An ode to Anne Sexton on her birthday and forty years after her death. She would be 86 years old today, but only her poetry shall live through the ages.
This past Sunday was the poet Anne Sexton’s birthday and I fantasized that I attended a party for her, fashionable with a small and select guest list, invited by a friend of a friend and I spent the time like an infatuated stranger, trying to get to know the birthday girl. Somewhat of an inconspicuous guest, I watched as she entered busy rooms and heads turned to make sure she had a drink, to meet her eyes with smiling regard, or to give her unlit smoke a flame. I kept my eyes on her as she moved to other, quieter rooms, to replenish refreshments or hang up coats and watched as she walked up the stairs in dim stairway light, to be alone, briefly, before returning again to the center.
She was stunning, her dark features magnificent and classic like an old black and white photograph of a movie star. She was in a dress at times, and then a blouse and it didn’t matter to keep that straight. She was charismatic and even rowdy, slyly funny and charming. I was drawn to her like everyone else there and I suspect that I knew her the least, but I got the feeling that the others were unsure of whether they knew her at all.
I do not have extensive exposure to her work and admittedly don’t know it well as I have just started reading it over the last few weeks and I can’t remember how I came across it, but it was a moment of instant inspiration and undiscriminating admiration. She wrote prolifically from 1957 until her death in 1974. I have barely read a third of the heavy, 500-paged selection I got from Powells the other day when my eyes strained from reading poems online. A friend of mine said the other day he couldn’t imagine typing a poem, felt the mode didn’t suit the expression, and I feel the same way about reading a poem online. I need it in my hand. And now I have a lot more than a google search in my hands with The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton.
I picked up her biography that same day and I have been looking into the numerous essays about her work. There is something to be said about reading too much criticism before you read a bulk of the work itself and I don’t know exactly how this is effecting my interpretation of her poems. It’s not unlike asking people about her at the party, discreetly listening to others’ stories of her, fishing out entanglements and history to piece together an image, to try and understand motivations. But none of it replaces, or is meant to, the lingering sense of intimacy and connection unique to a conversation with her, or after reading one of her poems.
There is a practical reason I am reading the criticism. In Anne Sexton, A Biography, author Diane Wood Middlebrook writes that Sexton’s poetry appealed to non-poetry readers and surely I can see how, for its content and language, and the way the poems grow right there in front of you, tender and unbound like new vines, but I find myself wanting to know more about her process and discipline. As I read, without knowing what it is or how to articulate it, I know each of her sentences are like uncovered bones, wet and dirty with earth, strategically arranged and refined into the awesome skeletons of a mysterious poetic species.
I read “Just Once” again today. It stands out to me in her collection like the moment it recalls, as a flash of beautiful and fleeting clarity. She writes:
Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
Walked there along the Charles River,
Watched the lights copying themselves,
All neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
Their mouths as wide as opera singers;
Counted the stars, my little campaigners,
The twists of lush trail in her mind have come to a clearing and a patch of sky is visible through the break in the trees. She feels the warmth of the sun and is sensitive to the stars obscured by the daylight at the same time. She can wrap her fingers around the moment’s translucence, just before it evaporates in her hands, now curled into fists which she squeezes and lets go, releasing nothing.
You can recall a moment, or moments, maybe not specifically or with the detail of time and place but with a recollection of their clarity and impression, and maybe for their very transience, when you’ve been struck speechless with a similar feeling. You’re not digging, you’re open and blank, and it washes over you. You look up at the clouds and observe their pattern and you have an appreciation for your own body and you feel as though the people you love become constants in their moments of joy and your favorite song plays in the wind. You feel like you could swallow the earth and doubt suddenly feels as inconsequential as yesterday’s breath. She writes,
My scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
On the night green side of it and cried
My heart to the eastbound cars and cried
My heart to the westbound cars and took
My truth across a small humped bridge
She lets each of those lines move into the next, leaving off with verbs that hang out there, existing temporarily, just to lead to the next thought. She is giving them up the moment she possesses them. She loves and cries and takes and then surrenders them to the world around her. Her truth, too, she concedes after she carries it across a bridge in hopes of harnessing it, but it is gone by the morning, and by the end of the poem, somewhere out in the world, an unknown.
And I hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
And hoarded these constants into morning
Only to find them gone.
The constants are gone and the cars are still going in both directions the next morning. She rides in them with men that are not her husband sometimes. Her love affairs are the subject of some of her poems and one titled, “For My Lover Returning to His Wife”, addresses her role as the other woman. She acknowledges her lure and sees that she is temporary. She writes of herself:
A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.
I had to look up what a sloop was–a one-masted sailboat. I imagine a singular, small boat adrift. The images of her are impermanent and at first, the tone I sense is one of amusement and detachment. The wife in contrast has been there always, since the man was a child, “cast up from your childhood”. To Sexton, the wife is a cast-iron pot, she puts flowers in vases, she feeds and holds her kids, she has a fuse that throbs, and a pulse and wounds and ribs and breasts. She is the real, hard thing to Sexton, whatever that is. The wife is opposite of an experiment, “she is all harmony. She sees to oarlocks and oars for the dinghy”. Is this what Sexton aspires to be? Or does she see an insurmountable problem inherent in the deal, the agreement of marriage at large, as indeed the father of those kids is giving in to Sexton. I can begin to see what some of her critics and Middlebrook understand to be her struggle with taking on the roles of mother and wife, whether it be due to her mental illness or a resistance to the present societal expectations. She admits her struggle, confesses being something else entirely.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
I sense she longs for something she also doesn’t believe exists. Part of me reads this with admiration for someone who has decided to shed through time what it was she wanted to be, what she thought she ought to be, so that she could fully inhabit the person she truly is. But then I’m skeptical and dizzy at reading the ending, “I am a watercolor”. What is it she believes herself to be? Is she resisting permanently answering that question to keep herself unlimited by what she perceives to be a single rigid structure, resisting to keep herself open to the betterment or, simply the relief, of her true being or does she feel truly lost, like she belongs nowhere?
I didn’t realize how my reading of her over the last month was permeating my mind. I started writing poetry again with a certain force and fluidity I wasn’t expecting, as I tend to feel rusty and hesitant when revisiting something after a while. And then the other afternoon when I turned on the radio just for background noise as I got ready to go out, it was almost prescient as I caught the middle of a conversation that caused Sexton to spring to mind suddenly and the questions came in like ocean swells after a parade of ships disrupts a glass-surfaced calm sea and I felt compelled to explore in more depth her writing and its living impact.
“Suicide is the kind of death that makes you doubt what you know about the deceased or what you could know about anybody.”
This was read aloud on the radio that afternoon by a man with a gentle, slightly hoarse voice that made him easy to listen to. I didn’t know who it was at first. The host asked him what makes suicide different than other deaths. “It’s a hard death to grieve. Socially. It’s a death that vanishes almost immediately. There is no process. People don’t want to talk about it. A death that never stops being a death.”
The voice belonged to Charles D’Ambrosio. He was reading an excerpt of an essay he wrote in which he writes about his younger brother’s suicide. It made me think of Sexton, writing, art and family with a heady thickness that caused me to stop and sit to consider the timing and the man on the radio, the artist in the survivor as well as the artist in the suicide.
Anne Sexton committed suicide at 45 years old. Comparisons to Sylvia Plath are numerous in the criticisms as the two poets wrote within the same genre of confessional poetry at the same time, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. I have no urge to make comparisons here except for this purely subjective experience I’ve had reading the two. The fact of Sexton’s suicide doesn’t loom over her poetry for me like it does when I read Plath. And I think that has something to do with how I came to know each poet. In high school The Bell Jar was assigned and Plath’s portrait was presented along with a taxing lecture mostly concerned with conveying the imminence of the young poet’s death. We were kids reading her, and before we could process anything about her work, we had a nearly cartoonish albeit terrifying image of her with her head in an oven. She’s never been alive in a way when you discover her like that as a kid. When I read my first Sexton poem, I was older and unaware of the circumstances of her death.
I listened to the rest of the interview with D’Ambrosio, thinking about Sexton in light of his thoughts on suicide. The question of what can we really know about people echoed in my mind and I thought of Sexton’s sister Blanche, who not only saw the loss of Anne to suicide, but also her only other sister, Jane, who took her own life in middle age. And I thought of her readers. Anne was a confessional poet, a term according to Middlebrook, she didn’t like. She started writing at the request and encouragement of her therapist as a means to tap the unknown sources of her guilt and suffering, as a technique to not only exhibit the curves, dips and reaches of her mental illness but as a way to endure them. She inspired others for her willingness to reveal her struggles, for her sharp and intuitive explorations. She wrote about her affairs, her father, religion, masturbation, mental illness, and the private, secretive things woman didn’t discuss. She wrote about things some people today still don’t know how to confront or express.
I think about interpretation and persona and read “Her Kind”. This poem provoked in me a reaction akin to an enveloping, instant attraction for another person. It struck on all levels, psychological and emotional, and physically, firing a base, visceral core. I loved it. I love it like a close friend. I love it for its imagery. I love it like a favorite hat. I felt nurtured and safe reading it. I felt thrilled and relieved from the extrinsic need to feel lonely while alone. It felt like swimming in a bottomless, shoreless ocean and for some reason that felt safe because it was also shark-less, pirate-less and weather-less.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
In “Her Kind”, the woman is at once mad, useful, wanted, hidden, exposed and forgotten. She is not one kind and indeed Middlebrook examines this idea of an expression as being separate from the person’s actual feelings. These are Sexton’s personas, phases of her existence and the only truth and reality the reader can extract comes from within, from their absorption and an honest process of interpretation. I’m reminded of the idea of never really knowing someone, just wanting to believe we do, even as we participate in the realities of their art and representations of themselves.
Maxine Kumin, Sexton’s friend and fellow poet, wrote the foreword for The Complete Poems. She writes of Sexton, “her presence on the platform dazzled with its staginess, its props of water glass, cigarettes and ashtray. She used pregnant pauses, husky whispers, psuedoshouts to calculated effect”. This brings to mind performer, before poet. Why do these two instinctively clash in my mind? And why did this make me feel distrustful at first of Sexton? It makes me think of what we put out there in our art, in life in general, where it comes from and how much of it we try to control to the detriment of ourselves and the art. The personas in her poems and the on-stage Anne Sexton filter pain and beauty, showcase illusions and meaning in a way which makes me wonder that this was the only way she could search for an authentic sense of self and purpose.
And as readers, we won’t know if she ever felt accomplished in that, even if we let her writing penetrate the strange, murky realms of ourselves, we don’t know her and never will. And maybe the fact of her suicide makes some readers feel estranged or confused. Maybe it makes others feel closer.
I feel inspired by her writing. I don’t know why I stopped writing for a while, poetry and otherwise. I’ve heard the same lament from other people. We give it up, unsure of its purpose or thinking we don’t know how or maybe, just from a lack of content and inspiration as we go through our lives, heads down without listening and sensing the stories around us. Or these sensibilities come out in other creative ways. This year I have experienced varying degrees of loss and emotional confusion on a scale that I can’t compare to any other time in my life, ranging from death to relationships to what I am trying to achieve now, leaving behind a creative stagnancy.
I’ve started to face some past matters that I’ve evaded and kept out of sight, while still sensing them as problematic, like resting a ball cap on your dashboard in front of the check engine light, or taping a matchbook to forget it. You can still feel the car jerk and stall, smell a leak, even if the light is covered. I see myself as unsure of how to go about making significant steps to cope, to change, to accept but sure of the need to do so. I’m craving creativity again. I see it as spirituality, a purpose, a pathway.
Sexton started writing at 29 again after a long hibernation, and I can’t help but indulge a little and let that fuel my intuition ever more so, as I am too 29. I’ve been reading up on D’Ambrosio also after hearing him talk and came across a review of Loitering, his new collection of essays due out this month. I can’t wait to get a copy as in all honesty, I can only read two poems in a sitting and though I will continue to do so nightly as I’d still like to, I look forward to essay prose like Portlanders look forward to the rain after August. In the Loitering review, author Rebecca Brown sums up her praise for the book recalling D’Ambrosio’s reflections of the personal essay as a means of self-discovery. “You write to save yourself,” she writes, “the way you read to save yourself.”
I imagine Anne Sexton at her desk in a large old house on a cold sunny fall New England day and all the windows are open and in with the day’s chill comes an air that invigorates, the heat escaping from the windows in slow billows and quick puffs. She writes as curtains sway and flap like flags and golden-yellow and orange leaves blow inside and swirl around the floor, and in all her subliminal audacity she is free and she sits composed and writes, knowing her home and the outside world around her to be one. It is mad in a way but there is no danger as she bares herself, and the grace and beauty of it enlivens in me a spirit and a kind of gratitude I have never known.