Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poem o'the Day: Anne Sexton, 'A Story for Rose...'

So I missed a day. Maybe you'll have two tomorrow. Sure, this whole thing is a bit of a dumb idea, but at least it will keep me blogging regularly during the busy semester, not to mention I can use it to double as both blogging and 'research' inasmuch as I'll hopefully post at least a few thoughts about each poem. Like I said, expect Sexton for a while (though I've got an inkling that Yeats and Maxine Kumin may appear this week).


"A Story for Rose On the Midnight Flight to Boston"
Anne Sexton

Until tonight they were separate specialties,
different stories, the best of their own worst.
Riding my warm cabin home, I remember Betsy's
laughter; she laughed as you did, Rose, at the first
story. Someday, I promised her, I'll be someone
going somewhere and we plotted it in the humdrum
school for proper girls. The next April the plane
bucked me like a horse, my elevators turned
and fear blew down my throat, that last profane
gauge of a stomach coming up. And then returned
to land, as unlovely as any seasick sailor,
sincerely eighteen; my first story, my funny failure.
Maybe, Rose, there is always another story,
better unsaid, grim or flat or predatory.

Half a mile down the lights of the in-between cities
turn up their eyes at me. And I remember Betsy's
story; the April night of the civilian air crash
and her sudden name misspelled in the evening paper,
the interior of shock and the paper gone in the trash
ten years now. She used the return ticket I gave her.
This was the rude kill of her; two planes cracking
in mid-air over Washington, like blind birds.
And the picking up afterwards, the morticians tracking
bodies in the Potomac and piecing them like boards
to make a leg or a face. There is only her miniature
photograph left, too long ago now for fear to remember.
Special tonight because I made her into a story
that I grew to know and savor.

A reason to worry,
Rose, when you fix on an old death like that,
and outliving the impact, to find you've pretended.
We bank over Boston. I am safe. I put on my hat.
I am almost someone going home. The story has ended.


This one's also from Sexton's first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back. It's overlooked, I think, perhaps because it's not a strict confessional poem, or perhaps because it's not got the shock value that Sexton is usually known for (because, after all, what poet doesn't write of untimely death? this is no suicide, no abortion, no menstruation at 40). Yet it closes Part I of Bedlam. And it is given a bit of an unusual weight, I think, in its persistent questions of narrative value ('always another story, better unsaid,' 'special tonight because I made her into a story,' 'the story has ended'), especially as the next poem, in Part II, is "For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further"--a poem so beautifully taken with defending the right to tell those 'better unsaid' stories that Sexton's teacher, John Holmes, wanted to silence in her work.

Not to mention, I think this is a fabulous example of Sexton's easy rhythm, her striking rhymes (sailor/failure; blind birds/afterwards), and her truly arresting attention to detail, which becomes magnified contextually and suddenly seems so profound (the 'sudden' name misspelled in death, the planes cracking like 'blind birds' in mid-air, the putting on of the hat when a flight has safely landed--though a friend's 'rude kill' remains imprinted in one's memory). What Sexton captures in the trajectory of this poem is a powerful meditation on our relation to death--our fear of it, our 'grim or flat or predatory' encounters with it, and our ability to continue slogging through even after grief. Not to mention that I absolutely love the idea of being 'almost someone going home.' Rarely are poets able to ensnare such tenderness and terror and history in the mundane.

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