As I lay there in my white hotel bed feeling lonely and weak, I thought of Buddy Willard lying even lonelier and weaker than I was up in that sanatorium in the Adirondacks, and I felt like a heel of the worst sort. In his letters Buddy kept telling me how he was reading poems by a poet who was also a doctor and how he’d found out about some famous dead Russian short-story writer who had been a doctor too, so maybe doctors and writers could get along fine after all

Now this was a very different tune from what Buddy Willard had been singing all the two years we were getting to know each other. I remember the day he smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”

“No, what?” I said.

“A piece of dust.” And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong teeth—and said, “I guess so.”

It was only in the middle of New York a whole year later that I finally thought of an answer to that remark.

I spent a lot of time having imaginary conversations with Buddy Willard. He was a couple of years older than I was and very scientific, so he could always prove things. When I was with him I had to work to keep my head above water.

These conversations I had in my mind usually repeated the beginnings of conversations I’d really had with Buddy, only they finished with me answering him back quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying, “I guess so.”

Now, lying on my back in bed, I imagined Buddy saying, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”

“No, what?” I would say.

“A piece of dust.”

Then just as he was smiling and starting to look proud, I would say, “So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.”

And of course Buddy wouldn’t have any answer to that, because what I said was true. People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn’t see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn’t sleep.

the bell jar, sylvia plath

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