Haunted and Blessed: Cynthia Bargar’s Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room

Cover of Sleeping in the Dead Girl's Room: a vertically oriented image of marbled paper, extending all the way to the book’s edges. The pattern is intricate and free-form, with swirls of deep blue, purple, umber, yellow ochre, fuchsia, and red. The paper has been marbled twice so there is a feeling of superimposition, a sense of peering into churning water.

Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room by Cynthia Bargar

Lily Poetry Review Books, 2022

59 pages, $21

Review by Elizabeth Sylvia

“–shh– –shh–” goes a refrain in Cynthia Bargar’s Sleeping in the Dead Girl’s Room (Lily  Poetry 2022). Shh can be soothing, even a sort of lullaby, but in Bargar’s first book, recipient of a Massachusetts Center for the Book Honor, it functions as a warning, a command to leave the recesses of the past, or the speaker’s own difficulties, buried. “–shh–” says the speaker’s mother,  when asked about the dead girl. “-shh—” says her grandmother, holding the locket that pictures the dead girl. “–shh—” the speaker internalizes, not just about the “other” Cynthia, but about  herself, “the I who comes / when they call the She.” 

One Cynthia — the I that sleeps in the dead girl’s room, is named, she finds, after the other. Who is this “She,” this other Cynthia? The dead girl is the speaker’s aunt, who died young, accidentally according to the family, but more likely by suicide. Bargar’s book opens with “Creative Nonfiction,” an eight-page poetic tour-de-force of family silences, a stunning mystery tale that asks but never reveals the concrete identities of the I or the She, who emerge, along with a sometimes “you,” as mythic fragments of identity. In section iii, Barger writes: 

The She who is not the I haunts &blesses.
The I is driftwood covered with barnacles

As is the She. The She is organza drenched/illuminated
As is the I. Who knows this?

Is the haunting a fact? Is the blessing
A truth?

The speaker’s self-distancing, not simply “I” but “the I,” a watcher of the self outside her own experience, pairs her with the shifting “She” and reflects the speaker’s experience at an inpatient psychiatric ward. “Creative Nonfiction” begins with her admission to the hospital, where she seems to directly encounter the “She” for the first time. “She” is undefined and mysterious for the reader, pulling us to read on, but also to the speaker, who sees her as a ghost, as “Vapor.” Are they the same, or different? Both are “organza draped,” a phrase which beautifully captures the depersonalizing vacancy of the psych ward and the visitation of a shrouded spirit. 

As the title of this masterful poem suggests, the primary work of Bargar’s text is the attempt to generate a cohesive narrative from the fragments of a secret family history. The speaker must rebuild her aunt’s story herself, since her father “locked the dead She // away.” Her aunt, the original Cynthia, was 18 when she died in 1947, months before the speaker’s own birth. What circumstances led her to this? Bargar provides no definite reason, though family hints at an unhappy romance. The poet imagines a dialogue with Sylvia Plath, raised in the same post -war Massachusetts suburb as Cynthia that suggests more than adolescent unhappiness: Winthrop by-the-Sea “churn[ed] up / trouble for our families.” The town stifles and the sea threatens. Supervising children at the playground, the “mothers, Dorothy & Aurelia, / nod, never speak, each / already afraid,” as though they can sense how both their daughters will crash against the high seawalls of their limiting worlds. 

Cynthia and Sylvia are the speaker’s heritage, given and claimed. She is named for the first, a complex legacy explored in “Midrash on Naming.”  

Name a child for a deceased loved one
& that soul will shine on through the child

  unless the loved one suffered
an unnatural death – – shh – – – – shh – –

Should the speaker’s name be understood as a celebration, an honoring of the first Cynthia? Or is it an obfuscation, an assertion to all that Cynthia’s death was not unnatural, a silencing? The poem concludes “don’t name it.” And yet, the speaker cannot be silent. She brings Plath to her  text to claim another way. And surely, the book is confessional, as Plath’s poetry is confessional, which is to say it searches to describe the singular prism of how a life feels and perception, rather than fact, propels its voice. 

There are shades of Plath in how these poems traverse the page. Some are tiny and cramped, stanzas clumped at the top of the page. Others, particularly those that explore the speaker’s mania and depression, sprawl across the page with scattered and fragmented images, as in these lines from “Water Cure”: 

delivered here

acutely excited


five to a room no bath no shower

Water exhausted, unable to breathe. Aching for
a heart to listen — to see
The surface

The speaker Cynthia becomes that heart for her erased aunt, listening for her echoes. Thanks to this beautiful collection, we readers are witnesses too. Cynthia the “I” survives where neither the first Cynthia nor Sylvia Plath could, survives until silences can be broken. Telling a story,  however, does not undo its damage. Bargar bookends her collection with “A Fiction” to contrast her opening “Creative Nonfiction.” Even here, the happy endings are undercut by family shame. Imagining Cynthia married to a husband her family won’t accept, she still sees Cynthia “dead to  them     mirrors / draped with black cloth.”  Re-envisioning her aunt’s life, the speaker can’t pretend her family will abandon its tradition of secrets. With this collection, Bargar gently pulls away the “black cloth” of the unspoken and invites readers to reckon with the difficult, ultimately beautiful, power of sharing what has been hidden.

Elizabeth Sylvia is a poet and teacher from Massachusetts whose first book, None But Witches: Poems on Shakespeare’s Women (2022), won the 2021 3 Mile Harbor Press Book Award. She has been a semi- or finalist in competitions sponsored by the Burnside Review, C&R Press, DIAGRAM, Thirty West, Rare Swan and Wolfson Press, and is a reader for SWWIM Every Day. Sylvia has presented at the Mass Poetry Festival and received fellowships from the West Chester University Poetry Center and the Longleaf Writers Conference. She is the winner of the 2023 riverSedge Poetry Prize. elizabethsylviapoet.net @e_sylviapoet