In the cycle of Plath Songs, “Tulips” is the calm after the storm. The raging piano and booming bass drum have fallen silent, and only the choir softly sings. Following the mania of the third movement (“Lady Lazarus”), we now find ourselves in the clean, clinical detachment of depression, with the poem’s speaker in a quiet room at the hospital: “Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.”
Someone has sent tulips, which take on extraordinarily vivid life in the poet’s imagination. She views them as a threat, dragging her back into the land of the living, when all she really wants is to be left alone: “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals. / They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat….”
A return to health is an ironic thing for a person who is pained to be alive:
…I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Premiere: June 2, 2013, Grant Gershon, conducting