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.

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