Selected Poems of Anne Sexton / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson
Anne Sexton is a sentimental blender. Wait—that’s not right at all. What interests me most about this collection is witnessing Sexton’s wrestling match with poetic form, particularly the way she uses (and then stops using) rhyme. By the time she gets to The Awful Rowing Toward God, she seems to have left rhyme schemes behind. However, she brings along her bold tendency to end multiple lines in a poem with the same word. Consider “Rowing,” in which four lines terminate with “grew” and three with “rowing”; and “The Rowing Endeth,” in which three lines end with “laughs” and one with “laugh” in a span of eight-lines in which appear two iterations of “laughter” one “laughing,” one “laugh,” and one “laughs.” This tic has its origin in earlier poems like To Bedlam and Partway Back’s “The Lost Ingredient,” in which “lost” appears at the end of five lines, while its homonym “last” ends two lines and the latter’s anagram “salt” appears twice.
All of this play suggests a restlessness with form, but a facility within its confines. Sexton sets an elaborate rhyme scheme in the first part of “The Double Image,” which also appears in her first book. All four stanzas in part one have a methodical but creatively engineered ABBCABCDEED rhyme scheme. In their introduction to the volume, Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George note that Sexton tends in her early work to “[set] up a grid of rhymes through which to sift her associations” (p. xiv), and this habit is certainly evident in “The Double Image.” Also remarkable is the way Sexton adjusts her line breaks to make the rhymes work. Her dedication to her schemes and her gift for mixing plain speech with heightened registers pushes her to interrupt what might otherwise be conventional line phrasing while also masking her devices. One is aware of the play of sounds, but mapping out the rhyme scheme reveals an almost horrifying intricacy.
The eccentricities of end rhyme in part two of “The Double Image” bear this out. The first stanza goes AABBCBC, and displays some fascinating linebreaks. Line two begins in a thrillingly awkward and ambiguous manner (“of you and I made moccasins”). Line three is deftly cut to sculpt line four (“myself, I lived with my mother. Too late,”), which isolates and bifurcates the speaker (“myself, I”), then comments back, at the end of the line, on her status. Line five copies the end of line four and elaborates on the theme, via more copying and pronoun shifting, as the self-reflective I becomes the condemnatory you, the source of which is “witches” which might originate in the speaker’s head (just as the poem comes from the poet’s head). In short, AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
Lines six and seven, which end-rhyme with lines four and five, introduce part two’s slippery refrain. Each of the four stanzas ends with a variation on this two-line refrain, composed of two sentences, the first a negation or limit, and the second an objectification at a greater remove. The two sentences work in tandem, whether or not they agree with each other in terms of subject and object. In stanza one, “I” is the subject of sentence one and the object of sentence two (which estranges the object from herself; rather than leaving her mother’s house, as she knows she should, she has her portrait done, which puts a representation of herself more permanently in the house, though it does more to alienate her from herself than to root her in her mother’s home). Stanza two further explicates the situation and the dilemma—the speaker is “[p]art way back from Bedlam,” returning to her mother’s house from a mental hospital after a suicide attempt for which her mother cannot forgive her. Accordingly, in its last two lines, “she” replaces the “I” of the first stanza in the first sentence (and “she” refers ostensibly to the mother, but carries the echo of “I”), and “she” remains the subject in the second sentence, maintaining agency lost by the “I” in stanza one. The object remains the estranged self captured in the portrait. The third stanza hammers home the trap of similarity between mother and daughter, courtesy of the artist who captures the daughter in the painting (making her smile like her mother’s), in collusion with the patronizing mother, who takes control of her daughter’s hairstyle. The stanza ends in resignation, with a deceptive “I” as subject in the last two lines. “I didn’t seem to care” embodies the objectification of the speaker while also disembodying her to the extent that she can only speculate on her attitude at a remove. Instead of caring, she apparently had her portrait done. Well then.
The final stanza of part two relates a memory that presages institutionalization, as the speaker recalls being locked in a cupboard at a church “where [she] grew up.” Here the father appears, complicitly passing the plate. It is unclear if he passes a donation plate (and if so, it is unclear if he makes a deposit), or if he passes a dinner plate (if so, is it an empty plate, and is he being served, or has he already eaten, and does he want seconds, and is he being served from the cupboards full of children?). In this stanza’s fifth line, the witches suggest, borrowing language from their appearance in the fifth line of part two’s first stanza, that it’s too late to be forgiven, which suggests that the father was passing a communion plate, and whether or not he ate whatever body was on the plate is irrelevant. Too late! Subject slippage in the concluding lines replaces the speaker’s “I” with the father (just as she swaps places earlier with the mother), recontextualizing the theme of forgiveness withheld (and the sharing of that withholding) in part two’s second stanza. Instead of forgiveness, “they” (which could emcompass the mother, the father, the witches, and hell, everyone else, including the unnamed wardens at the church) offer passive-aggressive portraiture.
Let’s take a moment to consider the rhyme scheme of part two. After the first stanza, which is fairly straightforward, Sexton abandons her new scheme with ABCDEFE. Considering the revelation in this stanza (the speaker has been sent away, and has only come partway back), the destabilizing lack of scheme is suitably troubling. The third stanza begins to rebuild the scheme (ABABCDC), and the fourth restores the first stanza’s scheme (AABBCBC). All better then! Well well.
Before I lost my mind, I want to return to The Awful Rowing Toward God, the galleys of which Sexton reportedly corrected the day she had her last smoke. I find this to be her most powerful work, in large part because it is comprised of relatively plainspoken, sparse lyric. According to Middlebrook and George, at the end of her life, Sexton was afraid she was “losing her creativity” (xii), which they claim as the reason for her suicide. Anyway, that’s the way they make it sound in the sentence I just referenced. Setting aside the fatuousness of presuming a particular motive for suicide, particularly such a mythologizing motive, I have to take issue with the suggestion that Sexton was (or was fearful of) losing her gift. At the end of the introduction, Middlebrook and George mention “the fairly lax standards [of completion] Sexton allowed herself in The Awful Rowing Toward God” (xxiii). Ew. Thankfully, I didn’t begin reading the introduction until I’d made headway into the collection, and then read it sporadically when I needed a break from the poems. And fortunately, I didn’t finish the introduction until I finished reading selections from The Awful Rowing Toward God, because the editors’ bias might have adversely affected my pleasure. I think Sexton was onto something (maybe even onto some future shit) with her last book. The fact that she might have spent time on her last day going over the proofs is a sign of her dedication to craft, rather than an indication that the book was less than finished. I suspect (and here’s more mythologization) that if she felt the book was in any way not up to her standards, she would have stuck around to finish it to her satisfaction. I believe her statement that poetry kept her alive, and The Awful Rowing Toward God suggests that if she was afraid of anything with regard to her poetry, she was afraid of what she could never say, or what she might falsely say. She identified with her Jesus, the Actor when she wrote, at the conclusion of “Jesus, the Actor, Plays the Holy Ghost”
I have been born many times, a false Messiah,
but let me be born again
into something true.
After all, she had committed suicide before, and risen after great rest. That is, she was drawn in life and in her poetry toward the thing she feared most, the thing she could not explain: death.
 “Salt” first appears at the end of the third line as a combination of “lost” and “sat,” the end-words on surrounding lines, and line two’s “lost” is an anagram of line one’s “stole” in which the letter e has gone missing. “Steal” ends three lines and is an anagram of “stale,” which ends line six. OK, so maybe Anne Sexton is a terminal word blender—not as catchy as sentimental blender, but way scarier.
 Two editors, six names, four of which have the same number of letters, two of which differ only in the last letter—one notices these things when one has been counting and schematizing end-rhymes.
 Freudian slip!
 I apologize for what might come off as an insensitive crack; considering the precious few videos I’ve seen of Sexton, in which she’s smoking cigarettes with a gallows wink, and the line in “For Eleanor Boylan Talking with God,” where she writes “and I am breathing in my cigarettes like poison,” it strikes me as darkly funny that Sexton killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning. This makes the laughter toward the end of presumably the last poem she looked over especially poignant. I can’t help picturing her cackling in the smoke-filled garage, wrapped in her mother’s fur coat, as she prepares to conclude her awful rowing.
 In one of the videos I found online, she says, “I can explain sex in a minute, but death, I can’t explain.”