Monday, February 8, 2010

Poem(s) o'the Day: Anne Sexton, "The Touch," "The Kiss"

I'm tackling Sexton's fourth volume, Love Poems, this week, and as such, expect beautiful meditations on romantic attachment and intimacy...GOTCHA. Sexton doesn't title a collection 'Love Poems' only to offer orthodox lyrics ruminating on a cuddle-hour on a pleasant, lilac-drenched spring day. These are poems about broken people (even literally, as in "The Break") reaching out for contact, only to be shredded and chucked back into a chaotic and meaningless world. There are married men and women parting to return to their 'proper' spouses, girls awakening into a violent and invasive sexuality, lonely hollow-people crying into their pillows as they masturbate themselves into temporary oblivion. It's not all bad; one poem is a joyous celebration of the uterus, another is a really hot short piece about the sensuality of barefeet and telling your fella to 'pierce me at my hunger mark.' But largely, Sexton's romantic topography is one pockmarked by people unable to fathom identity and existence, begging for a release from inward-looking (and thus annihilating) solitude, even if it means just the single moment of orgasm that removes you from your self. Bodies are always already failed caverns in which we're all trapped, and sometimes allow others to use up in the hope that they'll stay with us forever. But they don't.

In short, these are precisely the kind of 'love' poems I can support--indeed, the only sorts I can 'love' in some sense. It's perhaps Sexton's most subtle work--it doesn't dazzle with the precise language of To Bedlam and All My Pretty Ones, doesn't drown you in surrealism and madness as with Live or Die, doesn't draw blood and cackle like Transformations does, or meditate ceaselessly and despairingly on religion in the last three volumes, The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, The Awful Rowing Toward God. I suppose that's why I so often forget how much I adore these poems--they brush against you delicately, bruising but not piercing the flesh, and leave a sensual smoke behind. Much recommended. Here are two samples:

The Touch
For months my hand had been sealed off
in a tin box. Nothing was there but subway railings.
Perhaps it is bruised, I thought,
and that is why they have locked it up.
But when I looked in it lay there quietly.
You could tell time by this, I thought,
like a clock, by its five knuckles
and the thin underground veins.
It lay there like an unconscious woman
fed by tubes she knew not of.

The hand has collapsed,
a small wood pigeon
that had gone into seclusion.
I turned it over and the palm was old,
its lines traced like fine needlepoint
and stitched up into the fingers.
It was fat and soft and blind in places.
Nothing but vulnerable.

And all this is metaphor.
An ordinary hand--just lonely
for something to touch
that touches back.
The dog won't do it.
Her tail wags in the swamp for a frog.
I'm no better than a case of dog food.
She owns her own hunger.
My sisters won't do it.
They live in school except for buttons
and tears running down like lemonade.
My father won't do it.
He comes with the house and even at night
he lives in a machine made by my mother
and well oiled by his job, his job.

The trouble is
that I'd let my gestures freeze.
The trouble was not
in the kitchen or the tulips
but only in my head, my head.

Then all this became history.
Your hand found mine.
Life rushed to my fingers like a blood clot.
Oh, my carpenter,
the fingers are rebuilt.
They dance with yours.
They dance in the attic and in Vienna.
My hand is alive all over America.
Not even death will stop it,
death shedding her blood.
Nothing will stop it, for this is the kingdom
and the kingdom come.


The Kiss

My mouth blooms like a cut.
I've been wronged all year, tedious
nights, nothing but rough elbows in them
and delicate boxes of Kleenex calling crybaby
crybaby, you fool!

Before today my body was useless.
Now it's tearing at its square corners.
It's tearing old Mary's garments off, knot by knot
and see--Now it's shot full of these electric bolts.
Zing! A resurrection!

Once it was a boat, quite wooden
and with no business, no salt water under it
and in need of some paint. It was no more
than a group of boards. But you hoisted her, rigged her.
She's been elected.

My nerves are turned on. I hear them like
musical instruments. Where there was silence
the drums, the strings are incurably playing. You did this.
Pure genius at work. Darling, the composer has stepped
into fire.


These aren't necessarily my favorites from the collection (those would probably be "For My Lover Returning to His Wife," "The Break," "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator," and "Eighteen Days Without You"), but I do think they set the tone for the rest in a fascinatingly subversive way. They're the first two poems of the book, and are almost deceptively simple--not to mention seem to fall prey to what I claimed is NOT the goal of these poems (i.e., they can seem a bit saccharinely into a conventional notion of intimacy). But read a bit closer.

For one thing, "The Touch" of course plays into this notion I've been trying to get at with Sexton all along inasmuch as the body--here, only the hand, in fact--is a vessel that consistently fails us, sometimes because the other part of ourselves (the heart, the soul, the interior, however you term it) has been damaged and the body follows suit (as in "The Break"), but frequently, the mere fact of being born into a body makes existence unbearable. This is of course the theme of much of Sexton's suicide poetry: there's a lust for death because the obliteration of the body is an absolute end. There is not usually an afterlife in Sexton's poetics--to be failed wholly by the body is to escape ontological entrapment.

In all honesty, I don't think "The Touch" hits its stride until the fourth stanza, which is not to say that the rest isn't good, but the rest isn't what makes the poem memorable, distinctively *Sexton* for me. One thing that fascinates me is the ambiguous possibility of the declaration that "this became history." Sexton is obsessed with the idea of historicizing experience (probably because one of the large components of her mental illness was an inability to retain information--she and her analyst taped their sessions, because she was unable to remember them from week to week), and particularly with historicizing hitherto silenced or marginalized experience. I think the first part of To Bedlam really exemplifies this, with the capstone being her most famous poem, "Her Kind." So to comment on the historicity of her 'numbness' prior is not only to place it firmly behind her (though that's arguable)--it's also to document a subjectivity or experience that's often swept out of sight. To begin a collection ostensibly filled with love poems with a poem that, one, imagines total dissociation from the body (which in more conventional 'love' poems, historically, isn't bad--inasmuch as the alternative is a spiritual rather than a carnal love), but one that marks the alienation from all connection in a world that attempts to create the veneer that all is shining and beautiful and intimate in suburban America. But the dog, the family--nothing quite does it for the narrator.

She requires a Christ-figure, who brings her hand back to life and helps it to evade death. But this is where I find it fascinating-first, because only the hand is reanimated and only at the sort of whim of a savior--and also because the hand is not brought back to life, as such, it is taken to the opposite extreme of ontological possibility, where it can feel but cannot die. Not to mention, the conflation of death (embodied as 'her' here) with sex (the shedding of the blood being, to my mind, obviously a reference to menstrual blood) posits this revivification as one that can only happen outside the realm of sexual intimacy. To evade death is to evade menstruation, genital contact, femaleness, and in fact, bodily experience altogether (because to be born, from sex, is to be born into future-death, no?). I'm still musing on this one, though, so I'm not quite certain how to place it.

Ugh, I'd like to discuss "The Kiss" too, but it'll need to wait tonight--I didn't realize I'd spent 45 minutes typing these up and thinking about them and writing this out. Enjoy, in any case.

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