Readers don’t normally think of Anne Sexton as a love poet. Confessional, yes. Powerful, definitely. Romantic? Not really. The author of poems such as “Her Kind” is better known for verses that show the grittier side of the psyche, rather than the smooth surfaces of love.
Recently I stumbled across a book of hers I didn’t know, Love Poems, published in 1969, five years before Sexton’s death. This is not the face of Anne Sexton we usually see, as in the portrait on her Wikipedia page, staring off intently into space, looking slightly abstracted. Love Poems reveals a passionate Sexton, making a headlong effort to connect to other individuals:
Then I think of you in bed,
your tongue half chocolate, half ocean
from “Eighteen Days without You: December 11th”
In Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography, Sexton is quoted in an interview as saying, “The love poems are all a celebration of touch…physical and emotional touch.” The sensuality in these poems is about linking deeply with another person.
Of course there is a confessional side to Sexton’s love poetry as well. This book is not about love in marriage, but her various affairs with men and with at least one woman. The lesbian poem, “Song for a Lady,” ends with this couplet, with its play on the word knead/need:
Even a notary would notarize our bed,
as you knead me and I rise like bread.
Nothing apologetic here about this affair with another woman.
The poems are often about missing an absent lover. Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” is the ultimate Other Woman poem, the language electrified by emotion. A mixture of compassion, admiration, and fury, the poem describes the wife the speaker’s lover retreats to:
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…
There is something a little too perfect about this ’60s Normal Rockwell domestic scene, particularly since we know that her lover was driven to escape it.
What struck me most about these love poems is that the image commonly presented of Anne Sexton as the madwoman—not in the attic but in the knotty-pine suburban den—is often not accurate. Sexton wrote verses of the greatest fulfillment, as well of poems of emotional desperation. Here, in full, is my favorite of Love Poems:
I was wrapped in black
fur and white fur and
you undid me and then
you placed me in gold light
and then you crowned me,
while snow fell outside
the door in diagonal darts.
While a ten-inch snow
came down like stars
in small calcium fragments,
we were in our bodies
(that room that will bury us)
and you were in my body
(that room that will outlive us)
and at first I rubbed your
feet dry with a towel
because I was your slave
and then you called me princess.
I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
I love the contrast between the snow outside and the hothouse lovemaking indoors, by the gold light of a fire or a sunset. Then there is the archaic language: crown, slave, princess, psalms, bridle, gold. The poem's diction has a formal dignity, which acts as a foil to enhance and ennoble the sensuality. What an image: “I beat down the psalms”! The repetition of the final phrase, “we harvested,” is such a triumph. Unlike many poems in the collection, there is no note of guilt or nostalgia in that ending, just fruition.
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