AND NOW INTRODUCING

A brand new feature!  Just when you thought it could not get any better than this!  Inspired partly by tonight’s Colbert Report, partly by own love of poetry, and partly by a certain v. literary friend, I have decided to share different, beloved poems w/ you, my lucky readers.

But wait!  It gets better!  HOW CAN THIS BE?  Well, afterwards I will include my commentary and annotations free of charge.  

I will begin w/ Anne Sexton, b/c imo she is too-oft overlooked by the general population, especially among her fellow country(wo)men.  She is somewhat overshadowed by the legendary Sylvia Plath, and discounted as “the other one who, you know, committed suicide.”  Despite this, you may have a passing familiarity w/ pieces like “Cinderella,” “Courage,” and “Her Kind.”  Anne Sexton was a v. gifted poet in her own right, and many of her words and images are truly arresting.  Her poems are irreverent and raw; her struggle is real; her morals ambiguous.  Whether she is writing about love, motherhood, religion, or death, her poems are tinged with a poignant melancholy, which complement her wry observations about the absurd injustices of life. 

 LETTER WRITTEN ON A FERRY WHILE CROSSING LONG ISLAND SOUND

I am surprised to see
that the ocean is still going on.
Now I am going back
and I have ripped my hand
from your hand as I said I would
and I have made it this far
as I said I would
and I am on the top deck now
holding my wallet, my cigarettes
and my car keys
at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday
in August of 1960.

Dearest,
although everything has happened,
nothing has happened.
The sea is very old.
The sea is the face of Mary,
without miracles or rage
or unusual hope,
grown rough and wrinkled
with incurable age.

Still,
I have eyes.
These are my eyes:
the orange letters that spell
ORIENT on the life preserver
that hangs by my knees;
the cement lifeboat that wears
its dirty canvas coat;
the faded sign that sits on its shelf
saying KEEP OFF.
Oh, all right, I say,
I’ll save myself.

Over my right shoulder
I see four nuns
who sit like a bridge club,
their faces poked out
from under their habits,
as good as good babies who
have sunk into their carriages.
Without discrimination
the wind pulls the skirts
of their arms.
Almost undressed,
I see what remains:
that holy wrist,
that ankle,
that chain.

Oh God,
although I am very sad,
could you please
let these four nuns
loosen from their leather boots
and their wooden chairs
to rise out
over this greasy deck,
out over this iron rail,
nodding their pink heads to one side,
flying four abreast,
the the old-fashioned side stroke;
each mouth open and round,
breathing together
as fish do,
singing without sound.

Dearest,
see how my dark girls sally forth,
over the passing lighthouse of Plum Gut,
its shell as rusty
as a camp dish,
as fragile as a pagoda
on a stone;
out over the little lighthouse
that warns me of drowning winds
that rub over its blind bottom
and its blue cover;
winds that will take the toes
and the ears of the rider
or the lover.

There go my dark girls,
their dresses puff
in the leeward air.
Oh, they are lighter than flying dogs
or the breath of dolphins;
each mouth opens gratefully,
wider than a milk cup.
My girls sing for this.
They are going up.
See them rise
on black wings, drinking
the sky, without smiles
or hands
or shoes.
They call back to us
from the gauzy edge of paradise,
good news, good news.

This is a strange and wonderful poem, more straightforwardly outlandish than some of Sexton’s other work.  We begin in August of 1960–which I know v. little about, since I would not be called into existence for decades to come–and yet I am drawn into the scene.  I can v. easily imagine myself as the woman on this deck, my hair blowing in the salt air, cool despite the August heat, scribbling this letter as I watch the surf etch its own calligraphy onto the dark parchment of the sea.  I can imagine the floorboards on which I stand, slick w/ spray, and see the forlorn lifeboat, with its hostile sign.  I love that litany “as I said I would;” so much of our sadness stems from resentment and regret geared towards the ones we love.  And b/c we love them, we often feel guilty for being angry. 

As the seagulls wheel above, it’s easy to imagine the group of nuns, sitting on fold-out chairs.  Nuns–the eternal virgins–are traditionally symbols of purity.  They would have none of the worldly accoutrements the narrator describes herself as owning: money, a car, cigarettes.  They are utterly passive, as sheltered as children, but unlike children, seemingly uncurious. 

And though the narrator is sad, she is able to amuse herself by imagining these staid women lifted up by some great gust of wind, floating like funereal balloons over the vast blue of the sea, buffeted but unharmed by the chilling winds.  Notice how once they are free of their earthly links, the leather and wood and iron that bind them, they cease to be nuns.  They are just “girls,” so carefree they are literally floating.  They drift all the way to paradise, offering one last message before they disappear utterly. 

This poem is about imprisonment and freedom.  The world is a patient, unfeeling thing, insulated from the fleeting suffering of its inhabitants.  The narrator realizes this.  Everything has happened, but nothing has really happened, and it will all happen again in any case.  She is aboard a large, sturdy ship, but she carefully eyes the safety implements around her, before dismissing them as inadequate; she’ll have to save herself.  But this is perhaps too much to contemplate, so she projects her wishes onto a group of nearby nuns, praying that some god will grant them flight, so that they can waft away, escaping the pull of earth and sea, and disappear into heaven.  Paradise has a weightless quality.  The nuns are unburdened; they don’t even take their shoes w/ them.  The narrator must feel trapped on this vessel, where she cannot board the lifeboat, and where material possessions and emotional ties weigh her down.  Why else would she feel a need to enumerate upon her possessions, if they weren’t signicant symbols of the main components of her life.  And she is not addressing just anyone, but someone close to her, a dear friend, perhaps, or a lover.  The imagery is comical–you can just see the nuns, bobbing along like pink-headed parade balloons, mouths agape w/ surprise–which also serves to emphasize the impossibility of liberation.  Can one be free?  Sure…when dogs fly.  Reality is bleak.  The nuns will remain nodding in their chairs; the narrator will return to the place she fled; the tide will continue its rise and fall.  As if nothing ever happened.  As if it had all already happened.

I’ve read quite a bit of Sexton’s work, and while I don’t think she was a feminist per se, I think she recognized the plight of many women.  She herself was deeply unhappy.  She never drew any connection, though, btwn that unhappiness and the restrictions placed upon her by the patriarchal culture.

Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this premier installment of POETRY HOUR W/ DRAGON.  Be sure to tune in next time for more unresearched rambling by someone who does not have any kind of literary degree!

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