I just can’t get Anne Sexton out of my head after reading her poem, For My Lover, Returning to His Wife. Written from the mistress’s point of view, it stays in your mind because of its unusual perspective.
“I give you back your heart,” the poet tells her lover.
The poem ends by contrasting the solidity of marriage – “She is solid,” the mistress says about the wife – with the evanescence of a love affair. “As for me, I am a watercolour/ I wash off,” says the mistress in the last two lines of the poem.
Soft and tender, the poem moved me when I read it in The Picador Book of Wedding Poems edited by Peter Forbes. “But you don’t want to go there,” I told myself, in two minds about blogging on it.
Well, here it is at last more than a month after I read it, because it’s so good, so unusual, it has to be shared.
For My Lover, Returning to His Wife
By Anne Sexton
She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favourite aggies.
She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.
Let’s face it, I have been momentary.
A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbour.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.
She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,
has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,
done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.
She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.
I give you back your heart.
I give you permission—
for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound—
for the burying of her small red wound alive—
for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother’s knee, for the stockings,
for the garter belt, for the call—
the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbon in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.
She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolour.
I wash off.
After reading For My Lover, Returning to His Wife, I have been looking for more poems by Anne Sexton and found this Song for a Lady. Sensuous and tender, it takes your breath away with its theme and imagery.
Song for a Lady
By Anne Sexton
On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.
“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear woolly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.
Thank you, Maria Popova, for posting the poem on your Brain Pickings website or I might have never come across it.
Who was Anne Sexton that she could write such sensuous and tender poems?
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1928, she was the daughter of a successful businessman, but her relationships with her parents, perhaps even abusive, says the Poetry Foundation website.
Her closest confidante was her maiden great-aunt, it adds. Married at 19, she became a fashion model while her husband was serving in Korea.
In 1953, she gave birth to her first child and in 1955, her second. Sexton suffered from post-partum depression, and after the birth of her first daughter she suffered her first breakdown and was admitted to a neuropsychiatric hospital.
It was her therapist, Dr Martin Orne, who encouraged her to write. In 1957 she joined writing groups in Boston that eventually led her to friendships and relationships with the poets Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath. After Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, at the age of 30, Anne Sexton wrote a poem in mourning called Sylvia’s Death. She too wanted to die, she said in the poem she wrote just six days after her friend’s death. The poem, dated February 17, 1963, explicitly says she and her friend talked about death, analysts and cures each time they met over martinis in Boston.
Sexton was acclaimed as a poet and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her collection, Live and Let Die. She continued to struggle with depression, however, and committed suicide on October 4, 1976, gassing herself to death by starting the engine of her car inside her locked garage in Weston, Massachusetts. She was 45.
Deeply personal, Sexton’s work is usually grouped with other Confessional poets such as Plath, Lowell, John Berryman, and WD Snodgrass, says the Poets.org website.
“She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter,” it adds.
Some of her poems could be chilling, like this one:
Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn
By Anne Sexton
The summer sun ray
shifts through a suspicious tree.
though I walk through the valley of the shadow
It sucks the air
and looks around for me.
The grass speaks.
I hear green chanting all day.
I will fear no evil, fear no evil
The blades extend
and reach my way.
The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
In the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place.
Anne Sexton’s poems could be bleak, meditating on death and loss, but they are also vivid and haunting. This poem she dedicated to her parents. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas.
The Truth the Dead Know
By Anne Sexton
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.