Sexton’s Spiritual Poems

Anne Sexton’s religious poems present some particular problems for me. In some ways, they are my favorite of her poems. In the best poems her use of images remind me of the metaphysical poets in their use of unusual, disparate, images, while her rhetoric reminds me of Walt Whitman’s, with its repetition of key phrases and cataloging.

There is undoubtedly power in these poems. They are in-your-face poems, challenging your very perception of Christ. The God she describes in these poems is not your mother’s, or your father’s, God. There is an angst and anger in these poems that threatens to overwhelm not only Sexton but you, the reader.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem I have with the poems. The truth is that angst and anger are not enough, can never be enough. They are necessary and inevitable, perhaps, but they are not sufficient to carry me across to the other shore.

Personally, I prefer Sexton's poems like:

The Fury of Sunsets

Something
cold is in the air,
an aura of ice
and phlegm.
All day I've built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks
to undo it.
The horizon bleeds
and sucks its thumb.
The little red thumb
goes out of sight.
And I wonder about
this lifetime with myself,
this dream I'm living.
I could eat the sky
like an apple
but I'd rather
ask the first star:
why am I here?
why do I live in this house?
who's responsible?
eh?


The coldness in the air, the “aura of ice” suggests to me the loneliness and isolation that all of us have felt throughout life, but the ultimate isolation is that of death. Though we struggle to survive each day and to build a meaningful life the sinking sun seems to represent the end of things. At night, awake or asleep, this lifetime seems like a dream, insubstantial. Instead of living we reflect, like the moon reflects the sun , on the day that has passed. Who hasn’t asked the universe, perhaps best represented by those cold, distant stars, “why am I here?” And such doubts ultimately lead to the more basic question, “who’s responsible” for my life, for this feeling of emptiness that comes at the end of each day? Eh? This is the ending that I most fear, a meaningless death after a long meaningless life.

When Sexton says In “Frenzy,” “I am, each day,/typing out the God/my typewriter believes in./Very quick. Very intense,/ like a wolf at a live heart,” I begin to question the very essence of these poems. Why is it “the God my typewriter believes in” rather than the God “I believe in?” What kind of God does her typewriter believe in? A melodramatic God that looks good on the page?

Now, Sexton had great taste in borrowing the title of Kierkegaard's work, and it fits nicely with the idea of sin that pervades her poems:

The Sickness Unto Death

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I've got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.

My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

Who wouldn’t be struck by images, metaphors and symbols like these? The sun becomes a latrine, polluting all. The narrator becomes a mutton to Jesus’ lamb, and the slaughterhouse is filled with despair. God is even in Hitler, the Satan of the modern world? He must be if the Holy Spirit is everywhere, right? Surely that’s an assertion that tests our very faith. I know sometimes people “feel like shit,” I’ve felt that way myself at times lately, but how does one feel like “a house full of bowel movement?” It may make sense to destroy yourself “bite by bite,” but “canker after canker?” For me, at least, this all becomes too melodramatic, too hysterical, to be believable.

As much as I am moved by Sexton’s poems, I wouldn’t want to use her rowboat as my pilot ship to God. I fear she may well be rowing in the wrong direction. If I were looking for a poetic guide to the unknown, at least a Christian guide, I would prefer John Donne’s holy sonnets or Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poems.

If the truth be told, though, at the moment I am looking to the Zen poets for solace, and perhaps their calm reflection on life and death has biased me against Sexton’s railings against a merciless world that often asks more of us than we are capable of giving.

Anne Sexton’s Early Poems

Reading Richard Wright’s complete poems last week, despite the hours it consumed, I was impressed with how good it felt to be immersed in his poetry, in his life. The experience empowered me to re-examine my own life, to discover my own symbols, and to re-discover the themes of my own life.

Unfortunately, reading Selected Poems of Anne Sexton did not produce the same feeling. At times I found it difficult just to continue reading. At times I felt exactly the way I used feel when listening to Alana Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Stop, before I slash my wrists!! Perhaps, though, it was more like taking pain pills. In small doses they provide blessed relief from pain; in large doses they result in hallucinogenic nightmares.

Simply put, I prefer Anne Sexton in small doses. Some of her poems, ones I’ve previously cited on this blog, for instance, are among my favorite poems. Other poems seem to offer genuine insight into mental illness and its causes. The best of her poems capture the religious doubts many of us have endured in our spiritual journey. Too many of the poems, though, seem overly melodramatic, overly depressing, or, worst of all, simply irrelevant to my life.

However, one theme I could consistently identify with in the earlier poems was the search for self-identity. Man or woman, this is a search we all have to make. Being a man, I suspect that this search may be even harder for women in our society because society has traditionally denied women the same freedom it gives to men:

Self in 1958

What is reality?
I am a plaster doll; I pose
with eyes that cut open without landfall or nightfall
upon some shellacked and grinning person,
eyes that open, blue, steel, and close.
Am I approximately an I. Magnin transplant?
I have hair, black angel,
black angel-stuffing to comb,
nylon legs, luminous arms
and some advertised clothes.

I live in a doll’s house
with four chairs,
a counterfeit table, a flat roof
and a big front door.
Many have come to such a small crossroad.
There is an iron bed,
(Life enlarges, life takes aim)
a cardboard floor,
windows that flash open on someone’s city,
and little more.

Someone plays with me,
plants me in the all-electric kitchen,
Is this what Mrs. Rombauer said?
Someone pretends with me –
I am walled in solid by their noise –
or puts me upon their straight bed.
They think I am me!
Their warmth? Their warmth is not a friend!
They pry my mouth for their cups of gin
and their stale bread.

What is reality
to this synthetic doll
who should smile, who should shift gears,
should spring the doors open in a wholesome disorder,
and have no evidence of ruin or fears?
But I would cry,
rooted into the wall that
was once my mother,
if I could remember how
and if I had the tears.

Today we’re all very conscious of the Barbie Doll stereotype, so it should come as no surprise that Sexton felt pressured to become an eye-fluttering, smiling “plaster doll,” who dressed in the proper I Magnin clothes. Nor should it come as a surprise that she felt pressured to become a “homemaker” in the suburbs. Forced into these synthetic “roles,” is it surprising that she questions reality, or is it surprising that more women didn’t question it?

As an ex-high-school teacher, I am all too aware just how brutal this search for identity is when there is constant pressure to conform to an image that doesn’t fit you. Much to my consternation, I have had delightfully bright, attractive teenage girls reveal to me that they have never felt accepted in high school, that they don’t identify with their class or with their school, all because they felt too bright, because they didn’t fit the teenage ideal. As a parent, I resisted the pressure to treat my daughter differently than my son, reasoning that both would be confronted with similar life crises that demanded strength of character. Sometimes I still feel guilty about that, but I would probably do the same thing all over again.

This question of what is reality is carried another step further in “Her Kind,” where Sexton recognizes the different roles that she has played in her life, though none of them ultimately represent who she truly is:

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves;
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

In all three stanzas, the narrator envisions herself as a “witch,” a symbol Sexton uses throughout her poetry to represent female alienation from society. The first stanza presents the traditional image of a witch flying over the rooftops dreaming of evil. But what person hasn’t roamed the night, lonely, dreaming of “evil,” or at least dreaming of “love.” In the second stanza the narrator imagines herself as a housewife, but as a housewife living in a cave who unhappily serves “worms and elves.” Finally, the witch is burned at the stake after being publicly embarrassed by being hauled “nude” through the village in cart. These seem to represent the narrator’s feeling that she is less than a woman, that she is misunderstood, and that she wants to die. Talking about herself in the third person like this, “her kind,” instead of “my kind,” also indicates that the narrator lacks a true sense of identity.

An even more dramatic statement of this alienation is found in “Consorting with Angels.”

Consorting with Angels

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.

0 daughters of Jerusalem,
the king has brought me 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.

Though the theme is similar to the one in “Self in 1958,” the images here are much more dramatic, dynamic, and confusing. Though the first stanza seems relatively traditional, the repetition of “tired” and the images that suggest sexism at its worst, particularly the reference to possible incest, make an effective introduction to the more radical images that follow. The dream in the second stanza where Joan of Arc is crucified for taking on a man’s role and where strange, unique angels appear transitions nicely to the third stanza where the narrator is “chained” between Adam and Eve (is this one of those “deep images”? that Sexton acquired through her friendship with Richard Wright?), and somehow is “not a woman” anymore, is both male and female, or neither. The poem climaxes with the narrator being transformed into a non-sexual “fish,” a traditional symbol Christ often found on the back of cars, and the heretical, at least when this poem was written, suggestion that Christ, God, was neither man nor a woman. Now I don’t find this too shocking because I doubt that the human “soul” has any sexual orientation, but it’s a daring metaphor, none the less.

Thank God most of us have not suffered the same degree of alienation described in these poems, but we have all suffered enough alienation to empathize with Sexton’s feelings and those of others who suffer the same feelings. At the very least, we should come away with an understanding of how our societal values, how our stereotyping, engender these feelings in others.

Anne Sexton Part I

We're going to start the week with a review of Anne Sexton's poetry by Diane McCormick who will be contributing to this blog regularly for awhile. Hopefully, I'll post my review of more Sexton poems tomorrow, though I'm running a little late because of a follow-up surgery last week, a delightful grandson's birthday, and the sheer amount of time it took to read Richard Wright's book last week.

*********************

The Massachusetts born poet Anne Sexton, 1928-1974, could only briefly be described as the thwarted mother and housewife of the 1950s, stifled at home unable to make her creativity known to the outside world, because before she died she had won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a full professorship at Boston College.

It is true she never received a college degree, but Anne wrote her way into the acquaintance of lovers, critics, fellow poets, and psychiatrists.

The best sources of information about her life come from Anne Sexton: a Biography written by Diane Wood Middlebrook, professor of English, Stanford University, and the foreword to The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton, written by long-time friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin. Two web sites offer additional background, the Diane Middlebrook site and A Brief Biography of the Life of Anne Sexton. There are other web sites that discuss Anne Sexton, but these two seem the best. There is also The Academy of American Poets.

To say Anne Sexton was complex, controversial, and confessional only begins the conversation about her. She appears to have begun her life as an indifferent student who married young and gave birth to a daughter at the age of 25. Her mental illness may have begun with post partum depression, but she has also been called schizophrenic. Alcoholism and drug addiction contributed to her problems. So far I have not seen a picture of her without a cigarette in her hand.

At the age of 29 she began to write poetry at the suggestion of her therapist, a treatment program she followed the rest of her life, but she was hardly the quiet patient, writing to calm her fears and anxieties. She sought attention, doing lectures accompanied by her own rock band, “Her Kind.” Audio samples of her readings are available on the net at the Diane Middlebrook site.

Her poems were often challenged as just too confessional. Readers need to make up their own minds now that we are beyond the 1950s and 60s. Pick up The Complete Poems. There is something there for everyone. A sample follows of some of her work.

I know Loren has already written about “Courage,” but I have to add my own words because it is a favorite of mine.



Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Those of us “sturdy for common things” as William Stafford wrote, can continue to feel rewarded in Anne Sexton’s “Courage.”

For it takes courage to do the common things we do at every time in our lives. Imagine the courage it took to make that first step, an event “as awesome as an earthquake.” Or the first time we ride a bike, “wallowing up the sidewalk.”

The stanza continues to portray our courage in more introspective, less physical ways--perhaps times when we needed courage most of all, when we were spanked, instantly separated from a parent who was supposed to only hug us, or when we were teased, called poor or f ¯atty or crazy. “You drank their acid and concealed it. Courage gave us strength to conceal the sting of words flung in our faces.

The next stanza refers to the courage soldiers exhibit on the battlefield, references brought to Sexton’s mind from the Korean War in which her husband was a participant. The men faced the “death of bombs and bullets” stoically, with only a hat to cover your heart.” Courage on the battlefield was a small coal swallowed to keep alive. Then if a buddy dies saving you, his courage is elevated to love as simple as “shaving soap.”
These metaphors and personifications are the life’s blood of Sexton’s poems, the words, “as awesome as an earthquake,” “wallowing up the sidewalk,” “heart went on a journey all alone,” “drank their acid,” “courage was a small coal,” “love as simple as shaving soap,” pull the reader into her mind. These are extraordinary images of ordinary things--taking a first step, riding a bike, receiving a spanking, being teased, fighting a war, saving a buddy.

The last two stanzas are just as rich. We ordinary folk show courage when we endure despair, get “a transfusion from the fire, picking the scabs off your heart, then wring it out like a sock.” The stanza ends with the extended metaphor of caring for an infant, powdering, rubbing its back, putting it to sleep to wake to the “wings of roses...transformed.”

At the end of life we are the most courageous of all. In the spring we will renew ourselves as long as we can, sharpening our swords, to fight for life; we will love even more and bargain with the calendar. Finally when we can’t hang on anymore, we will put on our “carpet slippers and stride [not limp or crawl or sneak but stride] out.”

The sharpness of the images, the originality are unique but exact. Few can duplicate her imagery, but we can read and appreciate her work.


“Courage” is found in her book of poems entitled, The Awful Rowing Toward God, the last book published during Sexton’s life. Sexton wrote nine books of poetry, the titles of which give some insight into the woman: To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones (Macduff’s line from Macbeth upon learning Macbeth has slaughtered his entire family); Live or Die, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967; Love Poems, Transformations, The Book of Folly,The Death Notebooks, which Sexton originally meant to be published posthumously; The Awful Rowing Toward God, and 45 Mercy Street which was published posthumously. There are more uncollected, unedited poems which her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, has included in her mother’s Complete Poems.

“Riding the Elevator into the Sky” is another from The Awful Rowing Toward God
.


As the fireman said:
Don’t book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you’re climbing out of yourself.
If you ’re going to smash into the sky.

Many times I’ve gone past
the fifth floor,
cranking upward,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
Sixtieth floor:
small plants and swans bending
into their grave;
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
Floor six thousand;
the stars,
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something--
some useful door--
somewhere--
up there.

The extended metaphor, the elevator ascending to heaven and, I think, self knowledge, appeals to me. One must not be warned away if she is to climb out of herself, if she is going to “smash into the sky,” burst into glory and achievement.

I can believe Sexton’s confession of her ascent as she goes beyond “the fifth floor, cranking upward,” past the “small plants and swans bending into their grave,” past the “mountains with the patience of a cat, silence wearing its sneakers,” beyond the “messages and letters centuries old,” “a kitchen of clouds,” “the stars, skeletons on fire,” to the “key...that opens something...somewhere--up there.” Such irony to reach the key that still offers no right or wrong answer, only more mystery-- a key that opens something somewhere.

“Young” and “I Remember” are printed in her second book of poetry, All My Pretty Ones, 1962
.

Young

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.

As the title implies this is a remembrance of youth, a “thousand doors ago,” an adult remembering a summer home, lying out at night, looking up at the stars, mom and dad at home in the house. The house was a favorite, its boards smooth ad white as wax, surrounded by trees with a million leaves that hid the crickets. I hope everyone has such a house in her memory; for me it’s the old family farm house, to remember a time when we thought God could really see our dreams and our new formed bodies.

I Remember

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color--no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.


The child in “Young” is an adult now, drinking gin in jelly glasses, sharing a room with someone, a lover, I hope. There is a sweetness in these two poems that I don’t think is commented on enough in Sexton’s poetry. Her poems about “menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction” to quote her friend Maxine Kumin, draw much more attention. Of course, she wrote of sex, too. Read the very sensual “When a Man Enters a Woman” in The Awful Rowing Toward God and note the sadly ironic ending which could only be written by a woman of experience.

Sexton used nature as referenced in “Young” and “I Remember” and also in the next poem, “Snow.”

Snow

Snow,
blessed snow,
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.

There is hope.
There is hope É everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don’t bite till you know
if it’s bread or stone.
What I bit is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.

There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.


A master of the extended metaphor, isn’t she? Hope, like snow, is everywhere. At this moment in her life God gave her snow--hope like milk and she had a pail. According to her biographers, she didn’t feel this way often enough. Sexton committed suicide.

Finally here is what some critics call her signature poem, “Her Kind” found in To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960
.

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain house, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.



All the roles of woman she has been by the grand age of 32--the bewitched woman, the housewife and mother, fixing supper for “worms and elves, whining, rearranging the disaligned.” She has been the survivor “learning the last bright routes.” Note the next to the last lines in each stanza for the ultimate clarity” “a woman like that is not a woman, quite...A woman like that is misunderstood...A woman like that is not ashamed to die.”

The signature of Anne Sexton

Diane McCormick

Looking for Myself

The Civil War

I am torn in two
but I will conquer myself.
I will dig up the pride.
I will take scissors
and cut out the beggar.
I will take a crowbar
and pry out the broken
pieces of God in me.
Just like a jigsaw puzzle,
I will put Him together again
with the patience of a chess player.

How many pieces?

It feels like thousands,
God dressed up like a whore
in a slime of green algae.
God dressed up like an old man
staggering out of His shoes.
God dressed up like a child,
all naked,
even without skin,
soft as an avocado when you peel it.
And others, others, others.

But I will conquer them all
and build a whole nation of God
in me - but united,
build a new soul,
dress it with skin
and then put on my shirt
and sing an anthem,
a song of myself.

Anne Sexton from The Awful Rowing Toward God

It frightens me how much I like this poem, not to mention this whole book of poems. The anguish in these poems is so intense, so palpable, that I know immediately, no matter how uncomfortable I may be, that I am directly in touch with a human soul in anguish. The poems must appeal to my shadow, my darker side, because they’re not the kind of poems I’m usually drawn to, at least I hope I’m not.

But there is something so authentic, so powerful, so frightening in this poem that I am irresistibly drawn to it – like it or not. What I find most frightening of all in the poem, though, is the last line, “a song of myself,” with its allusion to one of my favorite poems, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Although her stated goal may be the same as Whitman’s goal of becoming One with the Oversoul, the means of doing so are so frighteningly different that both poems are cast in a new light.

The poem begins calmly enough with feelings that I, and most readers, have certainly felt: the desire to conquer opposing forces drawing you different ways so you can go where you want to go. And certainly pride is as much a problem with me as it is with most people. (It’s hard to be humble when so many people are drawn to your web site:)

Thank God, though, I’ve never thought about taking “scissors” and digging my pride out. If I had feelings like this, I would damn sure keep only child-safe scissors in my house. Like most people, I, too, have felt that whatever goodness is in me is fragmented and leading nowhere, but using a crowbar to pry out the “broken pieces of God” certainly is not a pleasant prospect. And trying to put a giant puzzle of God together, especially since I have no idea what he looks like, would probably take the patience of Job, not just a chess player.

It’s even harder to identify with the images of God that appear in the next stanza, particularly the one of God dressed up as a “whore in a slime of green algae,” though maybe that’s just because I’m a man. The image of God dressed as an old man somehow reminds me of Blake’s Nobodaddy, and the image of the child certainly brings up images of the newborn Jesus. However, the image of the child as a soft avocado peeled without skin is a deeply disturbing one. God only knows what the “others, others, others” are. Are they so horrible that she can’t even describe them? A truly frightening thought.

I want to believe the narrator will be able to conquer all these elements of herself and build a new soul and sing an anthem of herself. However, it seems unlikely she will be able to “conquer” all these pieces of God, much less “build a whole nation of God.” Can one conquer even one omnipotent God? I’m somehow left with the feeling that if she puts on a shirt it will be a “hair” shirt as a sign of her self-flagellation.

While her despair seems so great that it is almost unthinkable that she can overcome it, this is precisely what we most wish for her. In the end, though, all I am left with is the slight hope that somehow through her ability to articulate her despair so brilliantly and through her deep insights into herself she will be able to conquer these demons that haunt her.

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

from Anne Sexton The Awful Rowing Toward God
Because courage comes in so many forms we often fail to recognize it when we see. Most of us, though, have felt the hot coal of courage as we swallow in anticipation, though mine seems more like a watermelon right now, and most of us have “picked the scabs off” our heart as we relive all the mistakes we have made in a relationship gone bad.

Luckily, though, it doesn’t take too much courage to face what life throws at us because most of the time we have no choice but to face it. Walk or be left behind forever. Endure the bullets and bombs or die. Face the despair of divorce or live the rest of your life unloving and unloved.

So we get up and face life, do the best we can, and hopefully appear brave enough to to those who most love us.

Hopefully when I get old I will be ready to put on my slippers and stride out the back door into forever, though I somehow doubt it. Until then, I expect each spring to seem just a little more beautiful than the ones before. I may even be able to love those around me just a little more, though I’m sure Gavin, like my daughter once did, will say, “Patah, please don’t yell my name like that during the game.” or “Patah, you’re hugging me too tight.”


P.S. Thanks to Ted at the Evil Empire I have been able to work mainly in OS X for the last two days. I almost believe that my writing has gotten a little better with the new version of Office X.