Isabella Kwai

Isabella Kwai
Isabella Kwai is a fellow at The Atlantic.
  • Julian Callos

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  • Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’ and the Desire to Be Left Alone

    Michaela Rehle / Reuters

    More than 50 years after her death, it’s difficult to untie Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy from her sensational, tragic trajectory: a troubled poet who succumbed to her mental illness. And yet, she was so much more than those last days: a Fulbright scholar, self-aware and brilliant, with a voice that’s evocative, turbulent, and unflinchingly confrontational. Like hundreds of other young women, I turned to Plath, with her pure, fearless authenticity, to ferry me through the tangle of growing up.

    “Tulips,” a poem published posthumously in 1965 in her most famous collection of poems, Ariel, burns with the achingly vivid imagery and unrestrained fervor that was Plath’s trademark. Composed after a stint in hospital recovering from an appendectomy, the poem finds Plath lying in an all-white room as she considers a bouquet of tulips next to her:

    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.

    Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   
    The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
    Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   
    And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   
    Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   
    And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   
    The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

    Reading “Tulips” now, I am always struck by the stark clash of red and white, the almost carnivorous quality of the flowers, and the desperate desire to be left alone. It was a desire that began creeping up on me too as I passed from girlhood to womanhood and the world, which had once seemed so light and open, started imposing its constraints. Suddenly, my body was a double-edged weapon; at night, I walked quickly, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, I entered a world that had been set up without my permission and seemed, sometimes, to whittle my ambitions down. Tulips put into words all the feelings I could not say—portraying the real life of one women, and in doing so, revealing a part of us all.

    In the midst of composing Ariel, Plath sensed that she was creating something special. “I am writing the best poems of my life,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “They will make me famous.” So many years later, I read this poem and the pain in it—barely restrained by the language—still stings afresh.

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  • Terry Gilliam / AP

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  • Tell Us: What's Your Most Profound Moment of Interfaith Worship?

    When you are deeply immersed in a religious faith, there is always the guilty understanding that falling out of your chosen religion reflects your own inner weakness, a moral failing. Many religions are predicated on an “all-or-nothing” ideology, which implicitly separates “unbelievers” from “believers.” This segregation always bothered me, as a Christian. I could never reconcile the gritty lines carved between religions, forcing us to declare who was wrong and who was right. After a prolonged, painful struggle, I decided to leave my religion.

    Immediately, it was like being unmoored in a vast, dangerous ocean. In an increasingly secular world where religion is no longer in vogue for young people, it seems like abandoning religion is an easy thing. Yet, what had always drawn me to religion was its capacity to comfort. It was an answer to the loneliness of the soul in a sprawling universe. It was the assurance of someone else being in the driver’s seat. So the abrupt disappearance of that after leaving Christianity was terrifying to me.

    Then, one evening after work, I found myself standing in a circle of 20 strangers in a church in Washington, D.C. I was at the monthly meeting of The Sanctuaries, a self-described “spiritually diverse and creative community committed to personal growth and social transformation.” (I had heard of the group when it was featured in a CBS News documentary, “Faith, Spirituality & the Future,” a preview of which is seen below, and embedded above is a music video made by members of The Sanctuaries.)

    The leader of the monthly meeting, a cheerful man who introduced himself as “Rev Erik,” seemed intent on assuaging away all awkwardness. “Why don’t we all just close our eyes,” he suggested gently, “And whenever you’re comfortable—only if you’re comfortable—feel free to say aloud the being or force that guides your life.”

    The silence stretched. I peeked open my eyes. A girl across the circle in a hijab saw me and smiled.