Monday, January 25, 2010

Poem o'the Day: Anne Sexton, 'Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward'

Since I know I likely won't be able to post as frequently anymore--though I hope to do something later tonight, when my work is finished--I think I'd like to post a poem a day in here. Perhaps every couple of days, but this way, I can share ones that strike me--which should be particularly persistent this semester, with my directed study on female poets after World War II. Of course, this also means that the poems will almost invariably be Anne Sexton for the next 4-5 weeks (this is how long I'm working with her), and then a couple of weeks of Plath, but hopefully others will sneak in now and again, and certainly, at the end of the semester, there'll be more variety (I've got Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Denise Levertov, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Maxine Kumin, and Sarah Hannah for the last 4-5 weeks). Anyhow, here's one for today.

It's from AS's first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back. Re-reading this collection, I'm rather astonished. I've read it in part or in full probably three times now, and have certainly read some of the more famous poems about a million times ("Her Kind" of course, and "The Double Image," and my two personal favorites, "Some Foreign Letters" and "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further"), but oddly, the collection itself is very different to what I remember. First, it's not strictly confessional--there are a half dozen or more that are like little stories, narratives of other lives (though still I think Sexton's interest lies in sort of marginalized or silenced individuals--the 'cripples' of life, as she would probably remark). There's a positively anomalous, really odd (but quite good) little poem that features the nuclear holocaust and life on Venus ("Venus and the Ark"), and then quite a few that are clearly--well, to my mind anyhow--exercises, little workbooks Sexton tried her hand at. She's still finding her voice in this collection. It's less biting, less pop cultural, less assured than the later ones. But it's also beautifully tender, attentive to the most minute of details and experiences, and brave in a way that I don't think anyone quite does like Anne Sexton.

That said, this is "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward"--one of the little 'narrative' poems. I'll post the first stanza here, and you can click 'read more' if you'd like. Obviously, I don't own the rights to this poem.

Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward
Anne Sexton

Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.

The doctors are enamel. They want to know
the facts. They guess about the man who left me,
some pendulum soul, going the way men go
and leave you full of child. But our case history
stays blank. All I did was let you grow.
Now we are here for all the ward to see.
They thought I was strange, although
I never spoke a word. I burst empty
of you, letting you learn how the air is so.
The doctors chart the riddle they ask of me
and I turn my head away. I do not know.

Yours is the only face I recognize.
Bone at my bone, you drink my answers in.
Six times a day I prize
your need, the animals of your lips, your skin
growing warm and plump. I see your eyes
lifting their tents. They are blue stones, they begin
to outgrow their moss. You blink in surprise
and I wonder what you can see, my funny kin,
as you trouble my silence. I am a shelter of lies.
Should I learn to speak again, or hopeless in
such sanity will I touch some face I recognize?

Down the hall the baskets start back. My arms
fit you like a sleeve, they hold
catkins of your willows, the wild bee farms
or your nerves, each muscle and fold
of your first days. Your old man's face disarms
the nurses. But the doctors return to scold
me. I speak. It is you my silence harms.
I should have known; I should have told
them something to write down. My voice alarms
my throat. 'Name of father--none.' I hold
you and name you bastard in my arms.

And now that's that. There is nothing more
that I can say or lose.
Others have traded life before
and could not speak. I tighten to refuse
your owling eyes, my fragile visitor.
I touch your cheeks, like flowers. You bruise
against me. We unlearn. I am a shore
rocking you off. You break from me. I choose
your only way, my small inheritor
and hand you off, trembling the selves we lose.
Go child, who is my sin and nothing more.

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