Anne Sexton Night

I said I’d post a little Anne Sexton tonight. Transformations, her collection of retold fairy tales, is just the most magical, entertaining poetry. I feel like I want to give her a standing ovation at the end of each lyric tale. They are far too long to post a whole one here, but I’ll give you extracts from ‘Cinderella’ which follows almost a pattern with these poems of having a few introductory stanzas:

You always read about it:
the plumber with twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
That story.

Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son’s heart.
From diapers to Dior.
That story.

Then she launches into the body of the tale with the same richly comic voice, recasting the fairy tale through the eyes of the world-weary modern woman, delighting in her gentle cynicism:

Next came the ball, as you all know.
It was a marriage market.
The prince was looking for a wife.
All but Cinderella were preparing
and gussying up for the big event.
Cinderella begged to go too.
Her stepmother threw a dish of lentils
into the cinders and said: Pick them
up in an hour and you shall go.
The white dove brought all his friends;
all the warm wings of the fatherland came,
and picked up the lentils in a jiffy.
No, Cinderella, said the stepmother,
you have no clothes and cannot dance.
That’s the way with stepmothers.

And she always packs a punch at the conclusion, remembering that these poems are dedicated to her daughter in her early teens, and unwilling, in such an Anne Sexton way, to let her lose herself in the thankless mythology of marriage as salvation:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

Isn’t she just wonderful?

Hoping to catch up on my blog reading this weekend – I’m way behind, but I’ll get there.


17 thoughts on “Anne Sexton Night

  1. Marvellous. Anne Sexton as court jester – comic insights into the truth. The outsider right in the centre. Would that be a fair view, given your greater reading of her? As it’s the weekend and I can talk without the rigour of a workday correctness – you know, off the top of an ill-informed head – that story – I sense here the 1950s with the girl being prepared to be the good wife, a role Plath equally, eventually couldn’t sustain. Reminds me of that film ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. I love toilets to riches, diapers to Dior, with its passing glance at Ophelia in Denmark I’m guessing. I am also reminded of Austen’s Mrs Bennet in the image of the true mother here, which the stepmother is in relation to her own children and the promoting of them while doing down of the opposition. Austen’s girls also meet their lovers at the ball and Lady Catherine might be Darcy’s stepmother from hell marking him out for her daugher! The reference to the fatherland also recalls Plath, in her images of the Nazis and their extermination of the non-conforming as well as the Jews. The father by implication fights back on his daughter’s behalf, but the prize remains the same, the image of perfect happiness at the end of the poem with its veneer painted over reality. Do you think the timing of an egg comment is to do with the human egg and its capacity to hinder the female in expressing herself in the wider world, but provide the male with his patriarchy? This would contrast interestingly with the sterility of that image of the perfect marriage – like two dolls in a museum case. I can’t see how this could avoid being featured when you get to that book on mothers, and I await it with glee if this is the sort of content it might contain, though I know it will be a long way off.

  2. I find her incredibly interesting and a bit haunting, especially in “Her Kind”. The contrast between the good wife/ mother “fixing supper for the worms and the elves” and the “possessed witch … dreaming evil”.

    Her Kind

    I have gone out, a possessed witch,
    haunting the black air, braver at night;
    dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
    over the plain houses, light by light:
    lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
    A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
    I have been her kind.

    I have found the warm caves in the woods,
    filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
    closets, silks, innumerable goods;
    fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
    whining, rearranging the disaligned.
    A woman like that is misunderstood.
    I have been her kind.

    I have ridden in your cart, driver,
    waved my nude arms at villages going by,
    learning the last bright routes, survivor
    where your flames still bite my thigh
    and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
    A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
    I have been her kind.

  3. I have never read these poems, and I must, because they are a bit different from the Sexton I’m most familiar with. The sardonic wit is still there, but perhaps the edge is not so biting?

    Nice to see you back – I hope you enjoyed your respite 🙂

  4. My first introduction to Anne Sexton was via Peter Gabriel. He wrote the song Mercy Street for her on his 1987 album So. The song always makes me cry…

    looking down on empty streets, all she can see
    are the dreams all made solid
    are the dreams all made real

    all of the buildings, all of those cars
    were once just a dream
    in somebody’s head

    she pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam
    she pictures a soul
    with no leak at the seam

    let’s take the boat out
    wait until darkness
    let’s take the boat out
    wait until darkness comes

    nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
    nowhere in the suburbs
    in the cold light of day

    there in the midst of it so alive and alone
    words support like bone

    dreaming of mercy street
    wear your inside out
    dreaming of mercy
    in your daddy’s arms again
    dreaming of mercy street
    ‘swear they moved that sign
    dreaming of mercy
    in your daddy’s arms

    pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide smooth
    tugging at the darkness, word upon word

    confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
    to the priest-he’s the doctor
    he can handle the shocks

    dreaming of the tenderness-the tremble in the hips
    of kissing Mary’s lips

    dreaming of mercy street
    wear your insides out
    dreaming of mercy
    in your daddy’s arms again
    dreaming of mercy street
    ‘swear they moved that sign
    looking for mercy
    in your daddy’s arms

    mercy, mercy, looking for mercy
    mercy, mercy, looking for mercy

    Anne, with her father is out in the boat
    riding the water
    riding the waves on the sea

  5. What fun! I love the way she gets to the point in such a cheeky way. I’ve only read scattered poems, not a whole collection. This one will definitely go on my list!

  6. Andi – So glad you enjoyed it, and thrilled that you are also a Sexton fan. I think we must have very similar reading tastes – I’m looking forward to reading Simon van Booey’s short stories on your recommendation! Bookboxed – what wonderful comments! I think what you say about Sexton being an outsider in the centre is very pertinent. I think there is a trend in her poetry (less obvious here, perhaps) to be seeking for the ultimate sensation, to be something or somewhere in a state of absolute purity, and that she couldn’t find in life (though she managed it gorgeously in art). Your Jane Austen remarks are spot on – and Austen would have loved this, I think. Would have appealed to her emotionally commercial eye. As for what you say about the egg, I’m impressed. My own thoughts are more mundane, in that timing a soft boiled egg is a very personal and yet precise thing, and I think, hmmm yes, I do think I may have argued with my own husband over it, as there’s nothing more revolting to me than an uncooked white. And oh yes, I have a chapter in mind with Sexton as its centrepiece – she is just too good not to write about! I can only hope I get the chance. Dorothy – I’d love to know what you make of Transformations – I think you’d love it. It’s very witty and wise. Bluepete – thank you so much for posting that wonderful poem. This is why I love sharing my discoveries with blogging friends. You always have something more for me to enjoy – thank you. Hello, Ravenous! It was a nice break, thank you. Yes, I find Sexton calmer, wittier, less angst-ridden in these poems. They are like a pure gift from her, without the poison in the apple (which she makes the most of in the poem on Snow White, ‘the dumb bunny’. I just loved that. Emily – I have my fingers crossed that Boston will provide one. I think you would enjoy these for the way that she uses language – much like your blog it’s a delightful concoction of wit and wisdom! Kimbofo – that’s just beautiful – thank you so much for posting that. I do believe my husband has got that Peter Gabriel album somewhere (although with horror I think it might be vinyl). Or actually, I imagine it might well be possible to hear it on Youtube. I’m very intrigued now to follow that up. Ann – I can imagine you would love these. I think they are right up your street. She’s hard to get hold of in the UK, alas, but Transformations might be available through amazon market place sellers still. Stefanie – I really think you would enjoy her sense of humour – cheeky is exactly the word for it! I’d love to know what you think of her in any case.

  7. When I saw that you had received the Sexton for your birthday, I was so hoping you would love Transformations. And thanks for sharing Cinderella on your blog…it’s probably my favorite.
    Do you know Atwood’s Penelopiad? a re-telling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s view, cut from somewhat the same cloth as Transformations I think. Wonderful stuff.

  8. Transformations was the first of Sexton’s collections I ever came across, and I have to say that as much as I enjoy her other work, I’d always found Transformations a bit too bitter. But the way that you’ve written about it, and the pieces that you’ve quoted, have made me think that I need to go back and give Transformations another go. Thanks for that.

  9. Deborah – I went straight to Transformations, having had it recommended to me, and I was thrilled to find it every bit as good if not better than my expectations. And yes, I do possess a copy of the Atwood novel which I have been looking forward to reading but which has recently fallen under the radar – thank you so much for reminding me of it. I will pick it up now very soon! Helen – Sexton can be a bitter writer, I agree, and angry and despairing and vicious too, when she’s in the mood. I found that the humour of Transformations lifted it out of any possible pit, but I’m sure you have to read her on the right day. I will be very interesting to know what you make of it, if you do return and reread. I’ve often been surprised by the differences in my opinions on books over the course of time.

  10. I’m always at a loss when it comes to poetry–not sure how to interpret it or how to talk about it. I feel better to know about that Peter Gabriel song–I really like it, too, and didn’t realize it was Sexton’s poetry. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!

  11. Danielle – it’s okay. Lots of critics think that poetry is best just experienced and enjoyed, and that rather like jokes, you mess them up when you dissect them! Now you have a head start on me by knowing the Peter Gabriel song 🙂

  12. I like Sexton a lot and am so glad you’re reading her. Diane Middlebrook’s biography of her, which relies in parts on tapes Sexton’s analyst made of their sessions (what a thing to do, huh?!) is very good if you want some more Sexton reading.

  13. Dear Bloglily – I am certainly going to get hold of that Middlebrook biography – it looks very good indeed, and I’d like to know more about this controversial use of the tapes. What a thing to do!

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