On Sexton

“At night, alone, I marry the bed.”


I dig . . .
I find . . .
the rest is but the hull of a husky shell,
i.e., “rind.”

Mine. ^   Etched with an undertone of gritstone, it is mine to the very grind. And now, on to the main course: the tone-deaf chef’s pièce de résistance . . . Born and raised in a patriarchal household, Anne Sexton was, we read, troubled and troubling in more ways than one. If you already know the context then, so be it. But, if you don’t, I’d suggest you read the poems before your get to know the poet. I present below three of Sexton’s poems and then, each of the trio are discussed.

|  9th November, 1928, Massachusetts.
|  4th October, 1974, Massachusetts.



Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard . . .
. . . god owns heaven but He craves the earth.

Sexton’s. ^   Albeit a little snipped here and there; emphasis is my very own. In flowery verse a literary critic did once write, “American poetry is in a boundless debt before Anne Sexton’s dark, gruesome [and] bold spree of inspirational verses.” What I can hereby say — dear elusive & oh so very evasive reader — is let us ava gander @ some together.


REFERENCE

Sexton, A. (1981). Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.


1. The Kiss


My mouth blooms like a cut.
I’ve been wronged all year, tedious
nights, nothing but rough elbows in them
and delicate boxes of Kleenex calling crybaby
crybaby, you fool!
 
Before today my body was useless.
Now it’s tearing at its square corners.
It’s tearing old Mary’s garments off, knot by knot
and see — Now it’s shot full of these electric bolts.
Zing! A resurrection!
 
Once it was a boat, quite wooden
and with no business, no salt water under it
and in need of some paint. It was no more
than a group of boards. But you hoisted her, rigged her.
She’s been elected.
 
My nerves are turned on. I hear them like
musical instruments. Where there was silence
the drums, the strings are incurably playing. You did this.
Pure genius at work. Darling, the composer has stepped
into fire.


— Anne Sexton (1981 [n.d.])

“You’re dreamin’ darlin'” — s/he said that, s/he actually did. … Dance into the fire / To fatal sounds of broken dreams / Dance into the fire / That fateful kiss is what we had / Dance into the fire  // … I wander lonely streets / Behind where the old Thames does flow / I’ve gotta tell you a tale / Of how we loved and how I failed  // … The Kiss, you want to know of the kiss of kisses? well it is here — carried as it were in a resplendently resolute case made of Lebanese cedar (cedrus libani) and embossed with acanthus leaf marquetry in English oak (quercus robur): “Deeper than deep”. Luscious lips, Voluptuous hips, Gorgeous _ _ _  [🎬 Take two: You are the best, better than all _ _ _ ]:

2. The Breast


This is the key to it.
This is the key to everything.
Preciously.
 
I am worse than the gamekeeper’s children
picking for dust and bread.
Here I am drumming up perfume.
 
Let me go down on your carpet,
your straw mattress — whatever’s at hand
because the child in me is dying, dying.
 
It is not that I am cattle to be eaten.
It is not that I am some sort of street.
But your hands found me like an architect.
 
Jugful of milk! It was yours years ago
when I lived in the valley of my bones,
bones dumb in the swamp. Little playthings.
 
A xylophone maybe with skin
stretched over it awkwardly.
Only later did it become something real.
 
Later I measured my size against movie stars.
I didn’t measure up. Something between
my shoulders was there. But never enough.
 
Sure, there was a meadow,
but no young men singing the truth.
Nothing to tell truth by.
 
Ignorant of men I lay next to my sisters
and rising out of the ashes I cried
my sex will be transfixed!
 
Now I am your mother, your daughter, your brand new thing — a snail, a nest.
I am alive when your fingers are.
 
I wear silk — the cover to uncover —
because silk is what I want you to think of.
But I dislike the cloth. It is too stern.
 
So tell me anything but track me like a climber
for here is the eye, here is the jewel,
here is the excitement the nipple learns.
 
I am unbalanced — but I am not mad with snow.
I am mad the way young girls are mad,
with an offering, an offering…
 
I burn the way money burns.


— Anne Sexton (1981 [n.d.])

Before Poem 3 (below) recall that in Poem 1 (above) the bedside box of tissues were described as ‘delicate,’ well, a good equivalent of that word would be ‘fragile.’ That’s what I sense up there in “The Kiss,” down here, in “The Ballad,” I somehow see a way of escape, a liberation from reliance on all others, yes the evidently close relationship’s ended and that feels like a fate worse than death but, she (the poem’s narrator) now controls her sex one hundred per cent. … When all else fails / Who knows your ‘sensitive/sensual areas’ better than you yourself do:

3. The Ballad of the Lonely M


The end of the affair is always death.
She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
 
Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
 
Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.
 
I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle. Could I
put the dream market on display?
I am spread out. I crucify.
My little plum is what you said.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
 
Then my black-eyed rival came.
The lady of water, rising on the beach,
a piano at her fingertips, shame
on her lips and a flute’s speech.
And I was the knock-kneed broom instead.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
 
She took you the way a woman takes
a bargain dress off the rack
and I broke the way a stone breaks.
I give back your books and fishing tack.
Today’s paper says that you are wed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
 
The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.


— Anne Sexton (1981 [n.d.])

A word or two on Poem 1

Right, so well, here’s what I’m thinking. Regarding “The Kiss,” it is evidently written in free verse (no consistent metre or rhyme patterns and thus seeks to be or is reminiscent of natural speech or the verbalising of thought unedited; the penning of it ~ يعني ~ as it is, not as societal conventions would render it be) yet, its imagery and biblical allusions — I am the resurrection and I am the life / I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like — make this both deeper and more umm, err, might we say: philosophical in craftsmanship [sic.] than just typed out random thought. There is in fact some rather explicit and purposeful structure: each of the four stanzas have five lines of which, the final one is very short.

...crybaby, you fool!
...Zing! A resurrection!
...She’s been elected.
...into fire.

I somehow see this as acting as a summary of the whole piece. Blooming lips, pert pouting buds, lipstick of a gaudy fresh blood red. Her mouth, smile and lust is enlivened once more. (Roses are red, oh I’m so blue.) The first is a cut, where the blood wells up, the second is the bloom of a rose. Elbow grease, the hard thankless task of tediously keeping the house. The Kleenex tissue brand is here for crying but everyone knows the man-sized box is innuendo for another kind of cleaning-cum-rejuvenating activity (see Poem 3). In the second stanza of “The Kiss” we feel the ecstasy and the release from chastity, the stripping off, the electric charge of a positive and a negative. Knots of cloth — can we read anything but Mary and her illicit pregnancy being dressed up as immaculate and divine? A body left on blocks in the dry dock, with a skin made for ocean waves, not an incessant bone dry breeze. I know! I know! come to stanza three and we are all about boats, the rigging, the wood, the hull daubed in, now flaking, Teamac. In a frenzy, you strip in a flash, you get that jolt. In the final stanza, we are given a description of the pleasure of the climax, the passion of the kiss — let us pretend we are here only discussing a (facial) lip kiss. Interestingly, tellingly, she brings in her lover even making them out to be the Master musician: a genius at eliciting arousal and fire. But, by saying they’ve stepped into the fire has foreboding but maybe, I only read this because I know of the context of Ms Sexton. (If you play with me, you play with fire. etc.)

A word or two on Poem 2

With regard to “The Breast,” Sexton is undeniably right. Men obsess and almost every straight girl that has a girl-on-girl fantasy focuses on the, I’ll be clinical for now, mammary glands. There’s a reason, a damn good and obvious one: mother’s milk, suckling and nurturing, the source for so many humans of safety and sustenance for their first six to nine months. Carpet (Delta of Venus?) straw mattress (a frolic in the haystack?). Stanza 2: gamekeeper’s children; Stanza 3: child in me. Others have said this poem speaks of the potent power one has by possessing a pair. In stanza 4 we get to hands (hers or another person’s) cupping, circling, caressing, cradling, concentric rings toward the areola and then the pinnacle: hillocks with attractively pigmented caps and volatile peaks. The power this part of one’s anatomy can and does have is made clear at outset, they are:

the key to everything.

We know what rhymes with silk and today, some say “got milk” when referring to MILFs. It’s wonderful how the narrator in the poem beckons and entices…

tell me anything but track me like a climber
...here is the eye, ...the jewel ...the excitement

… they (the narrator) don’t really care for your honeyed words — in this instance — they just want you to expertly handle and fondle these key attributes of theirs in an expert way, in a way to bring about erotic arousal. It ends rather interesting and cryptically:

I burn the way money burns.

What’s Sexton on about here, we are made to wonder. Don’t money make the world spin round? Ain’t it what we yearn for, a/the key to happiness? Lust’s insatiable (is it not, invisible reader?) I guess so too is retail therapy, like food, like sex we use it (burn it) for our pleasure, to sate our desires and needs. Money, doesn’t spend itself nor does fine food force its way into our glutinous gobs, we spend it and we transfer the cake from the plate to our lips (that too can be kissed and then on to our hips) and for the breasts, the knee-weakening givers of life, they can be left unloved in a breaker’s yard, wrapped away in cloth, cotton or silk-like Lycra or they can be taken out and given fresh air, handled with care and made to sing; to be made:

...alive when your fingers are...
[... handling them like a Master maestro.]

A word or two on Poem 3

Regarding “The Ballad of the Lonely M,” ask yourself (I do myself) why I am too embarrassed to write the word ‘masturbator’ and elected for the abbreviation ‘M’ in titling it here — oh why’s it so taboo, y OH y (we used ‘((m))’ didn’t we!). In marked distinction from Poems 1 & 2 (see up, my dearest one) this poem — seven stanzas (7 is synonymous with heaven) of six lines (6 is synonymous with sex) — follows a rhyme scheme: ABABCC, DEDECC, and so on and so forth.

death - breath
fed/spread/head - bed

Do I over-read?

came -- shame

Is this me over-reading? is this a reference to catholic guilt and/or the protestant work ethic (both as pompously prudish as they are puritanical), don’t all the monotheistic tones castigate and demonise the act of masturbation? For come along now! It’s the devil that makes work for idle hands. We should note that syllable counts in the lines of Poem 3 are not consistent or if there is a pattern, I don’t see it. But ladies and men we can see all sorts can’t we, I mean in numerology we trust, don’t we:

__ ___ __
  C  03  
  O  15  
  R  18  
  O  15  
  N  14  
  A  01  
  -  --  
  6  66  
__ ___ __

Fiction is clearly no stranger. I’d say this was so since even before “the lion man” — a hybrid figurine carved from mammoth tusk (that is carbon dated to be over 40,000 years old and is currently the oldest known evidence of religion and is on show at the Museum of Ulm in Germany). [1]  Oh think of Psyche getting her affection from Pan. The milkman, the handyman. The language of the poem is reasonably straightforward; the beauty of not being a full-on slave to rhyming scheme (the lines have different variations of stressed and unstressed words). Its focus is clear — I think — self-pleasure in the aftermath of a split up (‘the end of the affair is always death — the dog’s reflection in the mirror knows well of my own terminal torment, which dogs and hounds me). Yep the poem does not use the word ‘sex’ but it doesn’t really need to, does it? Not with lines like these:

I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.

Bower
—  A pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood.

The bower links to the:

flowered [bed]spread

And all of this makes me think of Adam and St/Eve in the garden of Eden. And then we come to the line that moves me the most:

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

What moves me? The word ‘alone’ comforted here by commas and being snugly mid-sentence. For good measure, this line is repeated verbatim, seven times. This though is far from lazy repetition. In my opinion this really drives home the shear power that the default to self-pleasure can have. It can become a daily necessity akin to food. Indeed, the metaphor for sexual satisfaction in “The Ballad of the Lonely M” is ‘being fed,’ which is extended from the beginning to the end of the poem. It is like food, it is required daily and it’s devoured ritually:

I am fed
a joint overturning [on a spit over fire]
plum
...eating each other. They are overfed.

The last stanza is very powerful, because the young & the glamourous (‘glimmering creatures’) are seemingly everywhere, undressing and copulating like rabbits. Whereas, the narrator alone, is marrying her bed, one hand dealing with the delta and the other attending to the subject of Poem 2. It has become a nightly ritual. It is her medicine, her compulsion:

I am spread out. I crucify.

To sum up

I do find the description of the narrator’s mons veneris and her delectable delta in the poem “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” to be acutely accurate:

She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
My little plum.

As Yesenia Hernandez writes, Sexton’s, “fearless account of emotions, desires, and actions usually only for private consumption makes her a brave poet participating in a form of liberty all her own.” Indeed, she is known for her very frank writing on depression, the female body and sex and thus explores what’s considered in some quarters taboo subject matter. As she does in Poem 3 (kisses nowadays, the subject of Poem 1, being quite okay). In Poem 3, Sexton is both vague and explicit in her descriptions of the emotions that result from the end of a love affair depicted through the guise of a female wedded to the act of daily masturbation. This candidness — Confessional poetics — may not be so much an attempt to bring these matters into the light and normalise them (for they are obv. part of the human condition) but as a form of personal self-help and therapy which just so happened to be appealing enough to etch her out a bit of a living too. I do not think artists such as her write with public service in mind, still less monetary gain. As someone else commented, Sexton writes for, “discovery and emotional release.” turning, as I’m driven to, to a troubling thing that I’ve read is that incest between mother (Anne) and daughter (Linda) is alleged/said to have been had.

— § —


NOTES
[1]   Lion man, an intriguing reading of what’s currently thought to be the world’s earliest known idol:

“The Lion Man is a masterpiece that was found in a cave in what is now southern Germany in 1939. Sculpted with great originality, virtuosity and technical skill from mammoth ivory, this 40,000-year-old image is 31 centimetres tall. It has the head of a cave lion with a partly human body. He stands upright, perhaps on tiptoes, legs apart and arms to the sides of a slender, cat-like body with strong shoulders like the hips and thighs of a lion. His gaze, like his stance, is powerful and directed at the viewer. The details of his face show he is attentive, he is watching and he is listening. He is powerful, mysterious and from a world beyond ordinary nature. He is the oldest known representation of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural.” — The British Museum.

Talking of idols and ((m)):

See: Dark Light: Pure White vs. Jet Black

Author: Anna Bidoonism

You'll find poems, prose & literary analysis on my blog -- this is who I am.

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