Houghton Mifflin Company
Paper, 68 pages, $14
These days we do not hear so much about the poetry of Anne Sexton. What may have seemed revolutionary in 1967 about her Love Poems now seems more of a sad tale of a woman seeking solace in a phantom love that cannot be found for more than a fleeting moment in the arms of a man not hers. While the introduction by Diane Wood Middlebrook (who also wrote a biography) may refer to the poetic narrator as American literature s first fully sexual heroine, contrasting sharply with Hester Prynne, these poems do not so much create a heroine as an anti-heroine. And while Middlebrook herself asks whether adultery can be heroic, which hardly seems possible, she asserts it can be spiritually educational. Maybe if spiritual means ripping your flesh down to the emotional bones and not finding the flesh to cover them again. For that is what Sexton primarily does here. As she says in The Kiss:
My mouth blooms like a cut.
Such a precise emotional image is something Sexton does as well or better than anyone. In Celebration of My Uterus:
Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.
In The Nude Swim she combines the imagery of landscape with the suggestion of something quite sexual to create the epiphany of lovemaking:
the southwest side of
we found a little known grotto
where no people were and we
entered it completely
and let our bodies lose all
All the fish in us
had escaped for a minute.
But there is shame, here, too shame for moments stolen from others and stolen for selfish pleasure; shame in adulterous acts which cannot be resisted; shame in an invisible Scarlet Letter, as in Song for a Red Nightgown:
The girl drifts up out of
her nightgown and its color.
Her wings are fastened onto
her shoulders like bandages.
The butterfly owns her now.
It covers her and her wounds.
In For My Lover, Returning to His Wife, she realizes she has been momentary, a luxury, a bright red sloop in the harbor, a water color which washes off. In Just Once, she claims she suddenly knew what life was for and hoarded the truth all night, only to lose it in the morning.
But it is the first poem in this volume which says nearly all there is to say about a kind of love never meant for anything more than a mere few moments followed by the pang of regret, loneliness, and recrimination. In The Touch, Sexton begins with this imagery:
For months my hand had been sealed off
in a tin box. Nothing was there but subway railings.
Perhaps it is bruised, I thought,
and that is why they have locked it up.
But when I looked in it lay quietly.
You could tell time by this, I thought,
like a clock, by its five knuckles
and the thin underground veins.
It lay there like an unconscious woman
fed by tubes she knew not of.
This is followed by the admission of vulnerability, and the most simple of statements that, in its simplicity, contains all the complexities of our emotions for another:
And all this is metaphor.
An ordinary hand just lonely
for something to touch
that touches back.
This, it seems, she never quite had. For more than twenty years she suffered from depression, psychiatric therapy, and several attempts on her own life until, after her divorce a few years following the publication of Love Poems, she took her last breath with carbon monoxide in her garage in October 1974. In these translucent poems, she left us with the bits and pieces of emotional flotsam from the love of a man, and a life, impossible for her to have for long.