Sylvia Plath’s Ponytail

By Bayveen O’Connell

I started taking an interest in Sylvia at a young age, as many girls do, and she became a puzzle, muse and a cause in my life. I read her poems ravenously, felt injured at her injustices and hoped the love of my life would be less of a demon than hers. Now I stand looking into a box: on a bed of fluffy tissue Sylvia Plath’s ponytail rests tied at the end with a blue ribbon. The thought that her mother cut it on Sylvia’s demand when she was 13, wrapped it up and saved it is creepily Victorian enough, but the sight of that strawberry blond fibrous snake, headless and unmoving makes it even more macabre. The hair meant innocence, immaturity and lack of restraint; the wildness of a feral flowing id. Feminine beauty budding, yes little girls should have long, pretty ponytails. But these cascading features are easily grabbed and yanked to control them. Stay safe pamphlets will tell you that opportunistic rapists will seek out girls with tied up hair. If they have your locks, they have you, so snip off the tail. Shed the girlhood, protect your womanhood and leave it on the floor to be swept up and disposed of. That is, unless you’re Sylvia Plath’s mother and you keep it in a box as a denial serpent. An umbilical cord that won’t break and the woman will always be a child and the child will always be these bound strands of hair before real life comes to pull them out, thin them or make them grey.

But did the hair have power? Should Sylvia have kept it? Was it her strength like Sampson? Or should it have been destroyed, a symbol of weakness, a link to Daddy and losing him? Did it become a childhood relic that meant Hughes, playing bad Daddy, got to infantilise her to the world? It’s strange to think this ponytail, which is now sitting in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC behind perfectly polished glass, is a bunch of keratin fibres that was once connected to her skull. What’s most disturbing is that people want to come and see her disembodied hair, like the way you can go to Moscow and witness Lenin laid out as fresh as the day he died.

I wondered if there was a connection — spiritual, psychic or emotional between the poet and her mane before she left the world? And if so, does one exist now with Sylvia’s hairhaving outlived her almost twice over? The reason I’m considering this is that I think violence, trauma and memory have a physical energy that can be channelled invisibly through time and space. It has also occurred to me because while these curious tresses have been travelling around the country in various exhibits, strange things have happened to men who beat their wives. The papers say that so far, seven men with domestic restraining orders have been found choked to death in their beds. There were no signs of disturbance, weapons or fingerprints, though all men were found with one or two fine blue threads tangled round their fingertips. But what would I know? I’m only the curator who comes to check everything is as it should be before closing Sylvia’s space come dusk. Though I must confess, I may have forgotten to fully lock up on more than one occasion.


Bayveen O’Connell lives in Dublin and loves grim and quirky ideas. Her writing has appeared in/ or will appear in Selene Quarterly, The Cabinet of Heed, Molotov Cocktail, Rag Queen Periodical, Underground Writers, Drabblez Magazine, Lonesome October Lit, Mansion and Rhythm & Bones Lit.