Sylvia Plath’s poems, especially those that were written just before her suicide in 1963, are so raw with emotion that it can be hard to read them in any other way but confessional. While it is undisputed that most of what she wrote did reflect the absolute turbulence of her mind during that time period, her poetry does transcend its autobiographical element and can offer us a means of connecting with our own emotional state, but only if we allow it. Sometimes when it is well known that a poet or novelist writes in a deeply personal way, we can have a tendency as readers to keep their work at arms length, and our own emotions as well. This should not be the case with Plath. The poem “Mirror” is part of the collection Crossing the Water, which was published posthumously in 1971. It does indeed reflect the fear and absolute loathing she felt about the idea of aging: “What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age.” It also reflects what it meant to be a woman at a time when the definition of gender roles was rapidly changing, but this is a poem whose meaning speaks to everyone, young or old, male or female. After all, who doesn’t spend time looking in the mirror?
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
One of the things I love best about this poem is that it’s actually written from the mirror’s point of view, which is something that most of us have probably never considered. It opens with the mirror revealing a bit about itself, and making no apologies for being the truth teller that it is. It reflects back to us exactly what it sees, unclouded by feelings of any kind, and with no malicious intent. In this sense, the mirror’s point of view cannot be argued. It swallows what it sees because as we stand in front of it, time continues to pass and our image of just one second ago is now lost somewhere in its depths. It is absolute in its power and like “the eye of a little god.” It has seen many faces that come and go, and darkness when no one is standing before it. We get the feeling that the mirror meditates on the pink speckles of the opposite wall because it is waiting, patiently, for whatever is coming next.
In the second stanza, the mirror has now become a lake with its own reflective surface that the woman visits everyday, “searching [its] reaches for what she really is.” At times she turns away, and the mirror reflects her back, constant and consistent, while she turns to things like candles and moonlight. They are liars because they cannot be trusted to reflect the truth. Candles flicker and don’t provide real illumination, and we often see things in moonlight that aren’t really there. When she turns back to the mirror the image she sees upsets her, and she disturbs it with her tears or her hands. Yet the mirror senses its importance now. It has been waiting for this moment when she would return every day, and it could reflect the unavoidable truth: the young woman is gone, swallowed up, and only the “terrible fish” remains, rising to greet her.
Aside from the obvious theme of aging and the difficulty we often have in accepting that fact, it is also true that what we see when we look in a mirror can disturb us for other reasons too. Is what we are seeing a true reflection of who we really are? Our answer begs an even more important question: are we are more bothered by the truth or the lie? What we see reflected in a mirror is our own sense of authenticity, or the lack thereof. That may certainly have something to do with aging gracefully, but it can be related to many other factors as well. Do we accept the image we see as real and true, yet find it disturbing because we know that we can’t allow it to remain trapped in just this mirror forever? Or do we deny the image, and push it down, deliberately allowing it to drown and be replaced by something terrible that will continue to frighten us each and every day? If we search for who we really are, the answer will eventually be revealed to us. The question is what are we willing to do with what it is that we see?
For today’s cocktail, I decided to go with a riff on the classic Vesper because it’s a drink whose identity is solid and sure. It will forever be known as James Bond’s cocktail. Most Vesper recipes recommend using a London Dry gin, but I wanted Standard Wormwood as my main spirit. Its flavor profile is different because it’s made from a whiskey base rather than vodka, and it has wormwood added in. The herbal presence is amazing and I have found this gin to be fabulous in cocktails. In keeping with my original intention to work with wine as an ingredient in some of these poetry cocktails, I used a rich California Chardonnay from Dreaming Tree, a collaboration between musician Dave Matthews and winemaker Sean McKenzie. The Chardonnay was replacing the Lillet Blanc, so I needed it to have lots of bright citrus and the vanilla and caramel notes that come from time spent in oak barrels. The Dreaming Tree delivered just what I needed, and the aging process was part of the reason why. Since the Vesper was essentially a Martini, I did not want to add any citrus, but I wanted there to be citrus in the drink. I used Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog liqueur and DRAM’s Citrus Medica bitters to bring in just the right amount of lemon flavor. Each of these ingredients were reflections of one another, and brought us back to the meaning of the poem. The Chardonnay’s oakiness mirrored the nutty flavor of the gin, the Etrog echoed the wine’s bright citrus, and the bitters developed those citrus notes even more. The Standard Wormwood has an herbal component as well, and the Etrog drew that out. When sipping this cocktail, I had the impression that the individual components were like reflections that bounced off of one another until settling into one unified whole. Because it’s strong, we need to drink it slowly, and that gives us time to turn that reflection inward. Cheers everyone. Happy Monday!
Silver and Exact
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir until very, very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail or martini glass. Express a lemon peel over the drink and garnish. Enjoy!