Sunday was the birthday of Anne Sexton, one of several brilliant but troubled poet-suicides of the 1970s. Sexton’s poetry ranges in mood and symbolism and touches on everything from mental illness and the death of children to prayer and the soul’s search for God.
The titles of her books reflect this thematic range: To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Live or Die, The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, The Awful Rowing Toward God, 45 Mercy Street.
Here are two of my favorite Sexton poems, both of which deal with gratitude. The imagery of the second poem is more difficult, but worth the wrestle:
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry ‘hello there, Anne’
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
let it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
From the sea came a hand,
ignorant as a penny,
troubled with the salt of its mother,
mute with the silence of the fishes,
quick with the altars of the tides,
and God reached out of His mouth
and called it man.
Up came the other hand
and God called it woman.
The hands applauded.
And this was no sin.
It was as it was meant to be.
I see them roaming the streets:
Levi complaining about his mattress,
Sarah studying a beetle,
Mandrake holding his coffee mug,
Sally playing the drum at a football game,
John closing the eyes of the dying woman,
and some who are in prison,
even the prison of their bodies,
as Christ was prisoned in His body
until the triumph came.
you angel webs,
unwind like the coil of a jumping jack,
cup together and let yourselves fill up with sun
and applaud, world,