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 author. I present below three of Sexton’s poems and then, each of the trio are discussed. 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.
Sexton, A. (1981). Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.
1. The Kiss
“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
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
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.
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:
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…
… 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:
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:
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.
Do I over-read?
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:
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).  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:
The bower links to the:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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