Saturday, October 4, 2014

Doing Woman Different: Anne Sexton

On this day in 1974 the American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton took her life.
How It Is
By Maxine W. Kumin

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.   
The dog at the center of my life recognizes   
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.   
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste   
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,   
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,   
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish   
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space   
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.   
I will be years gathering up our words,   
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

Like Maxine Kumin, fellow poet and best friend of Anne's, we'll momentarily rewind Sexton's life.

Sexton was born in Massachusetts in 1928 to a middle class family who didnt recognize her poetic talents, her mother according to Sexton even belittling them to the point she gave them up. Regardless, after high school Sexton for a short bit did attend a women's liberal arts college and did some local modeling. 
Not quite 20 years old, Sexton did what was expected of her and married in 1948. Having her first child Linda in 1953, Sexton soon after suffered her first breakdown-likely postpartum depression combined with grief over losing her beloved great aunt "nana." In '54 after the birth of her second child Joy, Sexton suffered another breakdown and hospitalization. On her birthday in 1956 Sexton attempted the first in a long occasional series of suicide attempts. Sexton's psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne suggested to Anne that she try to write poetry again as a means of writing her way back to a healthy mind. 

You Dr. Martin

You, Doctor Martin, walk
from breakfast to madness. Late August,
I speed through the antiseptic tunnel
where the moving dead still talk
of pushing their bones against the thrust
of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel
or the laughing bee on a stalk

of death. We stand in broken
lines and wait while they unlock
the doors and count us at the frozen gates
of dinner. The shibboleth is spoken
and we move to gravy in our smock
of smiles. We chew in rows, our plates
scratch and whine like chalk

in school. There are no knives
for cutting your throat. I make
moccasins all morning. At first my hands
kept empty, unraveled for the lives
they used to work. Now I learn to take
them back, each angry finger that demands
I mend what another will break

tomorrow. Of course, I love you;
you lean above the plastic sky,
god of our block, prince of all the foxes.
The breaking crowns are new
that Jack wore.
Your third eye
moves among us and lights the separate boxes
where we sleep or cry.

What large children we are
here. All over I grow most tall
in the best ward. Your business is people,
you call at the madhouse, an oracular
eye in our nest. Out in the hall
the intercom pages you. You twist in the pull
of the foxy children who fall

like floods of life in frost.
And we are magic talking to itself,
noisy and alone. I am queen of all my sins
forgotten. Am I still lost?
Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself,
counting this row and that row of moccasins
waiting on the silent shelf. 

Dr. Martin discussed Sexton's poems with her, encouraging her to enroll in John Holmes poetry workshop. 

For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further
Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum
where the cracked mirror
or my own selfish death
outstared me.
And if I tried
to give you something else,
something outside of myself,
you would not know
that the worst of anyone
can be, finally,
an accident of hope.
I tapped my own head;
it was a glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself;
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie,
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange
or a strange sun.
Not that it was beautiful,
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
for someone
in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear,
like an invisible veil between us all…
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.

Holmes, like later male critics of her poetry were at first horrified, then threatened by the confessional nature of Sexton's work. What Holmes and others couldnt comprehend was that for Anne, poetry wasnt about creating aesthetic beauty. It was at first a device used to learn something more about herself in "
that narrow diary of my mind." But in that learning, the poems Sexton was writing were/are beautiful! Or as Sexton put it herself "out of used furniture I made a tree."
At first Sexton's work was all about her, using poetry to look inward. But through her success as a poet Sexton became an example and inspiration to other troubled people to utilize poetry as they would a therapist, to uncover and re/cover from remembered and forgotten wounds. As Sexton's fame grew, she received letters from those who identified with her from all over the world. She often responded to as many letters as she could, hoping others would find poetry as important and life inspiring as she did.

In 1967 Anne won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Live or Die. 

Sexton would end the book with these life affirming lines: "I say Live, Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift".

Sexton was woman different. She was also a woman who pre-feminism, despite all the beauty she created with poetry (for herself and others) and the insights it provided for her about her wounded psyche, somewhere between the clutches of patriarchy's right hand (psychiatry) and its left (society)-she was strangled eventually to death.

Her Kind

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.

ANY women past, present or future who dares to do woman different has been Her Kind.



  1. "I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets,"

    No man could ever write this...

    So many of us feel like witches in the woods, low profile, little cottages, hidden away, but FREE, FREE, FREE...

  2. "No man could ever write this..."
    says another of your commenters, referring to a particular couple of lines.

    I would echo that in regard to the whole corpus, and add that it's difficult/impossible for a man to READ it with a clean conscience.

    I disagree with a few things you said about Sexton's poetry, too nitpicky to bother about here, but THANK YOU for redrawing this great and long-neglected poet to our attention.