Wanting to Die
Anne Sexton’s post-suicide canonization as the Poet Goddess of Death springs in large part from the reaction to this poem. The very title indicates that what it is come will be a glorification of death and, indeed, that seems to be the universally acknowledged intent of the inclusion of imagery that characterizes suicide attempts as dazzling drugs so sweet they make children smile.
Imitations of Drowning
Criticism challenging Sexton as merely obsessed with the intrigue of death, on the other hand, point to this poem as a wholesale attempt to deconstruct that intrigue and demystify the glorification. Standing in sharp contrast to “Wanting to Die” here Sexton presents suicide in terms of the reality of drug abuse: suicide here is an ugly, unglamorous act incapable of producing smiles as result of the utter absence of sweetness.
One of the poems revealing the process of development of a young poet who had not yet latched onto the themes that would earn her reputation as a confessional chronicler of the darker side, “Young” provides insight into the psychological drives that would send her on her way down that path of the poem as veiled admission of desperation. The title refers to Sexton’s experimentation with freezing moments in time; in this case, the moment leaves the narrator frozen between youth and maturity.
Self in 1958
Suicide does not just happen. Every suicide attempt has a backstory and part of the backstory of Anne Sexton’s ultimately successful final attempt was the inescapable sensation of being trapped and held prisoner. The narrator of this poem describes herself as a plaster incapable of autonomous movement; her limbs can only be moved by another party for the effect of creating a pose to be enjoyed from the outside. On the inside is a soul imprisoned and lacking control and authority over her very body.
You, Dr. Martin
That road leading from the causes of trauma to the act of suicide almost always include at least one side trip through the health care’s industry attempt to cure the incurable. Call it clinical depression, call it personality disorder or term it madness if that must be, but nearly anyone who has ever come to face to face with the mental health care system’s almost utter inability to offer more than temporary solutions will agree with Sexton’s depiction of it as a voyage into the underworld. “You, Dr. Martin” concretizes this symbolic allusion in the form of a trek through a literal underground tunnel and the result is chilling.
Those who have trekked through the underworld eventually reach a point where they come to view the mere act of survival as an indication of tenacity and transform that mere act of survival into act of courage. In most cases, they are probably right; it does take courage to get up every morning while laboring under the weight of the darkness of mental instability and do exactly what everybody else sees not as an exhibition of the courageous, but merely as something you do because it has to be done.
Flee on Your Donkey
This rather straightforward poem illustrates the emotional emptiness that comes with having to admit defeat and come back to the mental hospital to try to find light in the darkness of the underworld. The betrayal of the expectations of finding order in places where you most need it to be found carries an undertone of emptiness that stretches beyond the confines of the mental hospital--as the title alludes--to indict the failure of spiritual healing in addition the failure of the health care system.
Found in one of the later collections of Sexton’s verse, “Cinderella” is one of seventeen poems published in Transformations that reimagines familiar fairy tales originally collected by the Brothers Grimm. The overriding thematic foundation upon which Sexton subverts the well-known details and imagery of the story of the poor little Cinder girl is through an ironic undermining the fairy tale’s contention that marriage and romance is the route to living happily ever. Where the poem is most successful in presenting an alternate image starkly at odds with the blissful joy found by being the owner of a foot that fits comfortably into a certain shoe is the poet’s almost gleefully vicious ironic drawing of parallels between the toil verging on slavery that Cinderella must endure and the unrecompensed domestic management skills that women are expected to perform every day.
“Cinderella” may well have originated in the composition of the “Housewife” a decade before the publication of Transformations. Irony also drips with acid in this examination of the lexicon of domesticity. Every one of the 56 words that follow the poem’s opening thesis that “Some women marry houses” builds upon that concept in a way that quickly transforms the figurative into the literal.
Sexton positions herself as the ultimate outsider in the land of patriarchal domination: the witch endowed with special powers that trump the male’s ability to force assimilation into the mainstream. Imagery of the joy of going out at night and doing witchy things is contrasted with the inescapable reality that ultimately to be a witch in a man’s world means to be alone.
The title of this poem refers ostensibly simply to the food being eaten when a father treats his daughters to a meal at a restaurant. As the poem continues, however, the full sexual symbolism endowed over time upon oysters take root and the meal becomes nothing less than a transformation from innocence to experience.