I will never forget the first time I read one of her poems. I was on the cusp of young womanhood and had grown tired of Sylvia Plath. While she seemed to be my generation’s poetic poster girl for angsty, well-educated dismay, she just didn’t “speak” to me. I had enjoyed The Bell Jar— in the sense that virtually all teenaged girls “enjoy” The Bell Jar— but I hadn’t experienced any real kinship with her.
I don’t recall how I stumbled upon a book of Anne Sexton’s poetry, but I assume it was at a flea market, yard sale or antique store — all of which were ubiquitous in my small New England town. Impossible to walk ten feet without stumbling upon a staggering number of rusty interests, I had developed an affinity for finding gems among the rubble.
The poem was Ambition Bird. My favorite line, even all these years later, rings in my head like a siren song:
All night dark wings flopping in my heart, each one an ambition bird.
As I read the line, having flipped to a random poem in the book, I was overcome with a feeling of intimacy: I felt as though I knew her.
I did not believe in God, even as a young girl, and so the feeling of communing with some unknown force that filled me was bizarre. I almost felt as though I was her somehow. Without knowing that she had committed suicide in the 1970s, I began to wonder if she had somehow rejoined the earthly realm, living inside my head. Having no investment in life after death, or reincarnation —or really any feelings at all about that which I could not see, touch and prove — this was as foreign and ridiculous a concept to me as any other winsome girlhood imaginings.
I closed the book, only to immediately reopen it and devour her prose.
Sexton’s pain made sense to me. There was something about raw, unapologetic truth that inspired me deeply. I had deep within me a gnawing sense that purging things to paper was my singular purpose in life. That it was my survival as well as my bliss, my most robust frustration and sincerest of pleasures. There was never a question of would I write.
I had no choice but to write. Daily, multiple times a day, so infrequent was my hand free of a pen that I grew to have a constant cramp that led me to believe that I had developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome before I’d even begun to menstruate. To me, writing was medicine. It was nourishment and rest. It was as integral to my health as bathing, sleeping and eating whole grains. Writing was the diet I needed to commit myself to, lest I spiritually wither away. Such was my childhood that I often went long without food, without touch, without the gentle softness of a parent’s love — but in the pages of books and through the power of ink stained little fingers, I found salvation.
Sexton, with her ethereal, wicked beauty, seemed to me like she might as well have been my mother. Our similarities, both in our purgeful prose and rapidly deteriorating mental states, was something that weighed heavily upon me as I spent the better part of my girlhood days reaching for empty women to comfort me. Anne Sexton, being that she was several decades deceased, would have been the most unreachable of all, yet something powerful drew me to her words. As I got older, I came to realize that I had not lauded her as a mother figure, but had been unconsciously looking into a mirror wherein I could see myself. What struck me about her was not her talent, which bloomed not from education, but pure fire. Rather, she was as dark inside as I was. And she wasn’t afraid to speak about it.
Before I travel further into her psyche, I should say that I don’t condone child abuse. Having read her daughter’s memoir quite recently, it reaffirms for me that Sexton was in no mental capacity to really care for herself, never mind provide any kind of supportive environment for children. I don’t condone anyone who mistreats a child, but I recognized immediately the depth of mental illness. It doesn’t excuse it, but it explains it.
Her maternal misgivings aside, I continued to refer back to her words in times of strife. I had long suspected that once I could put things into words, craft my emotional truth between the stop and start of commas, periods and quotations, than I could let it go from within me.
Inside of me, these memories and experiences floated untethered through my mind and routinely landed in places I’d rather they didn’t go. If I could tie them down with punctuation, trap them between quotes and parenthetical prisons, then I would at last be free.
I DIDN’T BEGIN TO WRITE MY TRUTH FOR YEARS. In ways, I’ve only really just started doing so. I carried it around with me until it became too heavy. I had tried to put it down many times along the way, but it would always roll back to me, usually accumulating much more dust upon its return. Heavier it grew until I surrendered to it, sat in the office of an analyst for years and clumsily began to pull the words out of my mouth in long strings, choking on the spiny ones.
Weeks spent coughing up stories turned into years. The words came to have much smoother edges, no longer did I gag on them but instead, they began to flow out like a lark’s song. I grew thinner with age, dropping my soft, prepubescent shape but still carrying around an inconsolable child with inky fingers. My analyst grew older each year, her face remaining kind to my awkward, squeaky confessions. She took each string of truth and coiled it up beside her, placing it in a box where it could collect dust while I grew up.
The little girl inside would pine for that box, only to have the analyst gently take my hand away, tell me to place it in my own heart, for what was left was what I needed to hold on tightly to now.
Anne Sexton’s prose returned to me as an adult. It had been years since I had taken to reading her poetry in the bath; a former favorite past time.
Milling through her tart words had been replaced by my first love, explorations of the male form in real life and not on yellowed pages. Instead of dog earring her thoughts in a torn copy of her collected works, I was living my own poetry. Experiencing what would, after a few years, fall away into the recesses of my mind and make room for that small child to reemerge. Alone now, I returned to Sexton’s poetry so that I could reengage with the parts of myself I had tried to leave behind, buried on a bookshelf.
I listened, for the first time, to Anne Sexton reading her own poetry. A wonderful set of clips exists on YouTube in which you can see her not only read her own words, but ruminate on the experience of being filmed in real time. As she recites, she occasionally gives sex-eyed, sideways glances to the camera. Feigning coyness, perhaps, challenging the listener to listen harder.
What struck me about her voice was that I could have sworn I’d heard it before. During my most wired times, spitting out contradictory points of view, trying to feel for truth as I spiraled deeper into a obsessive depression, where I nightly hoped for death. That husky voice of hers, strangely self aware, read poetry and gave truths to me in her intonation. I heard the entirety of her pain and her sparkling brilliance. I could see, in her intense gaze, that inside of her there was a constantly simmering darkness, one that she thought she was drowning with alcohol, but was really fueling. I tamed the darkness with prescriptions meant to smooth my edginess, but that darkness still seeps through, overflows like a storm drain clogged with dead earth. I staunch it with sleep, with eccentricity, with repetition, with coffee, with another page turned and a step out into the rain when I’d rather be dry.
I watch her, lighting a cigarette, drawing out her long syllables, hitting hard consonants, reading assuredly because really, she’s the only one who knows when a breath should be taken in those words. Her sunken cheeks pinch as she draws long and hard on a cigarette — a Salem. She interrupts herself, gives a practiced grin. I nod my head, I know that trick.
She pauses, speaking of suicide. This was her end, in 1974, sitting upright in her car, that same pinch in her hollowed cheeks as she inhaled carbon monoxide. Her legacy left on paper, speaking to a generation of girls that she would never know, but would have found fascinating. Coming of age in a world where we share intimate details of our day to day lives with the internet, she would look upon a girl of my breed and be alternately intrigued and disgusted. But if she and I met on the path to after-life, from two different worlds though we are, our eyes would meet and we would register that darkness in each other which defies time and decade and parchment.
Continuing on toward infinity, I can see her nodding to me — telling me through cigarette smoke to write true.
Abby Norman is a science writer & editor based in New England. Her first book, ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN, will be released March 6, 2018 by Nation Books/Hachette.