by Anne Sexton, 1972
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
It is the early 1970s in an Eastern city. A woman with thick black hair, craggy features, and wide Caribbean-blue eyes is declaiming poetry in a voice that blends Piaf and Dietrich. In the background a rock group plays. The young woman’s behavior is at times seductive, at times naïve and charming, at times very disturbing; her moods go from spitting rage to humility and back at the drop of a hat. When she smiles, the sun comes up. Her poetry is a blend of surreal brilliance and pop pastiche, yucking it up at some moments like a female Johnny Carson (“Her secret was as safe/as a fly in an outhouse”) and solemn at others, touching on the metaphysical:
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.
The identification of art with sorcery and derangement is telling. The poet isn’t afraid to be known for these things, but for her they’re implied by her being a poet. At all: a female poet is “not a woman, quite.” For all the Rimbaudian high jinks, this is still in many ways a very traditional woman, who loves her family and has a tremendous weakness for men. She deploys her nerdiness to best advantage, keeping the audience guessing as to whether she’s really half mad, more than half stewed, or just a shameless ham. She uses a lot of bad language, and she isn’t afraid to make a fool of herself.
No, it’s not Patti Smith, and the scene is not CBGB’s. The unabashed regional accent is Boston Brahmin, not Jerseydelphia; the rock group is Anne Sexton and Her Kind, and she is likelier to dress like Jessica Rabbit than Buster Keaton. We’ll probably never know if Patti Smith copped some of Anne Sexton’s act. If she had, Sexton might well have been delighted. Anne Sexton was the first female writer of the “confessional” school and one who outdid most of the men in flamboyance. She had modeled professionally and had enough glamor and dramatic presence to have succeeded as an actress. Unfortunately, psychiatric illness kept her more or less housebound. She suffered from a severe mood disorder exacerbated by a history of sexual abuse. Sexton had been seduced by an aunt in childhood and wrote repeatedly about having been molested by her father, though she never spoke about it with as little ambiguity as the former case. She was fortunate enough to discover a remarkable talent for poetry in the course of therapy for a breakdown. Within a few years she had won the Pulitzer Prize. Writing was one career she could adjust to her disability and to the obligations of suburban motherhood, which she often wrote about in the same breath. Sexton enjoyed her own version of the kitchen-sink humor made popular by Jean Kerr and Peg Bracken. “My name is Miss Clover Milk seven times a barking day,” she wrote about her litter of purebred Dalmatians, a perfect ornament to her home in the toniest suburb of Boston. But a turn to the poetry she was writing at the same time gives us this:
thinking I was a killer,
anointing myself daily
with my little poisons.
So I say Live
and turn my shadow three times round
to feed our puppies as they come,
the eight Dalmatians we didn’t drown…
Despite the pails of water that waited
to drown them, to pull them down like stones…
I promise to love more if they come,
because in spite of cruelty
and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens,
I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann.
The poison just didn’t take.
Anne Sexton was inspired to write a book of poems based on Grimm’s fairy tales via an edition treasured by Linda, her favorite daughter. Sexton dedicated the volume, Transformations, to her daughter, a touching gesture on the one hand and on another, reeking of Sexton’s “little poisons.” The volume is full of references to incest and other violence against women and girls, a strange bouquet for a teenager. Though Sexton was devoted to her family, she was also very hard on them. Her daughter, now the novelist Linda Gray Sexton, would remember Cheeveresque scenes of both parents getting drunk and railing at each other to the point of fisticuffs while their children waited for dinner until late. Yet this was the same mother who was celebrated by the teenagers of her neighborhood for being cool, for liking rock music and the occasional joint, very far from the stereotypical sodden Boston matron. Transformations are Sexton’s most self-consciously with-it, American poems, but she wrote them at a time when she was not feminist enough to allow her daughters their own lives. Linda and her sister still lived in fear of Sexton’s suicide attempts and had been helping their father take care of her for many years. Much of their bringing up had in turn been the responsibility of their father’s mother. On good days their relationship to Sexton was as if to a beloved, much older, wacky half-sister from a parent’s failed marriage. On bad days it was hell on earth. Sexton could be violent with her children, but their greatest fear was that she would go mad if they didn’t do just what she asked, and this had at times extended to physical contact of a very questionable nature even when they were small.
Sexton was not an amoral person and in lucid moments, was often beside herself with guilt over her treatment of her family. One of her first poems had characterized Sexton as a witch, well before the word and the idea were redefined by feminism and the New Age. Sexton often opened her readings with “Her Kind,” and the imagery of that poem connects directly with Grimm and the first poem Sexton adapted, “Snow White”:
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…
In “Snow White” she identifies more with the wicked queen. Though Sexton was only in her early forties when she wrote it, she was terrified of growing old and especially terrified of losing her daughters’ love as they matured sexually. The first lines in the book Sexton dedicated to her daughter express her fear: “No matter what life you lead/the virgin is a lovely number… Open to say/Good day Mama/and shut for the thrust/of the unicorn.”
Like all of Sexton’s work, Transformations is uneven and had an uneven reception. The poems track a typical progression from “Snow White,” in which Sexton’s personal investment is veiled, to “Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty,” where the adaptation ends about halfway through to be replaced by pure autobiography. There is merit to some critics’ reservations. The jokes can wear thin on repetition, and there is a lot of repetition. It is also a very self-conscious book. Transformations was addressed in part to a student who had become a rival: Sylvia Plath. Though she was only four years older, Sexton saw Plath as a kind of daughter, who had, of course, overleaped the mother (“a beauty in her own right,/though eaten, of course, by age”), in her case by seizing the sensational death Sexton had counted on. Rapunzel’s rampion becomes “as rapt and as fluid as Isadora Duncan,” quoting Plath in a famous poem: “like Isadora’s scarves.” Here and there Sexton also cops Plath’s Nazi imagery, usually to not much point, as in the earlier “Live or Die” where the gratuitous “Not an Eichmann” is no more than a bit of spice to add to a poem which might otherwise sound too much like Peg Bracken after all, albeit in a tough frame of mind.
The borrowings from Plath are just one sign that the Sexton writing these poems is one familiar with her own bag of tricks and, for that matter, with the entire confessional school’s. At a time when the distinction between high and low culture was eroding but still taken very seriously by the chattering classes, nothing could have been more provocative: The reader could be assumed to dig Sexton. The gee-whiz-look-at-me tone places Transformations in its time in other ways as well. Sexton was starting to read authors associated with the later sixties, such as Kurt Vonnegut, whom she approached for an introduction to the volume. It was permissible to use slang and silliness to make a point, or tell a joke:
should a certain
quite adorable princess
be walking in her garden
at such a time
and toss her golden ball…
It was ordained.
Just as the fates deal out
the plague with a tarot card.
Just as the Supreme Being drills
holes in our skulls to let
the Boston Symphony through.
This is good stuff, in contrast to the sentimental streak that always produced Sexton’s weakest work. It just sounded a little too much like R. Crumb for some tastes.
But another reason why Transformations may have left some critics cold was its treatment of sex. If Sexton’s work had always been relatively explicit for a woman poet’s in her time, her narratives had been restricted to conventional male-female relationships with adultery providing the spice. (Sexton had been married to the same man since she was nineteen, but treated herself to many extramarital affairs, often with poets.) Since her death Sexton’s private life has been quite well documented, first with Linda Gray Sexton’s publication of her letters and secondly with a distinguished biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook. We have known for some time that Sexton’s amours extended to other women and to her own children, so we may not be able to contextualize the effect in 1972 of a graphic lesbian poem in “Rapunzel” and repeated references to adult-child incest. It’s going too far to say that incest is the main theme of Transformations, but it is true that through the fairy tale’s amorality and violence, she was able to grapple with some of the things she had found hardest to accept about herself:
who loves a woman
is forever young.
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away…
Let your dress fall down your shoulder,
come touch a copy of you
for I am at the mercy of rain,
for I have left the Three Christs of Ypsilanti,
for I have left the long naps of Ann Arbor
and the church spires have turned to stumps.
The sea bangs into my cloister
for the young politicians are dying,
are dying so hold me, my young dear,
Sexton’s involvement with her aunt Anna Ladd Dingley provided the most obvious inspiration for “Rapunzel,” but there were others. One of Sexton’s grownup affairs was with a woman, also named Anne. It was one of the happier relationships of her life. She consummated the relationship during a tour of cities in Michigan, shortly after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But more than either of these, lesbianism was associated with Sexton’s own childishness and symbiosis with her daughters. Lesbian incest remains a somewhat taboo topic; nobody has explored its effect on Virginia Woolf, for instance, though she was sexually involved with her sister Vanessa Bell until they were married. Sexton’s physical involvement with her daughter Linda is documented in Diane Wood Middlebrook’s 1991 biography and in Linda Sexton’s memoir, Searching for Mercy Street. It began at the same time as Sexton’s romance with an adult woman. When she was writing Transformations, Sexton was consumed with resentment for Linda’s own sexual maturation away from her, bringing home her first boyfriends like Rapunzel:
They lived happily as you might expect
proving that mother-me-do
can be outgrown,
just as the fish on Friday,
just as a tricycle.
The world, some say,
is made up of couples.
A rose must have a stem.
As for Mother Gothel,
her heart shrank to the size of a pin…
Sexton recognized “Rapunzel” and “Snow White” as two of her best poems. In “Snow White” the “dumb bunny” turns out just as bad as the witch: “Meanwhile Snow White held court,/rolling her china-blue eyes open and shut/and sometimes referring to her mirror/as women do.” But the fairy tales also allowed Sexton to look at her own potential for evil. She had never been shy about doing so; in a poem such as “Hansel and Gretel” this went beyond depressive abjection, and addressed itself to disquieting possibilities we all share:
said the mother to her son,
I want to bite,
I want to chew…
Your neck as smooth
as a hard-boiled egg…
let me buzz you on the neck
and take a bite.
I have a pan that will fit you…
Oh, succulent one,
it is but one turn in the road
and I would be a cannibal!
Sexton’s possessiveness of her children circles back to her resentment over Linda’s increasing independence, in the fate of the witch:
seeing her moment in history,
shut fast the oven…
Only at suppertime
when eating a chicken leg
did our children remember
the woe of the oven,
the smell of the cooking witch,
a little like mutton,
to be served only with burgundy
and fine white linen,
like something religious.
Almost everyone who read Transformations noticed its use of imagery of food and eating. Sexton had a difficult time with real food, like many incest survivors, and her weight tended to fluctuate. Linda Sexton remembered that mealtimes were always her mother’s worst time of the day. On another level she may have been aware of greed as her own worst sin, the greed typical of the borderline trauma survivor: the confusion between preying and nurturing, the multiple addictions, more never enough. (With the clear American references to pop culture and brand names, she may also have been starting to explore an unpopular topic in folk-tinged art: capitalism.)
But the heart of the book was the way in which Sexton had been damaged as a child. Sexton told a friend that she needed almost two months to write “Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty”: “It was a difficult poem for me as you might imagine.” In the same letter, she described a psychotic episode and suicide attempt a few days after the date of the poem’s completion: “I still feel quite weak and I’m still terrified by what happened, but at least I survived… I’ve told you the facts coldly and clinically because I couldn’t bear to tell them with feeling. Hell is too wide to describe.” The poem is as follows:
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkenly bent over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
“I wrote them because I had to… because I wanted to… because it made me happy,” she says in one letter as if excusing herself, while elsewhere she admits that they “sometimes fall into cuteness.” So did her more conventional poetry; a certain archness was part of her style and at times of her charm. Cuteness was something Sexton couldn’t resist, unlike Plath, who was always dead serious even when she was being witty. It was cuteness, in Sexton’s opinion, that had been the ruin of her play Mercy Street, an allegorical rendering of her experience of incest. Mercy Street had gained Sexton a lot of attention, having been performed in Manhattan with Marian Seldes playing the role of the Sexton character. “I would say that what I am doing now is the opposite of Mercy Street, my confessional melodrama,” and again, “One thing for sure… with Transformations I got as far away from Mercy Street, that confessional melodrama, as possible.” Sexton often repeated the same phrases from letter to letter, but the use of the phrase “confessional melodrama” twice in contrast to her new poems is striking, though as Diane Wood Middlebrook points out, they used exactly the same card deck of Sexton characters (the incestuous father, the lesbian seducer, the jealous mother). But Sexton didn’t claim that she was not drawing on the same material as earlier, only that Transformations was not confessional. She would also insist that the short stories she began to write now were “not confessional,” though they dealt directly with episodes in her life. While Sexton appears to have been distancing herself from the new directness of her approach to the incest theme, perhaps she was also taking note of the limitation of the confessional genre — its devotion to melodrama rather than politics. “At any rate, madness is not hysteria,” she wrote a year after Transformations. She was beginning to see the difference. In the letter describing her suicide attempt after finishing the book, Sexton had written, ambiguously, that “Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty” “seems now to deal with one of the themes of Mercy Street. As many times as I saw that play, I never worked it out. I guess therapy is the place for it, not the stage.” But this doesn’t explain a line such as “Frog is my father’s genitals” in “The Frog Prince.” From today’s perspective it’s amazing that nobody noticed much.
Even if they didn’t, Sexton’s style would never be the same after Transformations. Nor would her life. Her work in Live or Die and Love Poems had been much looser than that in her first two collections, but it remained fairly conservative in both subject matter and idiom. She could write about private disorder, especially adultery and addiction — Cheever and Updike had made that OK — and madness, especially the madness of women — Sylvia Plath had made that fashionable. But she had never got much outside Weston, Massachusetts or the kind of talk one might hear there: colloquial, privileged, often lubricated by alcohol and sex, but not hard to understand. Now her free associations no longer needed explaining all the time, as if she had found that poetry wasn’t magic forbidden to women. Though she was not interested in positive images of women as found or subverted in fairy tales, she found that Grimm’s stories took women and children seriously enough to include some of the worst things that happened to them. She might just be able to write about it without taking on the mask of confessional poet and all its connotations of competitiveness in both performance and sexualized distress. The later work is less about psychiatric illness and more about the traumas that help to create it. Some of it (admittedly not often the best) is political in nature. Sexton also became interested in Christianity and wrote a sizable body of religious poetry, which she took seriously though many critics did not.
But mental illness was what she was famous for. She needed it in a sense to keep up the act she had begun with Transformations. Exorcism is dangerous if one can’t bear the sight of the demon plain. It came at a bad time, too: Sexton’s daughters were almost college age, and would soon begin to set limits on Sexton’s behavior toward them. The rest of her extensive support network was beginning to do likewise, perhaps judging that her professional success meant she couldn’t be as sick as she claimed. The truth was that her newfound confidence rested on suspect foundations. Never a moderate drinker, Sexton was growing increasingly dependent on alcohol, a dangerous condition given that she had also been over-medicated for many years by her therapists. A year after the publication of Transformations, Sexton asked her husband for a divorce. Her marriage had never been easy and was at times violent, but almost everyone who knew Sexton believed that this move was still a mistake. She was not able to live alone, her daughters were determined to remain on their own, and nobody else was prepared to step into Alfred Sexton’s role of constant caretaker. Sexton drank more and more and committed suicide after about a year.
By today’s standards Sexton was very young when she died, just forty-six. The steady decline in her work charted by most critics may be put down to a growth in ambition as to subject matter combined with diminishing ability to revise and shape, due perhaps to Sexton’s substance abuse. The critical consensus was that she had essentially run out of things to say long ago, but this may not be true. While some of her late poems are atrocious, others are inspired or at least contain striking passages. Transformations suggests what Sexton might have achieved if her craft had held out in those last years. Nowhere else would she look so directly at sexuality and violence minus the only free pass to those topics that she’d had as a woman. What she saw may have been too much for her without the protection of the “sick role,” which has a lot in common with both addiction and conventional femininity.
It is possible that Sexton’s influence has been wider than Plath’s. This is in part because she is easier to imitate, but also because being less singular, she had more to say about life as it was for most of the women affected by the social changes of the twentieth century. Poets as different as Sharon Olds, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy and Catherynne M. Valente show their family resemblance. Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter and Fay Weldon may have been inspired to create fiction blending the fantastic with feminism on the most realistic level, dealing with dirty dishes as with battery and rape, as The Women’s Room by Marilyn French might not have received the same audience without Sexton’s writing about the same generation of women. The development of a feminist oral and theatrical tradition in writing, open to exaggeration, parody, pastiche, and low comedy as legitimate ploys, owes a lot to Sexton’s blurring of the distinctions between writing and performance, as Middlebrook points out: “What nonplussed poetry reviewers when they encountered it between the covers of a book might not have surprised them in a public script for performance, with voice cues and pauses added.” There is, for instance, a direct link between Transformations and Elizabeth Swados’ Nightclub Cantata, even before Conrad Susa set the former to music during Sexton’s lifetime. And then there’s Patti Smith.
With all this, it’s almost a bonus to find that Sexton was such a good reader of Grimm. The detail in Sexton’s retellings tends to send the reader back to the originals. Some of the poems read like book reports written by a very creepy little kid, spelling out what happened as if the reader had never heard the story before. Sexton’s versions will not be to the taste of all of today’s readers. The desperation of gender relations found in the originals is not slurred over but spotlighted, and most of the women lose. Yet her honesty is a tonic here as in countless poems about the messiness of her own life. We are barely a generation away from Transformations and the ostensibly liberated age in which it appeared, and if it is still painful reading now — when we know so much more, but little has really changed — we can thank Anne Sexton for that pain.