Anne Sexton was a poet from Massachusetts, in the United States, who wrote from the 1950s until her death in 1974. She fought depression and used poetry as an outlet. Her poems address a lot of Things Not Discussed in women’s lives during the time period, including menstruation and extra-marital affairs. A lot of focus on Anne Sexton after her death was on whether she had been sexually molested by her father, and on her behavior towards her daughters, including sexual molestation of her oldest daughter and periods where she was emotionally distant or focused on work to the exclusion of her children. Anne Sexton committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.
She’s interesting to me in part because her life has so easily interwoven the understood consensus in the US (particularly during the time she lived) about mothers, psychological illness, sexual molestation, and gifted women. She could easily have appeared as a character in a novel. How do we create the lives we lead based on the stories we’re told?
Here are a few of her works. For what it’s worth, she allegedly had an “alternate personality” named Elizabeth, but I don’t know if that Elizabeth is the one being referenced in the first poem. Enjoy.
You lay in the nest of your real death,
Beyond the print of my nervous fingers
Where they touched your moving head;
Your old skin puckering, your lungs’ breath
Grown baby short as you looked up last
At my face swinging over the human bed,
And somewhere you cried, let me go let me go.
You lay in the crate of your last death,
But were not you, not finally you.
They have stuffed her cheeks, I said;
This clay hand, this mask of Elizabeth
Are not true. From within the satin
And the suede of this inhuman bed,
Something cried, let me go let me go.
They gave me your ash and bony shells,
Rattling like gourds in the cardboard urn,
Rattling like stones that their oven had blest.
I waited you in the cathedral of spells
And I waited you in the country of the living,
Still with the urn crooned to my breast,
When something cried, let me go let me go.
So I threw out your last bony shells
And heard me scream for the look of you,
Your apple face, the simple creche
Of your arms, the August smells
Of your skin. Then I sorted your clothes
And the loves you had left, Elizabeth,
Elizabeth, until you were gone.
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.
Buying the Whore
You are the roast beef I have purchased
and I stuff you with my very own onion.
You are a boat I have rented by the hour
and I steer you with my rage until you run aground.
You are a glass that I have paid to shatter
and I swallow the pieces down with my spit.
You are the grate I warm my trembling hands on,
searing the flesh until it’s nice and juicy.
You stink like my Mama under your bra
and I vomit into your hand like a jackpot
its cold hard quarters.
The Child Bearers
Jean, death comes close to us all,
flapping its awful wings at us
and the gluey wings crawl up our nose.
Our children tremble in their teen-age cribs,
whirling off on a thumb or a motorcycle,
mine pushed into gnawing a stilbestrol cancer
I passed on like hemophilia,
or yours in the seventh grade, with her spleen
smacked in by the balance beam.
And we, mothers, crumpled, and flyspotted
with bringing them this far
can do nothing now but pray.
Let us put your three children
and my two children,
ages ranging from eleven to twenty-one,
and send them in a large air net up to God,
with many stamps, real air mail,
and huge signs attached:
DO NOT STAPLE, FOLD OR MUTILATE!
And perhaps He will notice
and pass a psalm over them
for keeping safe for a whole,
for a whole God-damned life-span.
And not even a muddled angel will
peek down at us in our foxhole.
And He will not have time
to send down an eyedropper of prayer for us,
the mothering thing of us,
as we drip into the soup
in the worry festering inside us,
lest our children
go so fast