A long time ago a professor who used to write poetry on the side told me he had met Anne Sexton after a reading, and asked her how she wrote a particular poem, and "All she did was hold up her wrists for me to see with the scars on them from her suicide attempts". He seemed to think it was an example of her extreme nature, and I used to think it was a lesson in the difference between an academic and a poet, and now I think she could have lived longer and loved her daughters more with the improved medications for depression, and there really isn't much connection between madness and art, except as predispositions that live next door to each other like alcoholism and diabetes-- and I don't know what I think any more about what else her answer might mean to the creative life. Truman Capote says when God gives you a talent, he also gives you a whip (if you want to get any work done), and call it romanticizing if you will, but I've noticed a lot us walk with a limp like Jacob after he wrestled with the angel, and God gave him such a smack, he never would forget it, and maybe that's what the marks on her wrists were.
This is the poem by Anne Sexton that knows my secret heart, the way Jeremiah talks about being know before he was formed in the womb, the way Isak Dinesen's ravaged smile and her story "The Cabin-Boy's Tale" kept me alive one night, the way Job and Isaiah reassure me that God belongs to the small dark forgotten things as well, that "the beasts of the field shall honor me, the dragons and the owls-- because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."
A story, a story!
(Let it go. Let it come.)
I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender
into this world.
First came the crib
with its glacial bars.
and the devotion to their plactic mouths.
Then there was school,
the little straight rows of chairs,
blotting my name over and over,
but undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn't work.
Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched-
though touch is all-
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew,
and then there were many strange apparitions,
the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison
and all of that, saws working through my heart,
but I grew, I grew,
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms, and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I'd say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyebal,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.
As the African says:
This is my tale which I have told,
if it be sweet, if it be not sweet,
take somewhere else and let some return to me.
This story ends with me still rowing.
-- Anne Sexton
Peter Gabriel worked some of this into his song about Anne, Mercy Street. The reason I like Anne Sexton better than Plath (or Lowell, for that matter) is that she reminds me of that poorly drawn but heartfelf cartoon where the bird of prey is bearing down upon the little mouse, and the mouse is giving it the finger.