Crossing the Water
Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.
A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.
Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;
Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.
This is the first poem in the poetry book of the same name Crossing the Water being a 1971 posthumous collection of poetry by Sylvia Plath that Ted Hughes prepared for publication. The collection was published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1975.
S1 – it seems a dark night journey over the water … everything is black … and there is dark mystery in the personification of the numerous trees close to the water … the setting sounds like New Hampshire, America, perhaps after she was married and there with TH
S2 – the water flowers sound like lilies and the white picks up any light … filtering suggestive that the water is processing and giving up something via the lilies … thick leaves are preventing the boat from easy movement … and again darkness prevails in their advice … what are the water lilies saying? – don’t cross or go slow … more mystery in the personification of the flowers – are they trying to drag the boat down to a dark peril?
S3 – cold worlds that shake from the oar … the water is cold and another world, the mysterious world that is below … and the spirit of blackness is in us as though the black environment now enters us or gives recognition to our nature too … and as the boat passes through the mass of lilies the passing message is personified as a pale hand trying to catch the boat … like a snag catching hold of a fisherman’s line, it is always difficult to free a snagged line most times you lose hook and sinker
S4 – ‘stars open among the lilies’ – my first thought went to a patch of clear water with reflections from the sky – but perhaps more likely reference to the flowers themselves … in the next line their effect is so dramatic to be blinded – at least SP is blinded and this is after all the dark, dark, dark and then they are referred to as sirens for their beauty, imposing her femineity … clearly this sighting had a dramatic effect on SP … and in the last line there is a counter-play of silence as if SP and the audience is mummified
This is not the only SP poem which contrasts blackness with a sudden luminous spark of ‘heaven’ – consider, for example, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ which also shows the extremes in the persona of SP.
Unfortunately the spirit of blackness haunted SP all of her life … in the poem the snag lifted and the boat moved on through the mass of lilies. Sadly, we all know that it was only a temporary reprieve and that her journey was cut short by those unsinkable demons below the surface.