Medusa and Medusas: Plath and Estrada


In this chat, I want to talk a bit about the Sylvia Plath poem “Medusa” and the Lucia Estrada poem “Medusas” and see what Estrada has done with Plath’s influence. First a translation of the Estrada poem. I am drawing on Olivia Lott’s recent translation, with a few divergences. Afterwards, I will offer a reading of how Estrada flips the script on Plath’s “Medusa.”

Medusas

Medusas

  • Te mueves en un mar perplejo. Tus ojos desechan antiguas claridades en las que un árbol era un árbol, y la ardiente sal, un motivo para ir por el mundo.
  • You move in an incoherent sea. Your eyes jettison the ancient clarities in which a tree was a tree, and hot salt, a motive to head towards the world.
  • Como los restos de un barco, te dejas abrazar por el oleaje. Tienes piedad de ti, y de aquello que dejaste en la orilla.
  • Like the wreckage of a ship, you leave the surf to embrace you. You pity yourself and that you have left on the shore.
  • Abiertas medusas te rodean. Es verdad que todo tiende sus redes hacia ti en este instante. Quieres volver porque tienes miedo, pero ya es imposible. El secreto debe ser devorado completamente. Vuelves, sin embargo, dentro de ti, reconoces como cierto el rojo impulso que te lanzó al mar.
  • Open medusas enclose you. Truly all nets now tend in your direction. Afraid, you want to return, but that is already closed off. The secret is to be completely consumed. You return, nevertheless, within yourself, admitting as a fact the red impulse that threw you to the sea.
  • Respiras más allá de ti, más allá de nosotros. Haces que la carrera sea más larga. Te sigo de cerca sin saber, sintiendo cómo los días se desintegran, cómo el error va ganando altura y se arroja indiferente al vacío.
  • You breathe even beyond yourself, even beyond us. You have lengthened this traversal. I followed unknowing, as if the days disintegrate, as if the winning mistake had gained the highground and tossed itself cooly into space.
  • La piedra que sostuvo tus pies por un momento se hizo polvo antes de que pudieras arrepentirte. Para entonces todo estuvo de acuerdo; la luz, la línea exacta de la noche.
  • The stone momentarily supporting your shoe turned to dust before you could reconsider. But then everything accorded with itself; the light, the exact line of the night.
  • Cada vez más dócil al remolino, cada vez más dueña de la libertad de perderte. ¿Qué harás para llamarte en medio del fragor si en el horizonte azul se pierden también las palabras?
  • Each time submitting more to the whirlpool, each time controlling more the freedom to forget yourself. How will you call yourself in such a din if the blue horizon too forgets the words?
  • Deja que la corriente diluya entre nosotros este tiempo sin orillas.
  • Leave now the current to wash away this time between us, shoreless time between us.

And now the two poems side-by-side.

Medusa

  • Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
  • Eyes rolled by white sticks,
  • Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences,
  • You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
  • Lens of mercies,
  • Your stooges
  • Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
  • Pushing by like hearts,
  • Red stigmata at the very center,
  • Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of departure,

  • Dragging their Jesus hair.
  • Did I escape, I wonder?
  • My mind winds to you
  • Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
  • Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.

  • In any case, you are always there,
  • Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
  • Curve of water upleaping
  • To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
  • Touching and sucking.
  • I didn’t call you.
  • I didn’t call you at all.
  • Nevertheless, nevertheless
  • You steamed to me over the sea,
  • Fat and red, a placenta

  • Paralyzing the kicking lovers.
  • Cobra light
  • Squeezing the breath from the blood bells
  • Of the fuchsia. I could draw no breath,
  • Dead and moneyless,

  • Overexposed, like an X-ray.
  • Who do you think you are?
  • A Communion wafer? Blubbery Mary?
  • I shall take no bite of your body,
  • Bottle in which I live,

  • Ghastly Vatican.
  • I am sick to death of hot salt.
  • Green as eunuchs, your wishes
  • Hiss at my sins.
  • Off, off, eely tentacle!
  • There is nothing between us.

Medusas

  • You move in an incoherent sea. Your eyes jettison the ancient clarities in which a tree was a tree, and hot salt, a motive to head towards the world.

  • Like the wreckage of a ship, you leave the surf to embrace you. You pity yourself and that you have left on the shore.

  • Open medusas enclose you. Truly all nets now tend in your direction. Afraid, you want to return, but that is already closed off. The secret is to be completely consumed. You return, nevertheless, within yourself, admitting as a fact the red impulse that launched you to the sea.

  • You breathe even beyond yourself, even beyond us. You have lengthened this traversal. I followed unknowing, as if the days disintegrate, as if the winning mistake had gained the highground and tossed itself cooly into space.

  • The stone momentarily supporting your shoe turned to dust before you could reconsider. But then everything accorded with itself; the light, the exact line of the night.

  • Each time submitting more to the whirlpool, each time controlling more the freedom to forget yourself. How will you call yourself in such din if the blue horizon too forgets the words?

  • Leave now the current to wash away this time between us, shoreless time between us.

Now, a much better reading of Plath’s “Medusa” than I could provide has been given by Don Tresca. Here is the skinny on the Path poem: the medusa (alternatively, the gorgon and the jellyfish) is the mother, whose past sacrificial care is both being acknowledged and cast off as oppressive in favor of the speaker achieving her own freedom and identity. The final line, then, is an ambiguous victory: “There is nothing between us” suggesting there is no connection between us, the umbilical cord has been cut and I, the speaker, am now on my own; but of course it can also mean that there is no distance or distinction between us, the speaker has failed to become independent, the eely tentacles have cought here.

It is natural to read the Estrada poem as a perspective flip on “Medusa.” This works as a first approximation. “Medusas” might suggest that rather than getting Plath’s biographically rooted drama we are getting a more generalized picture: this is a mother’s perspective on their child’s burgeoning independence which many mothers will share. There are two crucial changes in the situation, beyond the change in perspective.

  1. There is some dissociation here between the medusa and speaker. Perhaps the medusa too has been generalized to a metaphor for any paralyzing obstacle.
  2. Estrada’s you seems to be much less successful in forging her own path than Plath’s I: where Plath’s I was metaphorically a boat fording the sea (“my keel’s shadow”), Estrada’s you is in much danger of being consumed by the sea (and is like “the wreckage of a ship”).

Still, these might not be changes in the narrative so much as consequences of the change in perspective.

  1. The mother does not see herself as a medusa, i.e. as the monster the child must evade/slay. Instead what has driven the child away is something within the child — “a motive to head towards the world,” “a red impulse” — and not the “stooges” of the mother.
  2. The child and mother disagree as to how well the child’s independence is going. Where the one thinks the child is drowning, the other understands this as merely changing.

The major difference is what this independence means. For Plath, it is freedom, particularly the freedom of self-definition. For Estrada, though, the subject is in part defined by the connection to the mother, so this freedom is merely “the freedom to forget yourself.” Furthermore, the sea is not a freeing space, but “incoherent,” filled with medusas, nets, whirlpools. It is natural to understand what the subject has left behind from the speaker’s perspective as including not only the speaker but something broader: a community, perhaps, or a way of life. After all, the subject has rejected not just the speaker but “the ancient clarities.”

Finally, let’s turn to the last line. Like with Plath’s final line, there is a pregnant ambiguity here. First we have a specification of what is between them: time. But what time? Again, we have what can alternatively be a connection or a divide. The time between them might be the speaker’s childhood, and so its being washed away is the finalization of their separation. On the other hand, the time between them might be the generational gap, so the final line could be looking forward to the time where the subject too becomes a mother with a child after yet her own independence and so occupies the current position of the speaker, so this washing away would be a metaphorical (though, sadly, non-actual) reunion.

So the movement towards separation is given a complex treatment in the poem. It is at once both rash and violent (a “red impulse”) and also natural and right (“a motive to head towards the world,” when “everything accorded with itself”). Thinking of the possible cyclical/generational nature of this movement suggests a similar complexity, where it is a both cyclical and represents real changes. Such generational transitions/disruptions are the product of a changing society, particularly a colonized society: where the old generational transitions still of necessity occur, children still grow up, but the old understanding of how that is supposed to work can no longer be assumed. (Ozu is the great filmmaker of just such transitions.)