetry. The Plath Cabinet turns to forms and wordplay that work against Plath’s dense, highly crafted style in order to create tension and to explore Plath’s work in the context of larger cultural and social constructions—the poetic, the everyday, the domestic, the feminine. “It has always been about the ferryman,” Bowman writes, and one leaves this book newly aware of the urgency that lies behind Bowman’s poems. The Plath Cabinet is a must-read for Plath-lovers, for anyone interested in memoir and biography, and for all readers of contemporary poetry. Bowman raises new possibilities for our relationship with the acclaimed writers whose words we inherit and revere.