The Thin Red Underline

Brian Michael Murphy
October 17, 2013
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In his essential, slim volume Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes elaborated his theory of the punctum–that element of a photograph that “pierces” you, haunts you, pulls you into the image and resonates with something deeply personal. A few months back, while digging through the old Kenyon Review files in the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives, I came across a letter from Sylvia Plath to the Review’s editor, Robie Macauley.  Plath expresses her happiness that “The Colossus” and “The Bee-Keeper’s Daughter” have been accepted for publication and offers a short bio. What remains with me from this form letter–the punctum, if you will–is not so much her original signature, written in black ink, as I would have expected, but the red, colored pencil underline she drew below her name.

Last summer, one of my students in The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop shared several of her favorite Plath poems with me, and as she read them, I felt as if I understood for the first time the power that many people have found in Plath’s work. The same day I found the letter in the archives, which might partially account for the haunting quality of the underline. It isn’t that I didn’t come across other memorable items in the archives, like a pic of Paul Newman (’49) performing in drag, the great athlete Eppa Rixey III’s gigantic, half-bronzed basketball shoes, Napoleon’s autograph, a first edition of The Scarlett Letter.

I don’t know if underlining one’s name was common in typed letters at the time, or whether this was a particular habit of hers (though she doesn’t underline her name in another letter in the archive from a few months later). In any case, I’ve chosen not to reproduce the letter here, out of fear that it would not have the same effect on you, the same fear that led Barthes not to include “the Winter Garden photograph” that animated so much of his meditation on photography. Besides, the punctum comes when it is least expected; you can’t look for it to find it; it is something that happens to you, like “a wound.” Perhaps this is what I appreciate most about Plath’s poems: the suddenness of certain impossible images, when she “squat[s] in the cornucopia of your left ear” or when “The queen bee marries the winter of your year.”

Whenever I dig through an archive, I have an idea of what I’m looking for, truly hope to find it, and am often thrilled when I do. What keeps me digging, though, are the unexpected treasures: the still-brilliant color on the air mail stamp sent from 3 Chalcot Square, the signature that is all too legible, seemingly from a hand striving for control, the cold address that fails to indicate what I know happened in that house, the thin red underline.

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