Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Poem(s) o'the Day: Anne Sexton, "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife," "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator"

Two more from Sexton's Love Poems--one of my faves ("For My Lover"), and one that's just wonderfully striking ("Ballad").


For My Lover, Returning to His Wife

She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.

She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.

Let's face it, I have been momentary.
A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.

She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical, your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter's wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,

done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.

She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.

I give you back your heart.
I give you permission--

for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound--
for the burying of her small red wound alive--

for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother's knee, for the stockings,
for the garter belt, for the call--

the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbons in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.

She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.


The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator

The end of the affair is always death.
She's my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Finger to finger, now she's mind.
She's not too far. She's my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.

I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle. Could I
put the dream market on display?
I am spread out. I crucify.
My little plum is what you said.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Then my black-eyed rival came.
The lady of water, rising on the breach,
a piano at her fingertips, shame
on her lips and a flute's speech.
And I was the knock-kneed broom instead.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

She took you the way a woman takes
a bargain dress off the rack
and I broke the way a stone breaks.
I give back your books and fishing tack.
Today's paper says that you are wed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take of shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.


Diane Middlebrook, Sexton's biographer, astutely points out the Love Poems has an almost narrative structure--there is a reawakening into sexuality from the numbness brought on by aging in the poems' narrator(s), bringing out, for example, the two poems of last time, "The Touch" and "The Kiss" (not to mention "The Breast"), poems that track the development and travails of an affair, and then the breaking off. Then cycle, rinse, repeat--the affair begins again, the body comes to life, the lover departs, and you're fucked (though no longer literally). "For My Lover" marks the departure, the next several poems lament the pain of loss, and then the narrator fingers herself into oblivion. "Barefoot" (immediately after "Ballad") begins anew and leads on the next affair until the final, powerful poem "Eighteen Days Without You" remarks again upon grief after the souring of love.

Some things I notice: both of these poems mark recurring metaphors for the role of women ("stones" and "pots" and "spoons"--all associated previously with the stasis and insignificance of domestic femininity in poems like "Consorting with Angels" and "Sylvia's Death"). It it as though a woman trapped in the moment can be reduced to the sum of her parts--kitchen supplies and garden decorations (all inanimate in some sense, though stones are arguable--but for Sexton frequently occur in relation to absolute paralysis or the dead, and also water, which stones retain). I love, however, the conflict between narrator and wife in the former poem, wherein the narrator almost desires the ability to provide for her lover a sum-of-parts, to be 'melted down' for him into a sort of aesthetic, but functional, accoutrement (the cast-iron pot). She herself is insubstantial, she has hair rising like smoke and dissipating in the atmosphere; she is conflated, in fact, with washable watercolors in the end. The wife, too, is particularly potent in terms of her role as mother--not only for the children, with their heads 'privately bent' (what an evocative moment, and stanza), but for the man, for whom she represents the sum of him and his dreams. This hearkens back to a poem like "Housewife," where the domesticated woman is both 'house' and 'fleshy mother' for her Jonah-husband-figure. I can't say much about that poem except that I love it, and find it to be one of the most direct, lush poems Sexton wrote.

"Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" is one of those notorious pieces that isn't, in fact, all that inflammatory, but that remains imprinted in the memory of Sexton frequently, simply because it broaches a taboo topic (see also "The Abortion"--which frankly, just isn't all that great--or "Menstruation at Forty"). But again, the poem evokes a particular, fragile moment, in the wake of loss--here, of course, loss of the lover. But the hand, as lover, interestingly becomes almost a sort of usurper--invades the 'bower' where the lover mounted her, takes back the woman who was merely 'borrowed' (returning to the central conceit of "For My Lover"). Masturbation, too, demarcates a sort of liminal space in which, paradoxically, the woman touching herself is removed from her body ("an annoying miracle")--perceived both as something frustrating (can she not bring herself to orgasm?) and wonderful (to be removed from the haunted body figures as a brief reprieve). The hand is possessive, in fact, horrifying--and love, too, becomes a horrifyingly mechanical act of the dismantling of parts (the couples are no more than piles of clothes removed), and then, consumptive. As I argued in my last post, the bulk of Love Poems finds intimacy to be a horrific experience, because it is always only a precursor to grief, not to mention the fact that bodies are embarrassing, covered in protuberances and unable to connect in any powerful or meaningful way (when they do, it is through acts of violence, possession, almost sadistic moments of abandonment of the body). And the refrain of course mocks the sanctity of union--her masturbation, and her 'marrying' of the bed, is presented as coexistent--even indistinguishable--from the automatonic actions of the 'real' lovers on display in the poem. They may even be more frightening, for to unite (not in marriage, as with the masturbating narrator), they must gorge on one another.

Fuck, I adore Anne Sexton. Seriously beginning to consider her as at least a large part of my future dissertation. Hope you liked the poems.

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