Sylvia Plath’s novel ‘The Bell Jar’ brought profuse literary accolades for her but her biggest achievement was her voluminous poetry. Her poems were bold, gutsy, confusing and wonderful. There are charming and simple poems at the same time there are ones which are violent and terrifying. The theme which stood out in most of her poems, and the later poems at that, was death. The other recurring themes were the dominance of father, distress of loss, desire to be free, mother’s love for her child, nature, sex and body. Her poetry can be categorised into three phases.
First stage is the ‘juvenilia phase’, the middle phase between 1956 and 1960 and the final stage between 1960 till her death in 1963.
‘Contusions’ was written during the third stage, in fact eleven days before her death. The poem is also about death, almost like a premonition. Contusion means a bruise and the poet says she has one which is dull purple. All the colour or the blood of the body is on this spot while the rest of the body is pale, ‘washed out’. The pale colour is compared to that of a pearl. After introducing the queen of the sea, the pearl, she shifts to more images of the sea. The sea lashes on the rocks and sucks incessantly on a hole in the rock. It seems as if the whole sea has this ‘pit’ as its chief point of interest. The contusion is a ‘doom mark’ and it is the size of a small fly that crawls down the wall. In the last stanza she resigns to death and all the three lines allude to that – ‘heart shuts’, ‘sea slides back’, ‘mirrors sheeted’.
The bruise speaks of the death because this bruise has left the rest of her body pale and colourless. It is sucking away all her life like the sea sucking on the pit in the rock. Though the bruise is small it is capable of taking off her life and that is what she describes in the last stanza. ‘Heart shuts’ is a direct reference to death. ‘Sea slides back’ means sea ebbs and death is also described as life ebbing. The last imagery is ‘mirrors sheeted’. In many cultures the mirror is covered when there is a dead body. In Victorian, occult, Judaism and Jamaican cultures it is believed that the image will capture the spirit of the dead body which is not good for the soul. So the mirrors are covered. This is the final imagery of death she gives and she gives an ending to the poem and to her life.
The poem ‘Contusion’ is a poem with short twelve lines put into four stanzas. There is no rhyme scheme but is lyrical with alliteration and assonance. ‘Sea sucks’ and ‘sea slides’ are examples for alliteration while assonance is seen in the repetition of the vowel ‘o’ in the line’One hollow the whole sea's pivot.’ Each stanza is a completion of thought and the last stanza is the completion of the whole poem which can be compared to the end of the poet’s life. The imagery used highlights a small object in a larger canvas, be it the wound, or the pit or the fly. ‘Contusion’ is one of her last poems and she sounds defeated and has accepted death. There is no desire for regeneration or rebirth which has been a prominent theme in many of her earlier poems. The external forces overwhelm her and Plath loses her identity in this poem.