Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Poetry of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton is now available in ebook from Open Road Integrated Media. The book includes the complete poems and posthumously published work. It is a substantial volume of work. Sexton plumbed her own life as a woman, mother, daughter, wife and lover, addressed her struggle with depression, institutionalization, and suicide attempts.

The Publisher's Note explains how the poems were adapted to the ebook form. And How It Was: Maxine Kumin on Anne Sexton,  a revealing essay about Kumin's professional and personal relationship with Sexton.  Kumin writes that an elderly priest told Sexton that "God is your typewriter"; those words kept Sexton going for another year as she wrote her last book of poetry, The Awful Rowing Toward God.

I found The Awful Rowing Toward God by Anne Sexton shortly after it's publication in paperback. I did not have much money in those days, and buying a book was a thoughtful decision. I did not know Sexton. I did not know about 'confessional' poetry or about Sexton's demons and suicide. The title caught my attention and I brought it home.

Sexton was a revelation. Her imagery was so novel and individualistic, unlike anything I had ever read before. Her voice was clear and honest. I fell in love with these poems. She impacted my own poetry more than I care to admit, but I was young and trying new things.

The volume begins with Rowing with its imagery of God as an island the poet endeavors to reach, an imperfect island but where

"there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside of me
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands/and embrace it."

She tells us she is on a quest.

In the poem Courage she writes about what courage means in life, "it is in the small things we see it./The child's first step,/as awesome as an earthquake," to the courage of enduring despair, and the courage of old age when "at the last moment/when death opens the back door/you'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out."

At times the poems reflected me back to other poets. For instance, in The Poet of Ignorance Sexton writes,

"I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open and shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes."

And I recalled Emily Dickinson's poem about performing the mundane as a way of carrying on:

"I tie my hat--I crease my shawl--
Life's little duties do--precisely--
...
Therefore--we do life's labor--
Though Life's Reward--be done--
With scrupulous exactness--
To hold our senses on--"

Sexton refers to an animal, a crab clutching fast to her heart; Dickinson to a Bomb held to her bosom.

The last poems were my favorites.

Not So. Not So.,  beginning "I cannot walk an inch/without trying to walk to God" and ending "You have a thousand prayers/but God has one."

In The Rowing Endeth, the poet has arrived "at the dock of the island called God" and plays a game of poker with the deity. God wins and laughs, "the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth/and into mine,/and such laughter that He doubles right over me/laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs." And as the whole universe laughs, she ends, "Dearest dealer/I with my royal straight flush/love you for your wild card/that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha/and lucky love."

The Christian faith is a comedy: God always wins for out of death comes the joy of resurrection. Death brought Sexton death respite from her demons. I  pray that she found peace.

I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

"[Her poems] will be understood in time--not as 'women's poetry' or 'confessional poetry'--but as myths that expand the human consciousness." Erica Jong

The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton
Open Road Integrated Media
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
ISBN: 9781504034364
$9.99 ebook