Thursday, February 4, 2010

Poem(s) o'the Day: Sexton, "Consorting with Angels," "Sylvia's Death"

Behind. Sunday was hangover-from-hell day. Monday was exhausted-from-idiocy-in-class day. Yesterday was holy-shit-I've-got-so-much-to-do-for-my-directed-study-meeting-tomorrow day. Thus, three poems, all from Sexton's third collection, Live or Die (which is what I'm working on this week in my directed study). She won the Pulitzer for this collection, actually, and re-reading it, I'm beginning to see why. It's as though everything Sexton had already or would soon tackle was in top form in this collection. There are the inklings of her later desperate grasping towards a nebulous god figure; there're incredible musings on the excesses and failures and joys of the (mostly female) body; mothers and daughters and their strange bonds abound; suicide and madness are dealt with in some of the most philosophical poems of her career. It's just lovely. Unfortunately, many of the best poems of the collection ("Flee On Your Donkey," "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman," "A Little Uncomplicated Hymn," "Cripples and Other Stories," "Live") are also incredibly long, so I'm sharing three that I enjoy, but that are also relatively short and easy to type up.


Consorting with Angels
Anne Sexton

I was tired of being a woman,
tired of the spoons and the pots,
tired of my mouth and my breasts,
tired of the cosmetics and the silks.
There were still men who sat at my table,
circled around the bowl I offered up.
The bowl was filled with purple grapes
and the flies hovered in for the scent
and even my father came with his white bone.
But I was tired of the gender of things.

Last night I had a dream
and I said to it...
'You are the answer.
You will outlive my husband and my father.'
In that dream there was a city made of chains
where Joan was put to death in man's clothes
and the nature of the angels went unexplained,
no two made in the same species,
one with a nose, one with an ear in its hand,
one chewing a star and recording its orbit,
each one like a poem obeying itself,
performing God's functions,
a people apart.

'You are the answer,'
I said, and entered,
lying down on the gates of the city.
Then the chains were fastened around me
and I lost my common gender and my final aspect.
Adam was on the left of me
and Eve was on the right of me,
both thoroughly inconsistent with the world of reason.
We wove our arms together
and rode under the sun.
I was not a woman anymore,
not one thing or the other.

O daughters of Jerusalem,
the king has brought my into his chamber.
I am black and I am beautiful.
I've been opened and undressed.
I have no arms or legs.
I'm all one skin like a fish.
I'm no more a woman
than Christ was a man.


Sylvia's Death
for Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,

with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in the tiny playroom,

with your mouth shut into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,

(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)

what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?

how did you crawl into,

crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,

the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,

the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,

the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,

the death we drank to,
the motives and then the quiet deed?

(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,

how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy

to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,

and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,

and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides

and I know at the news of your death,
a terrible taste for it, like salt.

(And me,
me too.
And now, Sylvia,
you again
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,

what is your death
but an old belonging,

a mole that fell out of one of your poems?

(O friend,
while the moon's bad,
and the king's gone,
and the queen's at her wit's end
the bar fly ought to sing!)

O tiny mother,
you too!
O funny duchess!
O blonde thing!


Live or Die was presumably the collection that took her the longest to produce and to put together--four years (Love Poems was released three years later). Anne organized the poems in a sort of loose chronological order, claiming that the book in some way constituted a journey, one that begins with memories of a dead father and the husband that seems to replicate his figuration, and ends with a long meditation on the choice to live, finally having realized that "The poison just didn't take." Life in that last poem is imaged as "the dream, the excitable gift." In between, there are poems of reverence for death and suicide, among them "Sylvia's Death," poems that reimagine the narrator's experiences with madness ("Flee On Your Donkey"), poems that posit a new sort of relation to her daughters, especially with her mother's death now several years past. There is a journey, to my mind, one that follows the toils, the travails of a woman struggling through rather ordinary things, madness and death-wishes excepted. The ode to life in that last poem--"Live"--remains, however, ambivalent. She decides to live after realizing that the sun is solid, and may provide some sort of "answer"--and after having herself decided not to abort her dog's puppies, dropping them like "stones" in a basin of water. Living, then, is imagined as a 'promise' to love beyond the self, to recognize that death in fact is a sort of absolute end, and to continue the seemingly futile struggle.

"Consorting with Angels" is a poem I include simply because it strikes me as quite peculiar. There's no question that Sexton frequently bucked against the position of being a woman--the woman's body is frequently figured as a vessel of excess, evil, the death-egg as Sexton will later call it, something that is out of control. But here it is the vision of genderlessness that begins to intrigue her--perhaps a sort of proto-feminist meditation on the specifically social ramifications of being 'Woman.' Thus, it is the spoons and the pots that spark her dissatisfaction; the fact that her offering is expected to be given up to men who gather around the table, waiting for their 'just desserts' as it were. There is again a fear of woman's body, but Joan dies in her man's clothes; the angels are so fascinating because of their inability to properly represent any sort of gendered body. They become like Picassos, with noses in the wrong place, body parts in disarray. Adam and Eve are the poles between which the narrator is positioned, but are beyond this world of 'reason'--which to me is again striking of a sort of feminist inquiry into the cultural figuration of gender, and indeed, the historical constitution of reason as a specifically 'male' attribute. To suggest that Christ was not a man, at the end of the poem, is of course wildly radical, but I still don't quite know what to make of the fact that this suggestion is paired with a seeming mutilation of the female body, as wielded by the narrator.

"Sylvia's Death" is (obviously) an elegy of sorts for Sylvia Plath, with whom Sexton caused ruckus in Boston for a short time. She and Plath and George Starbuck would go out drinking after their workshop under Robert Lowell--Sexton famously remembers that they would drive to Ritz, park in the loading zone before heading inside for their three martinis. Sexton excused their illegal parking by remarking "It's ok, we're only going in to get loaded!" She reminisces that she and Plath would pore over their own mental history, speaking of suicide as if it were a sort of lightbulb to which they had been drawn. Thus, she accuses Plath of being the thief that beat her to the punchline; I harbor my own suspicion that this sort of competitive camaraderie (and Plath's posthumous rise to stardom) haunted Sexton for the rest of her poetic life. But I wonder what the vision of death is, the one they so yearn for. To my mind, Sexton's imagining of death--throughout her corpus--is of a sort of absolute, end-stop. The dead are frequently referred to as "stones" and Sexton's elegies and musings on death are never really positioned beyond the grave, as such, but focus instead on the pain of the living, and the (as in "Sylvia's Death") yearning for the eternal escape the dead have 'stolen.' I wonder if this is why Sexton turned so desperately to religion in late life--she never seemed quite to believe in the afterlife. Thus, death is simply an "almost unnameable lust" ("Wanting to Die"--of a pair with "Sylvia's Death" I think); a hunger that must be satisfied, even if only the one time. I also like that in this poem, there's another reference to the "spoons" that appear in "Consorting with Angels"--as though the meteor children and the stones and spoons of life are indeed a sort of commonality between them, and a larger concern for all women more or less obligated to take up such relics of their gendered history.

Anyhow, I've got so much to do by 3, so that's all for now. Needless to say, more soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment