The Baby in the Barn

March 24, 2009

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, . . .
You are the baby in the barn
                   — Sylvia Plath, 1932- 1963
                       American poet
                       from “Nick and the Candlestick,” written for her son, Nicholas Hughes, 1962-2009

Nicholas Hughes, a well-respected marine ecologist associated with the University of Alaska, died last week. He was forty-seven years old.

That’s what I should have written yesterday when I posted this fact on my Facebook status. I don’t have a newspaper up here in the north Georgia mountains, nor cable TV, and Internet service is available only in the Rock House, a rugged quarter mile down a steep trail (if you walk) or a little longer down a long and winding and very bumpy road if you drive. I’d worked on my fiction from just after 8:00 until noon, and then took that march along the trail, the first time since I got here that I’d actually put on my hiking boots and taken my trekking pole out of the car.

When I use the house computer I get my e-mail from my ISP’s website. The first screen contains bulleted headlines that I usually only glance at, leaving me dimly aware that the Dow has had a surge, David Letterman got married, and a state car assigned to Pennsylvania’s governor was determined to have been speeding on western Pennsylvania highways when the governor was in eastern Pennsylvania. I click through to the mail log-in screen very quickly, since those things are just not part of my world right now.

But I gasped at the headline about Nicholas Hughes. I read the article, and then announced it on my Facebook status, my equivalent now of wailing it in the marketplace, of talking to my friends about it in the faculty room. Were I still in the classroom, I’d have told my students about it and read them the poem quoted above, because the death of an expert on Alaska fisheries doesn’t make the Comcast news bullets in Pennsylvania unless he was also the son of two mightily talented poets, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Nicholas Hughes was thirteen months old in 1963 when his mother, struggling with depression and loneliness and the cold, killed herself. He was seven when his stepmother murdered his four-year-old half-sister and then killed herself. And he had just turned forty-seven when, for reasons that have not been made clear and are probably none of our business anyway, he, too, took his own life.

So I wrote on Facebook, “Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, has committed suicide. He was less than a year old when his mother ran out of hope in 1963. Alas.” One of my friends commented that she “supposed he convinced himself this was destiny.” And without meaning to, I started a mild Facebook bicker-fest by responding, “I don’t want to make that assumption. I want to let him have his own life, and his own death.” There were a few more exchanges, the original poster expressing annoyance at having been perceived as taking something away from the unfortunate Dr. Hughes. “We are all woven into webs of family,” she said.

Those webs of connection are certainly not unknown to me. In recent weeks I have been writing frequently about how we need to carry each other, care for each other, encourage each other in our struggles and celebrate with each other in our successes. It was the assumption that “he convinced himself that this was his destiny” that struck me as wrong. Nobody I know was actually ever acquainted with Nicholas Hughes, nor with his mother. We know about them, and because what we know about them is so romantically tragic, we think we know them, too. I am guilty myself of having spoken somewhat cavalierly about Sylvia Plath’s death in my very first blog post.

I speak about these matters now only because of the poem, “Nick and the Candlestick,” written near the end of Sylvia Plath’s life (an end whose time and circumstances she appears to have chosen), in that last furious burst of creative genius that burned through her soul and onto the page. She called him “the baby in the barn,” an allusion perhaps to the Christ child, who came to save the world. To Plath, her children were as essential to her identity as her poems. “I will write until I begin to speak my deep self, and then have children, and speak still deeper,” she wrote in her journal. They would be her completion, her salvation.

I have never been particularly drawn to Plath’s work, finding a connection only in the poems she wrote about her children. She loved them, she saw them as the redemption of her pain and her personal suffering. And yet that suffering was so severe that she did the worst thing a mother can do — she abandoned them to live their lives without her, and at so young an age that they could have no memories of her. Adding to the tragedy was the fact that her tortured life and melodramatic end were so well-known to so many people that the children’s perceptions had to have been shaped in part by public speculation about her and about their role in her life.

I was looking through my own journals today, in search of material I wrote when I first began to consider the ideas that I am exploring in my novel. Lynn was in tenth grade then, and I came upon some passages I wrote in the first weeks after she acquired her first car. She was driving herself to school, to church, to activities with friends, to her flute lesson. No longer having to perform these duties for her should have given me great delight as it freed me to devote more time to pursuing my own interests. Instead I felt sad because this luminous child, whose existence had been such a gift to me, was moving farther and farther away from me.

“I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name,” Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother when Nicholas was nine months old. I am doing the best writing of my life right now, and I believe it is no coincidence that this burst of creativity is coming now, at this time, in this place. Becoming Lynn’s mother allowed me to begin to speak my deep self, and her move into her independent adult life allows me to speak it deeper still.

I don’t know if Nicholas Hughes felt destined to commit suicide. As strange as it sounds, I want to think that the demons that led him to take such an unequivocal action were his own. His mother thought that he could carry her, and then she didn’t let him. I weep for him.

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