Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Confess, I Love Anne Sexton

We recently finished studying poetry in ENGL 223. I've always liked poetry, but have been a little picky about the stuff I read. I'm not a big fan of overly ornate, flowers-and-sunshine kind of know, the stuff you find on greeting cards that grandmothers buy. When I was a high school sophomore, I was introduced to the work of Anne Sexton. I was immediately smitten. There was something so real, so raw, about her work, and her poetry spoke to me like no other poetry had before. My high school boyfriend bought me her Complete Poems one day, and that book has gotten me through some really hard times in my life, as well as the not-so-hard times. I competed on my high school forensics team all four years, and two of those years I used some of her poems while competing in the Oral Interpretation category. I recall using a mix of poems for my junior year, while I focused specifically on poems from her "Divorce Papers" (found in her posthumously published book, 45 Mercy Street) my senior year. I honestly don't know how my life would be without having discovered Anne Sexton.

Anne Sexton was a confessional poet, much like her contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. This was a style of poetry that came to prominence in the 1950s and '60s. The content of confessional poetry is often personal, and dealt with topics such as mental illness, sexuality, and other topics deemed taboo at the time. Sexton didn't shy away from the taboo; in fact, part of the reason I love her work is her bravery in writing about things no one else wanted to discuss. Just look at the titles of some of her poems: "The Abortion", "Menstruation at Forty", "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator", "Buying the Whore", "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife", "In Celebration of My Uterus"...I could go on, but you get the point. These were taboo in the mid-twentieth century, and they're still pretty taboo in the early twenty-first century.

One of my favorite poems is one of her most well-known, and I'd argue one of her best. It's titled "Her Kind", and I'd like to share it with you.

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. 

Now, I'd like to leave you with a poem I wrote in my Creative Writing class in the spring of 2010. Sexton's influence on my style here is pretty palpable, isn't it? It's intended to be a confessional-style poem, as it's autobiographical. (For context, this was written about my parents' divorce, which was a big shock to me--and happened while I was going through my own bitter divorce from my first husband--and came about because my mother left my father for a family friend, who she married less than 2 months after my parents' divorce was finalized.) Here it is:

Dear Mother
I was abandoned on a Friday afternoon.
Dear mother, you showed me on that scorching August day
How there are limits on your capacity for love.
For 23 years, I occupied a compartment you’d carved for me
In the sacred space where a mother and daughter’s bond resides.
It was decorated beautifully, with vivid, comforting actions and items.
How I relished being your tenant!

Then came The Interloper.
He assaulted this hallowed place,
And pillaged the love that once bound us together.
And after he razed all he could,
Your heart could only hold so much afterward.
There wasn’t enough left over for both of us.
You escaped our ravaged home with The Interloper,
Leaving me for the vultures and vagabonds.
Not once did you deign to look back to inventory the destruction,
For now you believed it was no longer your concern.

The Interloper promised you a new, exhilarating existence.
He offered to deliver the life you felt you’d earned and deserved.
He bombarded you with gifts, with sweet nothings, with the powers of the flesh.
How could I possibly compete with that?
You galloped off into the sunset with your knight in bloodied armor
And the mother I thought I knew,
The mother that laughed with me, 
Cried with me, 
Comforted me in innumerable ways,
Was now dead.
In her place was an indignant woman-child
Who could not be bothered by those pesky mothering instincts.
After all, they only interfered with your ersatz happiness;
How were you supposed to enjoy the life you left behind in high school?

On a Friday afternoon,
The Interloper was victorious.
I was banished by him,
And you merely shrugged. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

History repeats itself

...well, sort of.

I just started reading a book called "War Brides" by Helen Bryan, an American ex-pat who lives in England. The story, which is a work of fiction, is centered around a group of five women in World War II who form an unlikely friendship. They reunite fifty years later on the anniversary of V-Day to settle a score and "avenge one of their own". I'm not very far into it at this point, but so far I'm enjoying it. Bryan paints rich scenery in this story; so far, she's taken us to the quaint, quiet village of Crowmarsh Priors and a Mardis Gras celebration in New Orleans. The imagery is vivid, and if it continues throughout the story, I'm sure this will be a book I'll love.

I'm fascinated by World War II (well, 20th century history, in general, but mid-century holds an especial point of interest for me.) A little over a month ago, I finished an incredibly fascinating book: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer. It's a very long read--it tops out at almost 1300 pages--but so very, very worth it. Shirer was an American correspondent in Germany as Hitler rose to power, and he documents the Third Reich with a mix of first-hand accounts from not only the diaries of prominent Nazi officials made available following the Nuremburg trials, but also his own first-hand accounts, as well. He was also granted access to captured Nazi documents to help shed even more light on the one of the darkest times in history. What was interesting to me was that Shirer wrote this book in the late 1950s, when these events were still very fresh in the minds of everyone who lived through this part of history. At any rate, I learned far, far more about the Nazi regime from this book than I ever did in history class. I kept wanting to yell at England and France for having so many opportunities to stop Hitler, and yet failed to really act until after millions of people had died. (Seriously, they had SO. MANY. OPPORTUNITIES. It seemed the only one who predicted the coming horrors was Winston Churchill, but he was still "a voice in the wilderness", as Shirer calls him, as the Nazis rose to prominence.) I'd always wondered just how Hitler was able to gain all his power, and this book spells it out pretty plainly: he was very, very good at telling people what they wanted to hear, and ruthless in dealing with his opponents. What's intriguing is that this was the first time in history that a major political takeover was done not by violence, but in a completely legal way (well, almost; more on that in a second) and within the country's political system itself, not to mention in a rather short timeframe. I say it was almost legal in that Hitler was a native of Austria, and he was only able to get himself on the ballot in the first place because the interior minister of Brunswick appointed him as an administrator to that state's delegation at the Reichstadt in Berlin in 1932, which granted Hitler citizenship in Brunswick and therefore Germany. The politics, the battles, the horrific conditions people faced during this time...all the details from Shirer's exhaustive research paint a very vivid picture of this time in history. While this book is long and chock-full of facts, it doesn't read like a stuffy textbook at all; Shirer wrote this book in more of a novel-like format, so it's pretty easy to read. I will say that Shirer tends to repeat himself when describing Nazi officials--yes, Hermann Goering was a large man, we get it--and he has been criticized for his interpretation of Nazism (namely, that it reflected the character of Germany since the days of Martin Luther, not as a form of totalitarianism that was found amongst other European nations in the 1930s). However, if you want to learn about the Third Reich from people who were there--and very much a part of it--you really can't go wrong here. You can find it on Amazon here:

It will be interesting to see how my views of "War Brides" are informed by what I read in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". I suppose I'll need to do a follow-up blog post when I finish it, won't I?