Every once in a while, I feel compelled to re-read something that I read long ago. It is a practice I recommend and a practice in which I plan to engage more often. “You need to massage a text,” one of my graduate professors often remarked, meaning that one read is insufficient if your goal is to truly understand it. I loved that. I also loved the words of one undergraduate professor, who always added to his syllabi his retort to disgruntled students who couldn’t quite understand why they were being “forced” to read contemporary Irish literature, for example, that “none of these texts are boring. If you find them boring, it is because you are insufficiently capable of entering into the world of the authors”—or something very close to that. Good for him for standing up to undergrads, imagining themselves entitled to constant entertainment. These professors helped to shape my view that reading literature helps to build my empathic muscles.
Reading literature is also about more fully understanding my own internal world. Whenever I read deeply, I am challenged to ask self-reflective questions: what do I learn about myself in my encounter with this text? Where does this text find me, and where is it asking me to go? And when I re-read a text after some time, I can ask myself, where have I been? Where does this text find me now?
And so I found myself recently perusing my bookshelves, looking for something to read, and there it was: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton. I realized that it was almost exactly twenty years since I first encountered her work and committed myself to a semester-long study of it. Asked to choose three writers from which I would ultimately choose one, I offered my selections to my thesis advisor and, truthfully, hadn’t given it all that much thought. Pressed to meet his deadline, I hastily wrote down three names : Robert Frost, James Kelman, Anne Sexton. “Interesting selections,” he said, and then asked, “Towards whom are you leaning?” I sat for a silent moment. “I think I’m leaning towards Robert Frost,” I said. “That’s a worthy study,” he said. “But I encourage you to choose Anne Sexton.”
That summer, I studied literature at the University of Edinburgh. One of my classmates was a very attractive and seemingly well-read guy who attracted many a young female student like me, who desired his attention and approval. A group of us sat in his dorm one rainy afternoon. “I’m going to study Anne Sexton this Fall,” I told him. “That’s cute,” he said to me. “Have fun with that. Her work is crap.” I felt humiliated. His dismissal of her felt like a dismissal of me, and it wasn’t long before my feelings of humiliation transformed into righteous indignation. I would be her champion. And I went out and did what many melodramatic twenty-somethings do, I cut off all of my hair. I went to Scotland with hair that hung past my hips and returned with a practically shaved head. My friends and family didn’t quite know how to receive me upon my return.
I truly came to love Sexton’s work that Fall. I discovered that early in her career, Sexton was, in fact, dismissed by her critics. She was too personal, too “confessional”—but this is why I liked her. To my 20-year old self, her work was honest and courageous, daring to speak to the unspeakable—she wrote of madness and motherhood, sex and suicide. Her work was personally resonant—she addressed being a woman in a world often hostile to and dismissive of them. She was a great artist, using interesting images and word combinations—her use of language was disarming and sensual. And as all good writers do, she enlarged my world, opening me up to new ways of thinking and understanding.
One of my favorites—then and now—was “Somewhere in Africa,” a poem from her Pulitzer-prize winning Live or Die (1966) and addressed to her mentor, John Holmes, who had died of cancer:
Must you leave, John Holmes, with the prayers and psalms
you never said, said over you? Death with no rage
to weigh you down? Praised by the mild God, his arm
over the pulpit, leaving you timid, with no real age,
whitewashed by belief, as dull as the windy preacher!
Up until that point, this was the only God I knew—mild, whitewashed. Uninteresting. Not a God worthy of my devotion. There was something very wrong to Sexton about the whole scene—John Holmes entering death to the sound of psalms and prayers he never said, to an unappealing God. No, Sexton would not have it.
…If this is death and God is necessary let him be hidden
from the missionary, the well-wisher and the glad-hand.
Let God be some tribal female who is known but forbidden.
Let there be this God who is a woman who will place you
upon her shallow boat, who is a woman naked to the waist,
moist with palm oil and sweat, a woman of some virtue
and wild breasts, her limbs excellent, unbruised and chaste.
Let her take you. She will put twelve strong men at the oars
for you are stronger than mahogany and your bones fill
the boat high as with fruit and bark from the interior.
She will have you now, you whom the funeral cannot kill.
Feminist theologians had been challenging images of Gods for decades by the time I was twenty, but I hadn’t known it. Sexton opened my eyes and offered me a new way of imagining, one that was exciting and almost dangerous. A part of me loved her defiance.
In another of my favorites, “Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman” (also from Live or Die, 1966), she writes to her daughter of becoming a woman:
The summer has seized you,
as when, last month in Amalie, I saw
lemons as large as your desk-side globe—
that miniature map of the world—
and I could mention, too,
the market stalls of mushrooms
and garlic buds all engorged.
Or I think even of the orchard next door,
where the berries are done
and the apples are beginning to swell.
To become a woman, Sexton assures her daughter, is a beautiful thing. She wants and needs her to know that, because
as in a dream
the conversations of the old wives
speaking of womanhood.
I remember that I heard nothing myself.
I was alone.
I waited like a target.
Sexton was, at times, a terrible mother. Too often, she repeated the abusive relational patterns she experienced at the hands of her parents with her own children—so it often goes. But her poem spoke to another part of her, the part of her who loved her children in a passionate, ferocious way. And she uttered the words every girl child wants to hear, from the depth of her being, from her mother:
What I want to say, Linda,
is that there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth.
I’m here, that somebody else,
An old tree in the background.
stand still at your door,
sure of yourself, a white stone, a good stone—
as exceptional as laughter
you will strike fire,
that new thing!
I will never forget the conference I had with my professor—the same professor who urged me to explore her work—just days before the final day of the semester. “So, what do you think after spending so much time with one writer” he asked me. “I have come to really love her,” I replied. “That’s good,” he said. “She really needed to be loved.” Sexton’s final years were miserable—she was a lonely alcoholic whose poems became sloppy and sometimes incoherent. She committed suicide in 1974.
Twenty years on, I feel an even deeper appreciation for Sexton’s work. It’s personal resonance for me has only deepened. Before, I could understand, in a felt way, her experience as a daughter, and now, I can comprehend her experience as a mother. I know very well the joy of being a mother but also some of its pain: from the moment they are born, our children begin the process of separating from us. “I burst empty/of you, letting you learn how the air is so./…I am a shore/rocking you off. You break from me…” (from “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960).
I feel that the questions she raises about being a woman in the world are more pressing than ever. We are so deeply ambivalent about, if not still hostile to, powerful women–Is it not true (as the events of this past year show plainly, to me) that even still, the powerful woman is “possessed witch,” “dreaming evil,” “misunderstood” (from “Her Kind,” To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960)?
I know better her spiritual struggles. I am far more devout than she ever was, but I know better, more seasoned by life at 40, what it is like to want to be close to God but feel a great sense of alienation and disconnection. In “With Mercy For the Greedy,” (From All My Pretty Ones, 1962), she writes of trying desperately to believe, while gazing at a cross her friend gave her:
True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
And while I am unable to give up on the whole endeavor that is the life of faith, I share her view that sometimes, it seems that it is only through writing that I find healing, even absolution:
My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.