One of the key elements of Plath’s poetic process is the metaphor of death. In the fifth section of “Poem for a Birthday,” “Flute Notes From a Reedy Pond,” death invades the womb as “coldness comes sifting down, layer after layer, / To our bower at the lily root” (1-2). Although Plath’s complicated feelings towards the stuff of life lead her to project herself out of it, it is not into total nothingness that she projects herself. Rather, it appears that she strives to do away with her self in order to become a creative vessel. As Anne Stevenson points out, Plath wrote in her journals, “I myself am the vessel of tragic experience” (109).
Yet out of the speaker’s creation/destruction myth comes not nothingness, but the word. That is, the speaker’s words live on in spite of death. These words don’t obey their maker; the speaker marvels: “Puppets, loosed from the strings of the puppet-master, / Wear masks of horn to bed. / This is not death, it is something safer. / The wingy myths won’t tug at us any more” (13-16). This autonomy of language echoes that of Plath’s poem, “Words,” in which words have become “dry and riderless” (The Collected Poems 16) “indefatigable hoof-taps” (The Collected Poems 17). Thus when the speaker says, “This isn’t death, it is something safer”15-16), it appears that what it is is the embryonic phase — her words are “Caddis worms” that “drowse in their silk cases” (11). It is a time of preparation for transformation; a time between death — “the fugitive colors die” (10) — and rebirth — “a god” shall “unhusk himself and steer into the air” (19-20), that will culminate in poetry.
In the sixth section, “Witch Burning,” the speaker’s experience of being over the flames incites a new transformation—she becomes a little “rice grain” (15). The scene has shifted to “the marketplace” where “they are piling dry sticks,” (1) presumably to burn the witch. As she ascends the “bed of fire” (6), it appears that the witch is the speaker herself. The little witch-grain clearly feels that she deserves her fate as she observes: “Only the devil can eat the devil out” (5) and “If I am a little one, I can do no harm” (13). These two lines expand upon an earlier theme — the longing to return to innocence. Here, eating is used as a means of purification rather than merging (eating “the devil out”); she provides yet another reason why she longs to return to childhood — to be a “little one” who can “do no harm.”