In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
a girl who keeps slipping off,
arms limp as old carrots,
into the hypnotist's trance,
It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
Anna who was mad,
I have a knife in my armpit.
When I stand on tiptoe I tap out messages.
Am I some sort of infection?
A born salesman,
my father made all his dough
by selling wool to Fieldcrest, Woolrich and Faribo.
It's in the heart of the grape
where that smile lies.
It's in the good-bye-bow in the hair
where that smile lies.
You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
Until tonight they were separate specialties,
different stories, the best of their own worst.
Riding my warm cabin home, I remember Betsy's
laughter; she laughed as you did, Rose, at the first
Watch out for power,
for its avalanche can bury you,
snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.
Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
Oh sharp diamond, my mother!
I could not count the cost
of all your faces, your moods-
that present that I lost.
Oh, love, why do we argue like this?
I am tired of all your pious talk.
Also, I am tired of all the dead.
They refuse to listen,
Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
You said the anger would come back
just as the love did.
I have a black look I do not
Who is he?
A railroad track toward hell?
Breaking like a stick of furniture?
The hope that suddenly overflows the cesspool?
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
'Angels of the love affair, do you know that other,
the dark one, that other me? '
1. ANGEL OF FIRE AND GENITALS
Father, this year's jinx rides us apart
where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;
a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,
an American poet, known for her highly personal, confessional verse. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967. Themes of her poetry include her suicidal tendencies, long battle against depression and various intimate details from her private life, including her relationships with her husband and children.
Early Life and Family
Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life near Boston. In 1945, Sexton began attending a boarding school, Rogers Hall, in Lowell, Massachusetts. For a time as a young woman, she modeled at Boston's Hart Agency. She eloped in 1948 with Alfred Muller Sexton, known as 'Kayo.' Before their divorce in the early 1970s, she had two children with Kayo: Linda Gray Sexton, later a novelist and memoirist, and Joyce Sexton.
Sexton suffered from severe mental illness for much of her life, her first manic episode taking place in 1954. After a second breakdown in 1955 she met Dr Martin Orne, who became her long-term therapist at the Glenside Hospital, and encouraged her to take up poetry.
The first poetry workshop she attended was led by John Holmes. Sexton felt great trepidation about registering for the class, asking a friend to make the phone call and accompany her to the first session. She found early acclaim with her poetry; a number were accepted by The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine and the Saturday Review. Sexton later studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University alongside distinguished poets Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck.
Sexton's poetic career was encouraged by her mentor W.D. Snodgrass, whom she met at the Antioch Writer's Conference in 1957. His poem "Heart's Needle"proved inspirational for her in its theme of separation from his three-year-old daughter. She first read the poem at a time when her own young daughter was living with Sexton's mother-in-law. She, in turn, wrote "The Double Image", a poem which explores the multi-generational relationship between mother and daughter. Sexton began writing letters to Snodgrass and they became friends.
While working with John Holmes, Sexton encountered Maxine Kumin. They became good friends and remained so for the rest of Sexton's life. Kumin and Sexton rigorously critiqued each other's work and wrote four children's books together. In the late 1960s the manic elements of Sexton's illness began to affect her career, though she still wrote and published work and gave readings of her poetry. She also collaborated with musicians, forming a jazz-rock group called "Her Kind" that added music to her poetry. Her play "Mercy Street" was produced in 1969 after several years of revisions.
Within twelve years of writing her first sonnet, she was one of the most honored poets in America: a Pulitzer Prize winner, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the first female member of the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with poet Maxine Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton's manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, scheduled for publication in March 1975 (Middlebrook 396). On returning home she put on her mother's old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage, and started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
In an interview over a year before her death, she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with "two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital." She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.
Content and themes of work
Sexton is seen as the modern model of the confessional poet. Aside from her standard themes of depression, isolation, suicide, and despair, her work also encompasses issues specific to women, such as menstruation and abortion — and more broadly, masturbation and adultery — before such subjects were commonly addressed in poetic discourse.
Her work towards the end of the sixties has been criticized as "preening, lazy and flip" by otherwise respectful critics. Some critics regard her dependence on alcohol as compromising her last work. However, other critics see Sexton as a poet whose writing matured over time. "Starting as a relatively conventional writer, she learned to roughen up her line [...] to use as an instrument against the politesse of language, politics, religion [and] sex [...]."
Her eighth collection of poetry is entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. The title came from her meeting with a Roman Catholic priest who, although unwilling to administer last rites, told her "God is in your typewriter." This gave the poet the desire and willpower to continue living and writing. The Awful Rowing Toward God and The Death Notebooks are among her final works, and both center on the theme of dying.
Her work started out as being about herself, however as her career progressed she made periodic attempts to reach outside the realm of her own life for poetic themes. Transformations (1971), which is a re-telling of Grimm's Fairy Tales, is one such book. (Transformations was used as the libretto for the 1973 opera of the same name by American composer Conrad Susa.) Later she used Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno and the Bible as the basis for some of her work.
Much has been made of the tangled threads of her writing, her life and her depression, much in the same way as with Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963.
Following one of many suicide attempts and breakdowns, Sexton worked with therapist Dr. Martin Orne. He diagnosed her with what is now described as bipolar disorder, but his competence to do so is called into question by his early use of allegedly unsound psychotherapeutic techniques. During sessions with Anne Sexton he used hypnosis and sodium pentothal to recover supposedly repressed memories. During this process, he allegedly used suggestion to uncover memories of inflicting childhood sexual abuse. This abuse was refuted in interviews with her mother and other relatives. Dr. Orne wrote that hypnosis in an adult frequently does not present accurate memories of childhood; instead, "adults under hypnosis are not literally reliving their early childhoods but presenting them through the prisms of adulthood". According to Dr. Orne, Anne Sexton was extremely suggestible and would mimic the symptoms of the patients around her in the mental hospitals to which she was committed. The Middlebrook biography states that a separate personality named Elizabeth emerged in Sexton while under hypnosis. Dr. Orne did not encourage this development and subsequently this "alternate personality" disappeared. Dr. Orne eventually concluded that Anne Sexton was suffering from hysteria. During the writing of the Middlebrook biography, Linda Gray Sexton stated that she had been sexually assaulted by her mother. In 1994, Linda Gray Sexton published her autobiography, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, which includes her own accounts of the abuse.
Middlebrook published her controversial biography of Anne Sexton with the approval of Linda Gray Sexton, Anne's literary executor. For use in the biography, Dr. Orne had given Diane Middlebrook most of the tapes recording the therapy sessions between Orne and Anne Sexton. The use of these tapes was met with, as The New York Times put it, "thunderous condemnation". Middlebrook received the tapes after she had written a substantial amount of the first draft of Sexton's biography, and decided to start over. Although Linda Gray Sexton collaborated with the Middlebrook biography, other members of the Sexton family were divided over the book, publishing several editorials and op-ed pieces, in The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review.
Controversy continued with the posthumous public release of the tapes (which had been subject to doctor-patient confidentiality). They are said to reveal Sexton's inappropriate behavior with her daughter Linda, her physically violent behavior toward both her daughters, and her physical altercations with her husband.
Yet more controversy surrounded allegations that Anne Sexton had had an affair with the therapist who replaced Dr. Orne in the 1960s. No action was taken to censure or discipline the second therapist. Dr. Orne considered the affair with the second therapist (given the pseudonym "Ollie Zweizung" by Middlebrook and Linda Sexton) to be the catalyst that eventually resulted in her suicide.
45 Mercy Street
In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I'm walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign -
namely MERCY STREET.
I try the Back Bay.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street.
I know the stained-glass window
of the foyer,
the three flights of the house
with its parquet floors.
I know the furniture and
mother, grandmother, great-grandmother,
I know the cupboard of Spode
the boat of ice, solid silver,
where the butter sits in neat squares
like strange giant's teeth
on the big mahogany table.
I know it well.
Where did you go?
45 Mercy Street,
kneeling in her whale-bone corset
and praying gently but fiercely
to the wash basin,
at five A.M.
dozing in her wiggy rocker,
grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
on her forehead to cover the curl
of when she was good and when she was...
And where she was begat
and in a generation
the third she will beget,
with the stranger's seed blooming
into the flower called Horrid.
I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
Pull the shades down -
I don't care!
Bolt the door, mercy,
erase the number,
rip down the street sign,
what can it matter,
what can it matter to this cheapskate
who wants to own the past
that went out on a dead ship
and left me only with paper?
I open my pocketbook,
as women do,
and fish swim back and forth
between the dollars and the lipstick.
I pick them out,
one by one
and throw them at the street signs,
and shoot my pocketbook
into the Charles River.
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
and its hauled up
“As it has been said: Love and a cough cannot be concealed. Even a small cough. Even a small love.”
“Watch out for intellect, because it knows so much it knows nothing and leaves you hanging upside down, mouthing knowledge as your heart falls out of your mouth.”
“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
“Anne, I dont want to live. . . . Now listen, life is lovely, but I Cant Live It. I cant even explain. I know how silly it sounds . . . but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay thats the rub. I am like a stone that lives . . . locked outside of all thats real. . . . Anne, do you know of such things, can you hear???? I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet . . . and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I cant, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but to not reach or to reach wrong . . . to do it all wrong . . . believe me, (can you?) . . . whats wrong. I want to belong. Im like a jew who ends up in the wrong country. Im not a part. Im not a member. Im frozen.”
“As for me, I am a watercolor. I wash off.”
“I am stuffing your mouth with your promises and watching you vomit them out upon my face.”
“Even so, I must admire your skill. You are so gracefully insane.”
“I am alone here in my own mind. There is no map and there is no road. It is one of a kind just as yours is.”
“Live or die, but dont poison everything.”
“I like you; your eyes are full of language." [Letter to Anne Clarke, July 3, 1964.]”
“Everyone in me is a bird I am beating all my wings”
“I am a collection of dismantled almosts.”
“Only my books anoint me, and a few friends, those who reach into my veins.”
“Love? Be it man. Be it woman. It must be a wave you want to glide in on, give your body to it, give your laugh to it, give, when the gravelly sand takes you, your tears to the land. To love another is something like prayer and cant be planned, you just fall into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.”
“All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.... I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one cant build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out.”
“Do you like me?” No answer. Silence bounced, fell off his tongue and sat between us and clogged my throat. It slaughtered my trust. It tore cigarettes out of my mouth. We exchanged blind words, and I did not cry, I did not beg, but blackness filled my ears, blackness lunged in my heart, and something that had been good, a sort of kindly oxygen, turned into a gas oven.”
“Perhaps I am no one. True, I have a body and I cannot escape from it. I would like to fly out of my head, but that is out of the question.”
“The joy that isnt shared dies young.”
“All day Ive built a lifetime and now the sun sinks to undo it. ”