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Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts. Her father, a lawyer and woolen manufacturer, was an alcoholic. Her mother suffered from unfilled literary aspirations. Anne was not comfortable with school, but she attended a finishing school and was briefly a fashion model.
She eloped at nineteen with Alfred Sexton. Upon the birth of their first daughter, Linda, she suffered postpartum depression and was hospitalized. The birth of Joyce, their second daughter, in 1955 led to increased depression. Her therapist encouraged her to write, and Sexton’s first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960. Extramarital affairs did not prevent her further attempts at suicide, but she was strengthened by participation in a Boston University seminar with Robert Lowell and students Sylvia Plath, George Starbuck, and an increasingly close friend, Maxine Kumin, with whom she later authored four children’s books.
In 1959 both of Sexton’s parents died. All My Pretty Ones (1962) expresses her grief, guilt and loss. Live or Die was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1966. Love Poems was issued in 1968, and she was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard. Her last writings expressed her strange hunger for death: The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Toward God. Here we confront a strange view of God which she dramatizes. This makes evident to us the indispensable human need for a logical vision of God.
Anne Sexton killed herself with carbon monoxide in her garage at age 46.
Her daughter Linda edited the posthumous poems 45 Mercy Street and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978). Collected Poems appeared in 1981. Her authorized biography is Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook (1991).
The Poetry of Anne Sexton
THE DOUBLE IMAGE
I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain.
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.
They said I’d never get you back again.
I tell you what you’ll never really know:
all the medical hypothesis
that explained my brain will never be as true as these
struck leaves letting go.
I, who chose two times
to kill myself, had said your nickname
the mewling mouths when you first came;
until a fever rattled
in your throat and I moved like a pantomine
above your head. Ugly angels spoke to me. The blame,
I heard them say, was mine. They tattled
like green witches in my head, letting doom
leak like a broken faucet;
as if doom had flooded my belly and filled your bassinet,
an old debt I must assume.
Death was simpler than I’d thought.
The day life made you well and whole
I let the witches take away my guilty soul.
I pretended I was dead
until the white men pumped the poison out,
putting me armless and washed through the rigamarole
of talking boxes and the electric bed.
I laughed to see the private iron in that hotel.
Today the yellow leaves
go queer. You ask me where they go I say today believed
in itself, or else it fell.
Today, my small child, Joyce,
love your self’s self where it lives.
There is no special God to refer to; or if there is,
why did I let you grow
in another place. You did not know my voice
when I came back to call. All the superlatives
of tomorrow’s white tree and mistletoe
will not help you know the holidays you had to miss.
The time I did not love
myself, I visited your shoveled walks; you held my glove.
There was new snow after this.
I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you will stay for good. I will forget
how we bumped away from each other like marionettes
on strings. It wasn’t the same
as love, letting weekends contain
us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,
wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.
You can call me mother and I remember my mother again,
somewhere in greater Boston, dying.
I remember we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
You came like an awkward guest
that first time, all wrapped and moist
and strange at my heavy breast.
I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,
only a girl, a small milky mouse
of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house
of herself. We named you Joy.
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
or soothe it. I made you to find me.
Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.
THE TRUTH THE DEAD KNOW
For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959,
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.