My Oily Life: Anne Sexton

There’s a world weary way to much of Anne Sexton’s verse in her final, posthumous, collection 45 Mercy Street. Some of that voice is funny and wise, 

Now
in my middle age,
I’m well aware
I keep making statues
of my acts, carving them with my sleep —
or if it is not my life I depict
then someone’s close enough to wear my nose”

Then just as easily filled with disappointment and ennui, 

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 the 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
entire lifetime.”

mercy45 Mercy Street was published in the same year the first Rocky movie was released, the US celebrated its bicentennial, and Wild Cherry told us to “Play that Funky Music.” It shares none of the joy of the times, and the sorrow it holds feels more personal than reflective of Sexton’s time or place. Sexton is an aggressively personal poet, her poems at times as difficult to spend time with as she might have been to those around her. 

Sexton’s author photo on the back of the book grins out at her audience, many of whom know something about her complicated life. Her eyes are almost closed in the picture, a drink in one hand, a jumble of books and papers behind her, a window into her poetic mind. The poems in 45 Mercy Street give a sense of those complications, and as a result are seldom easy and often tragic, as in “Praying to Big Jack.”

God, Jack of all trades,
I’ve got Ruthie’s life to trade for today.
She’s six. She’s got her union card
and a brain tumor, that apple gone sick.
Take in mind, Jack, that her dimple
would erase a daisy. She’s one of yours,
small walker of dogs and ice cream.
And she being one of yours
hears the saw lift off her skull
like a baseball cap. Cap off
and then what? The brains as
helpless as oysters in a pint container,
the nerves like phone wires.
God, take care, take infinite care
with the tumor lest it spread like grease.
Ruthie, somewhere in Toledo, has a twin,
mirror girl who plays marbles
and wonders: Where is the other me?
The girl of the same dress and my smile?
Today they sing together, they sing for alms.
God have you lapsed?
Are you so bitter with the world
you would put us down the drainpipe at six?

You of the top hat,
Mr. God,
you of the Cross made of lamb bones,
you of the camps, sacking the rejoice out of Germany,
I tell you this…
It will not do.
I will run up into the sky and chop wood.
I will run to the sea and find a thousand-year servant.
I will run to the cave and bring home a Captain
If you will only, will only,
dear inquisitor.

Banish Ruth, plump Jack,
and you banish all the world.”

From her clever wordplay to the inverted allusion to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, this bitter, smart poem shows a poet wielding a pen as knight would a sword (or more apropos for this poem, a surgeon would a scalpel). For any of us who have spent much time in a hospital Sexton knows where to carve to make the deepest wounds.

I read 45 Mercy Street on a week when I didn’t need help to have a broken heart, and after reading “Praying to Big Jack” and “Red Roses” (back to back in this collection), I put the book down and went for a walk. I cleaned the gutters. I had a cup of tea.

The thing about poetry is that it is more powerful than a trebuchet when battering a human heart. For some I know that isn’t true; a great many marvelous people, intelligent, insightful, capable people see poems as a series of mixed up words disconnected to any real meaning. But for some of us (and if you’re still reading this deep into a post about Anne Sexton I feel like I can count you as part of us) those words can be what help make sense of our own mixed up hearts.

IMG_2089But Sexton, that smiling drinker in a sleeveless sweater, was using poetry to wrestle with her own heart, a thing as complicated as it was itself often broken. For anyone reading her and looking for comfort she has less to offer than the clink of ice cubes in that glass on the back cover. And…

…and yet Sexton’s is a powerful poetic voice worth listening to. So…

I returned to 45 Mercy Street and found myself surrounded by animals, specifically the middle section of the collection, titled “Bestiary U.S.A.” Reading poems from “Hog” to “Cockroach” to “Star-Nosed Mole” was a striking shift in tone. While poems like “Whale” blur the lines between animal and human…

Whale on the beach, you dinosaur,
what brought you smoothing into this dead harbor?
If you’d stayed inside you could have grown
as big as the Empire State. Still you are not a fish,
perhaps you like the land, you’d had enough of
holding your breath under water. What is it we want
of you. To take our warm blood into the great sea
and prove we are not the sufferers of God?
We are sick of babies crying and the birds flapping
loose in the air. We want the double to be big,
and ominous and we want to remember when you were
money in Massachusetts and yet were wild and rule
and killers. We want our killers dressed in black
like grease for we are sick of writing checks,
putting on our socks and working in the little boxes
we call the office.”

…the titles and topics reminded me of another posthumous collection, A Ted Hughes Bestiary (another gathering of poems not strictly about animals), and made me feel like I was walking through the strangest zoo ever, a menagerie managed by Edward Gorey.

Sinking lower still, emotionally speaking, the third movement of 45 Mercy Street is simply titled: “The Divorce Papers.” One can imagine where this is going, particularly in poems titled “Despair,” “Bayonet,” and “Killing the Love.” Sexton does not disappoint expectations.

Most of the poems in this section conform to Sexton’s reputation as a confessional poet. Deeply personal, intimate and tragic, these selections give polished voice to the raw emotions of a person in crisis. Sometimes that voice speaks in concrete terms, other times Sexton invites metaphor to tell her story. 

In “The Love Plant,” for instance, she mutates a familiar poetic trope to express a complex jumble of emotions.

A freak but moist flower
tangles my lungs, knits into my heart
crawls up my throat
and sucks like octopi on my tongue.
You planted it happily last summer
and I let it take root with my moon-hope,
not knowing it would come to crowd me out,
to explode inside me this March.
All winter trying to diminish it,
I felt it enlarge.
But of course never spoke to you of this,
for my sanity was awful enough
and I felt compelled to think only of yours.
Now that you have gone for always
why does not the plant shrivel up?
I try to force it away.
I swallow stones.
Three times I swallow slender vials
with crossbones on them.
But it thrives on their liquid solution.
I light matches and put them in my mouth,
and my teeth melt but the greenery hisses on.
I drink blood from my wrists
and the green slips out like a bracelet.
Couldn’t one of my keepers get a lawn mower
and chop it down if I turned inside out for an hour?
This flower, this pulp, the hay stuff
has got me, got me.
Apparently both of us are unkillable.”

The poem goes on for another few stanzas, the malignant green of the title overfilling the poet’s self, the destructive actions of slender vials and bleeding wrists driving her to something akin to despair. These feelings are more complicated than sadness, however, they are the words of a woman fighting not only with herself. Brutal. Honest.

45 Mercy Street feels short on mercy.

In the final section, “Eating the Leftovers,” Sexton seems to sew up the eviscerated remains of her poetic body and come as close to resolution as she will allow herself or her readers to come. Typical of these last poems is “Demon” which begins:

I mentioned my demon to a friend
and the friend swam in oil and came forth to me
greasy and cryptic
and said,
“I’m thinking of taking him out of hock.
I pawned him years ago.”
Who would buy?
The pawned demon,
Yellowing with forgetfulness
and hand at his throat?
Take him out of hock, my friend,
but beware of the grief
that will fly into your mouth like a bird.”

Sexton addresses her demon for another few stanzas before coming to a moment of acceptance, when she tells us, her readers, that “I accept you, Demon/ I will not cover your mouth.”

At the end of such a harrowing series of poems, that acceptance feels somehow complete.

Continuing this year of poetry next week (in a much more uplifting tone) with the anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor.

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