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  • Writer's pictureNazifa Islam

“Four Songs from the Bell Jar”

Updated: May 21

I had the pleasure of connecting with Belgian composer Alexandre Jamar back in 2019; he read my Virginia Woolf found poems in Gulf Coast and reached out about a potential collaboration. The plan was for him to adapt “Rid of Effulgence” into a song. This was an incredibly exciting opportunity and I jumped at the chance to work with Alexandre. Unfortunately, the pandemic ended up putting a kibosh on this particular collaboration as the world shut down and the planned debut performance of the song (we were thinking it’d happen in Summer 2020) never happened. This was of course disappointing, but fortunately the pandemic didn’t put an end to the possibility of us working together.

 

In late 2020, Alexandre emailed me again asking if I had any new work that he could adapt to music. I sent him a number of Sylvia Plath found poems and he selected “Psyche” to work from. “Psyche” was written using a paragraph from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and Alexandre decided on a unique approach to adapting it; he asked if I could create a sequence out of the poem, which resulted in my creating a four-section erasure version of “Psyche.” He ultimately named his song adaptation “Four Songs from the Bell Jar.” I think “Four Songs from the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath” didn’t have quite the right ring to it.

 

“Four Songs from the Bell Jar” was performed in concert by the Ensemble Écoute in Paris in December of 2022. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week in Paris—so much good food and so many fantastic museums and sights—culminating in attending the concert where I had the chance to speak about “Psyche” specifically and found poetry in general.



The Ensemble Écoute released their album Creo in 2023; in addition to a number of other fantastic songs, it includes “Four Songs from the Bell Jar.” Alexandre was kind enough to send me a physical CD of the album, but for easy access the entire album—including of course “Four Songs from the Bell Jar”—is available on Spotify:

 

 


I’m so excited to share this collaboration with you all—I never imagined that a poem of mine would end up adapted to music. I am not at all musical, so the possibility really never crossed my mind. I’m so grateful Alexandre saw possibilities where I definitely did not.

 

Take a moment to give “Four Songs from the Bell Jar” a listen. If you’re curious about the lyrics, here is the found poem/erasure sequence:

 

“Psyche: A Sequence”

 

I

 

I knit fragments of time into one

poor hour

that is scarcely whole.

 

It is disjointed and incoherent

and inexplicably narrow.

 

It is no good—this product

of my unimaginative work—

and it is not enough.

 

Why is tomorrow meaningless

and life continually

unsatisfactory?

 

When can I sleep? I am alone

with only these woven

bits of time and I am so tired.

 

 

II

 

I knit fragments of time into one

poor hour

         scarcely whole.

 

It is disjointed and incoherent

and              narrow.

 

It is no good—

      unimaginative work—

and it is not enough.

 

Why is tomorrow meaningless

and life

unsatisfactory?

 

When can I sleep? I am alone

 

             and I am so tired.

 

 

III

 

 

I knit fragments of time into one

poor hour.

        

 

It is disjointed

and              narrow.

 

It is no good

      unimaginative work.

 

Why is

life

unsatisfactory?

 

When can I sleep? I am alone.

 

                 I am so tired.

 

 

IV

 

 

I knit fragments of time—

 

        

 

      disjointed

                 narrow              

 

      

      unimaginative work.

 

 

 

 

 

     Can I sleep?

 

                 I am    tired.

 

And here is the paragraph from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath that I used to write “Psyche” with the words I selected in red:

 

It is 11:30 p.m. on the evening of August first, nineteen hundred and fifty one John Blodgett is seventy years old, and I am very tired. I wonder why I don't go to bed and go to sleep. But then it would be tomorrow, so I decide that no matter how tired, no matter how incoherent I am, I can skip one hour more of sleep and live. If I did not have this time to be myself, to write here, to be alone, I would somehow, inexplicably, lose a part of my integrity. As it is, what I have written here so far is rather poor, rather unsatisfactory. It is the product of an unimaginative girl, preoccupied with herself, and continually splashing about in the shallow waters of her own narrow psyche. As an excuse, she claims these are writing exercises, a means of practice at expressing herself, of note taking for future stories. Yet on the merry-go-round of time there is scarcely enough to spent pondering and attempting to recapture details. In fact, if one has not the imagination to create characters, to knit plots, it does no good to jot down fragments of life and conversation, for alone they are disjointed and meaningless. It is only when these bits are woven into an artistic whole, with a frame of reference, that they become meaning-ful and worthy of more than a cursory glance. Therefore, think and work, think and work.

 

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