On “The Hanging Family Tree”

samantha_le-locci2Sometimes, I go through the exercise of explicating my own poem.  I find that it sharpens my critical skills and allows me to look at my work more objectively.  This is especially helpful when I don’t know how to finish a poem. I hope that this post will help you with your own writing.

–Samantha Lê

The Hanging Family Tree
–by Samantha Lê

I was Januaried, Februaried,
Marched—father’s furious footsteps felt lonely
down the hospital hallways.

I lunged forward;
skidded sideways—wrong decisions made all day.

Father watched and waited
six extra weeks for a son— hung his hopes on the fillings
in a sticky bun.

Five fingers fisted tight.
Five fingers reached for his to grab. Ten toes upright
like frantic crab legs searching

for the sapient sand. Two eyes opened, absorbed the sun,
but not a son.

Father took
a crooked look and said: I know
what to do to you—

dressed me
in dirty drags to imitate a boy, taught me to love
boxes instead of toys.

My skin map shrunk like a banana peel. I took rice paper, ink,
wrote peekaboo parts to cover the pink.

 

“The Hanging Family Tree” employs what Robert Pinsky, in his book The Sounds of Poetry,  calls “like and unlike sounds” in order to intensify the meaning of key thematic lines and to create shifts in the musical effects of the poem. “In a way parallel to how enjambment is a place where syntax might stop, but pushes forward instead, the shift away from a sound may mark a moment when things might chime, but depart instead.” (Pinsky 87) Repeated sounds are used so intensely in stanzas four and six that their absence in the other stanzas becomes an important factor in the musical undertone, which creates tension in the narrative and sets the emotional tone for the poem.

The reader may not understand or even notice the differences between like and unlike sounds, but they can be experienced and heard when the poem is read aloud. The complex audible presence of likeness and difference in sounds helps to emphasize the key moments, providing the reader cues on how to interpret the narrative in the poem, thus, enhances the reader’s understanding of its meaning.

One of the differences in sounds comes from the utilization of contrasting root words. Even if the reader does not know or recognize Germanic roots, which are plain, short and stubby, from Latin roots, which are longer and more clinical, the reader can still intuitively hear the difference in their sounds. In this poem, German root sounding words, such as “bun,” “crab” and “sun,” are paired with Latin root sounding words, such as “Februaried,” “hospital” and “banana,” to produce a sonic distinction between what Pinsky refers to as “crunchy and soft” words. “While the phrases involved sounds that are similar physically, the sounds of the words, in a more figurative or emotional sense of ‘sound,’ are in contrast.” (Pinsky 88)

Given the many Latinate words, the first stanza reads more smoothly and thus reads faster than the sixth stanza. Compare “I was Januaried, Februaried,/Marched—father’s furious footsteps felt lonely/down the hospital hallways,” which reads liquidly, with “Father took/a crooked look and said: I know/what to do to you,” which contains more abrupt and choppy Germanic words, making the lines more awkward and difficult to read aloud. This contrast in sounds produces an inconsistency in rhythm that helps to counter the iambic meter.

The iambic meter, though not dominant, is present throughout the poem. It acts as the underlying pulse of the poem to move the reader forward in the narrative. One can observe bits of iambic meter in the lines: “Five fingers fisted tight./Five fingers reached for his to grab” and “He dressed me/in dirty drags to imitate a boy.” Although the iambic meter does not appear consistently, and the poem’s rhythmic cadences are not often iambic, an iambic meter can still be felt beneath the poems variable rhythms.

However, there are some lines where the iambic pulse is reversed, and a strong trochaic meter emerges, creating tension in the poem. An example of the trochaic meter can be seen at the beginning of the poem where the mood and setting is established: “father’s furious footsteps felt lonely/down the hospital hallways.” The trochee is consistent and strong again at the moment the child is born. Butted right up against the iambs in the sixth stanza is: “Ten toes upright/like frantic crab.” This subtle reversal in meter signals an importance glimpse into the father’s turmoil state of mind.

At the same time, words of long and short duration appear jammed together to further add to the richness of the rhythm and sounds. In the last stanza, “skin map,” “rice” and the first syllable in “paper” are examples of long sounds, which are wedged against the shorter, more abrupt, stubby sounds of “shrunk” and “ink” to create a stop-and-go motion. By varying the usage of long and short syllables, a hurried pace is achieved through parts of the poem, while other parts require a slow approach. The varying of longer and shorter line lengths also aid in setting pace throughout poem.

The poem’s emotional tone is not only produced through sounds, meter and rhythm but also through alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes and the application of varying line lengths.

The poem deploys alliteration, such as “father’s furious footsteps felt” and “five fingers fisted,” at strategically placed clusters throughout the poem that add playfulness. The harrowing subject of a discontented father who decides to reshape the life of his daughter to match his own agenda in the narrative is hidden behind the playful, child-like diction, which creates an unsettling lightness around a heavy and serious theme.

The poem also features ends rhymes that add a folktale quality to the narrative. Though end rhymes appear throughout the poem, such as “Januaried” and “lonely,” “tight” and “upright,” and “ink” and “pink,” the sing-song effects often created by end rhymes are muted by enjambments combined with the utilization varying line lengths. The strategically placed line breaks act as a counterbalance against the end rhymes’ overpowering sonic effects. The balancing act between rhymes and line breaks achieves in adding a complexity to what Pinky calls the “audible web” of the poem. Aside from enjambments, internal rhymes are also employed within individual lines, such as “took/a crooked look” and “skidded sideways—wrong decisions made all day,” to create even richer and more energetic sounds that are then contrasted against the expected sounds of the end rhymes, adding yet another layer to the audible web.

In this poem, the rhymes play a part in both the sonic and emotional tones, but like line breaks and enjambment, they also drive the narrative of the poem for the reader. The packing together of internal rhymes in stanza six: “Father took/a crooked look and said: I know/what to do to you” signals the reader with sonic cues that a significant point in the narrative is being discussed. This is one of the voltas in the poem where the father, though dissatisfied with the gender of his child, has decided to make the best of the situation by turning his daughter into the boy for whom he had been waiting to have.

The resolution of the narrative is also marked by strong sonic cues. The last stanza in the poem is littered with “k” sounds: “My skin map shrunk like a banana peel. I took rice paper, ink,/wrote peekaboo parts to cover the pink.” The consonance creates a hacking sensation when the lines are read aloud, imitating the sounds  of the girl’s emotions and identity being choked back as she transforms into the person that her father wants.

In this poem, meter, variety in line lengths, rhymes, alliteration and the strategic juxtaposition of “like and unlike sounds” are employed to create a push and pull effect upon each other, building the poem’s sonic tension, a tension which mirrors the tension in the poem’s narrative. The ratcheting up of tension drives the poem’s narrative resolution to the moment the young girl surrenders, reshaping herself to fit into the space that her father has constructed for her.

(“The Hanging Family Tree” was published in Pinion Journal, Summer 1011) 

 

Ai ~ Annotated Bibliography

aiAi is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father’s identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.

My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I’ve been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.

            — (Modern American Poetry)

INTRODUCTION

A Buddhist and Creative Writing Professor. The poetess Ai is a pseudonym of Florence Anthony. Born in Tucson, Arizona, Ai is multiethnic: Japanese, Black, Choctaw, and Irish. Known for her mastery of dramatic monologues, Ai uses the different voices in her poetry to tear at the vulgar sores of our human condition, uncovering hunger, sexual deviations, social disconnection, violence, and vengeance.

Ai has received awards from the Guggenheim Fellowship (1975) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1978 & 1985), as well as multiple Book Awards for her collections.

POETRY

Cruelty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Edition(s): 1973 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-17714-6
Page count: 46
Book Design by:

About this Book: The poems in this book deal with hard-edged topics such as suicide, abortions, hanging, and domestic violence. This book takes an unfliching look at the unpredictability of our gross desires.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “After a Long Time” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Anniversary” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Before You Leave” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Corpse Hauler’s Elegy” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Deserter” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Dwarf” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Estranged” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Everything: Eloy, Arizona 1956” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Forty-Three-Year-Old Woman, Masturbating” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Hitchhiker” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Indecision” – The American Poetry Review
  • “New Crops for a Free Man” – The American Poetry Review
  • “One Man Down” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Possessions” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Prostitute” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Tennant Farmer” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Tired Old Whore” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Twenty-Year Marriage” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Unexpected” – The American Poetry Review
  • “But What I’m trying to Say Mother Is” – The Iowa Review
  • “Abortion” – Ironwood
  • “The Cripple” – Ironwood
  • “Cuba, 1962” – Ironwood
  • “Why Can’t I Leave You” – Ironwood
  • “The Widow” – Ironwood
  • “Woman” – Ironwood
  • “Young Farm Woman Alone” – Ironwood
  • “I Have Got to Stop Loving You” – Lillabullero
  • “Cruelty” – Renaissance
  • “Disregard” – Renaissance

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal  that “this book… has the smell of life about it. Ai writes with power” and efficiency, shining light on taboo subjects.

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Killing Floor: poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Edition(s):  1979 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-27593-8
Page count: 49
Book Design by:

Award(s): 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet from the American Academy of Poets

About this Book: In this collection, Ai paints intensifying images of sexuality and violence. She expands on Cruelty’s theme of dark human tendencies. In “The Kid,” she assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, who emerges unperturbed after destroying his family.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Father and Son” – Antaeus
  • “He Kept on Burning” – Antaeus
  • “Confession” – Antaeus
  • “The Kid” – Antaeus
  • “The Singers” – Antaeus
  • “The Gilded Man” – Agni
  • “Lesson, Lesson” – Black Box
  • “Sleep Like a Hammer” – Chicago Review
  • “Ice” – Chicago Review
  • “Almost Grown” – Choice
  • “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son” – Exile
  • “Jericho” – Iowa Review
  • “The Ravine” – Ironwood
  • “She Didn’t Even Wave” – Ironwood
  • “The Expectant Father” – Ironwood
  • “The German Army, Russia, 1942” – Ironwood
  • “Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “29 ( A Dream in Two Parts)” – Ms.
  • “The Ravine” – Ms.
  • “Nothing But Color” – Paris Review
  • “Killing Floor” – Paris Review
  • “Guadalajara Hospital” – Virginia Quarterly Review

Critical Response: Though no one doubts Ai’s talent, most critics agree with The New York Times Book Review, which has the following to say on the “emotional excesses” in this collection. “The poems’ context is often murky; strange, terrible and ‘beautiful’ images of mutilation… sex, death and violence recur with a predictable monotony…”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Cruelty; Killing Floor: poems. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1987.

Edition(s): 1987 / paperback / ISBN 0-938-41038-5
Page count: 99
Book Design by:

About this Book: This collection is a reprint of Ai’s first two collections.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Critical Response: See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Publisher Website: Thunder’s Mouth Press was an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group Inc. Thunder’s Mouth Press no longer exists. The Perseus Books Group purchased the Avalon Publishing Group.

Sin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Edition(s):      1986 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-37908-3
Page count: 80
Book Design by:

Award(s): American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation

About this Book: Chilling voices of powerful men and mass-murderers eminate from the pages of Sin. In “The Good Sheperd: Atlanta, 1981,” the killer speaks of “devouring his children.” “…A man like me eats and is full./Only God is never satisfied.”

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Priest’s Confession” – Agni Review
  • “The Emigre” – Agni Review
  • “Saint Anne’s Reel, 1870” – The American Literary Review
  • “The Man with the Saxaphone” – The American Voice
  • “Solome” – Antaeus
  • “Kristallnacht, Part 1” – Bennington Review
  • “The Death of Francisco Pizatto” – Bennington Review
  • “The Detective” – Cambridge University Poetry Magazine
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, No. 26 (Winter, 1986) pp. 1-5
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No. 3, the Best of Callaloo Poetry.
    A Special 25th Anniversary Issue (Summer, 2001) pp. 683-687
  • “More” – Crazy Horse
  • “Elegy” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Mother’s Tale” – Crazy Horse
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – The Iowa Review
  • “They Shall Not Pass” – The Iowa Review
  • “Two Brothers” – Ironwood
  • “The Testimony of Robert Oppenheimer” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “The Journalist” – Missouri Review
  • “Conversation” – Paris Review
  • “Kristallnacht, Parts 2 – 4 ” – Poetry
  • “Immortality” – The Seatle Review

Critical Response: According to The New York Times Book Review, this is Ai’s best collection. Other critics echo an admiration for her ability to “penetrate” her characters. However, according to Poetry (Modern Poetry Association), “… all Ai’s monologists sound like Ai.”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Fate: New Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Edition(s): 1991 / paperback / ISBN – 0-395-55637-6
Page count: 77
Book Design by: Robert Overholtzer

About this Book: Fate is littered with dark themes. The poetry in this collection gives voice to the dead, which includes General George Custer, President Lydon Johnson, James Dean and Elvis Prestley.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Jimmy Hoffa’s Odyssey” – Agni Review
  • “Lyndon Libre” – Alembic
  • “Go” – Areté
  • “The Cockfighter’s Daughter” – Café Solo
  • “The Resurrection of Elvis Presley” – Chelsea
  • “General George Armstrong Custer: My Life in the Theater” – Hayden’s Ferry Review
  • “James Dean” – Ironwood
  • “Capture” – Ironwood
  • “Fate” – Manoa
  • “The Shadowboxer” – Manoa
  • “Last Seen” – Pequod
  • “Eve’s Story” – Pequod
  • “Evidence: From a Reporter’s Notebook” – Pequod
  • “Boys and Girls, Lenny Bruce, or Back from the Dead” – Ploughshares
  • “Interview with a Policeman” – Poetry
  • “Reunions with a Ghost” – Quarterly West

Critical Response: Poetry (Modern Poetry Association) concludes, “Instead of harrowing our nervous systems, {the book’s} assault on the senses ultimately desensitizes.” On the contrary Library Journal praises the strength of Ai’s unnamed, down-and-out characters and defends the poet. “Ai’s horrific, surreal vision continues to mature with each book.”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Greed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Edition(s): 1993 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-31201-1
Page count: 96
Book Design by: Guenet Abraham

About this Book: Poems from this collection are markers for the times, depicting the harsh, truthful realities of inner-city life. Ai tackles important, historical moments like the L.A. riots, the Rodney King’s beating and Mayor Marion Barry’s drug charges.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Self Defense” – Agni Review, No 36
  • “Life Story” – Agni Review
  • “Hoover, Edgar J.” – Agni Review
  • “Knockout” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 880-881
  • “Self Defense” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 877-879
  • “Finished” – Caprice
  • “Appomatox” – Caprice
  • “Penis Envy” – Caprice
  • “Zero Velocity, II” – Graham House Review
  • “Respect, 1967” – Lingo
  • “Jack Ruby on Ice” – Muleteeth
  • “Riot Act” – Muleteeth
  • “Reconciliation, 2, 3, 4” – On the Bus
  • “Zero Velocity, I” – On the Bus
  • “Self Defense” – On the Bus
  • “Archangel” – On the Bus
  • “Family Portrait, 1960” – Ploughshares
  • “Oswald Incognito & Astral Travels” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Party Line” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Miracle in Manila” – Tribes
  • “Reconciliation, 1” – University of Louisville Review
  • “The Ice Cream Man” – Zone

Critical Response: Margaret Atwood writes the following on the importance and necessity of Ai to the American poetry landscape, “Ai is a strong, powerful poet who writes about real things. These are daring, disturbing, ambitious poems that go for the heart of America.”

Publisher Website: http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/fall94/031201.htm

Vice: new and selected poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Edition(s): 1999 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32018-9
Page count: 272
Book Design by: Abbate Design

Award(s): 1999 National Book Award for Poetry

About this Book: Vice includes a collection of 58 monologues from Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate and Greed along with 17 new poems capturing characters from recent headlines, such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey and Monica Lewinsky.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Passing Through” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Chance” – Bed of Rice: Momento Mori
  • “Chance” – Caprice
  • “Afterschool Lessons form a Hitman” – Focus on Art
  • “The Paparazzi” – Focus on Art
  • “Star Vehicle” – Focus on Art
  • “Knock, Knock” – New Letters
  • “Sleeping Beauty” – New Letters
  • “Rapture” – On the Bus
  • “Visitation” – On the Bus
  • “The Antihero” – Poetry International
  • “Stalking Memory” – Pequod
  • “Back in the World” – Quarterly West
  • “Charisma” – Rattle
  • “False Witness” – Sniper Logic

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal that Ai’s ability to pause the spotlight on the sufferings of the ordinary people results in poetry that is “richly rewarding, but not for the squeamish.”

Publisher Website:  http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring00/32018.htm

Dread. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Edition(s): 2003 / hardcover / ISBN 0-393-04143-3
2004 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32619-5
Page count: 136
Book Design by: Blue Shoe Studio

About this Book: For the first time, some of the fictionalized characters in her poems are from Ai’s family. Included in this collection are poems about her mother and father. Ai dedicated this book to survivors of childhood trauma.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Greenwood Cycle” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 947-952
  • “The White Homegirl” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 953-954
  • “Dread” – Canary River
  • “Rude Awakening” – Columbia Magazine
  • “Intercourse” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Psychic Detective: Identity” – Crazy Horse
  • “Greetings Friend” – Divide
  • “Family” – Estrella Mountain Community College
  • “Fairy Tale” – Estruscan Press
  • “The Broker” – The Manthology
  • “The Calling” – The Mantholog
  • “The Secret” – New Delta Review
  • “Lullaby” – Pacific Review
  • “Grandfather Says” – Pacific Review
  • “Delusions” – Southwest Review
  • “The Psychic Detective: Fantasy” – Witness
  • “Passage” – The Writer’s Garret

Critical Response: The substance of this book is in its personal nature. The New York Times Book Review writes, “We feel in this book, as perhaps never before in Ai’s work, the presence of the writer and her anguished condition.”

Publisher Website: http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/fall04/032619.htm

Dread ~ Book Review

ai-dreadcoverDread
(by Ai, W.W. Norton, 2003: paperback $13.95)

If it were a cuisine, Dread would not be a dish to serve with “green tea and poppy-seed cake” [“Intercourse”] out on the yard at grandmother’s house. It is not polite. It screams “like a breath held too long” [“True Love”]. It devours the senses then violates. To experience Dread is to “put your hand in the fire” [“True Love”] and watch it burn. Ai constructs the experience of dread and pours it into the reader’s mouth. We swallow, “thinking it tastes like blood.” [“Intercourse”]

As one of the leading poets writing dramatic monologues, Ai gives voice to taboo subjects, allowing her characters to whisper their secrets into your ear.

“My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I’ve been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.”

-Ai (Modern American Poetry)

The winner of the Lamont Poetry Award for Killing Floor: poems, the American Book Award for Sin, and the National Book Award for Vice: new and selected poems, Ai is a poet willing to explore and expose the relevant subjects of dark human tendencies in contemporary culture.

In Dread, Ai embodies the tormented voices of adults recalling moments of dread from their childhoods—memories of war, the aftermath of 9/11, sexual abuse and domestic violence. “My mother begged him to spare my life,/but he said, ‘Woman, I am Africa/and Africa takes what it wants.’” [“The Calling”]

Reading Dread is like racing breathlessly through an urban jungle where the landscape is littered with ghosts, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter, and violent lovers who leave marks on each other’s bodies like wolf bites. It takes us “back through time/to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life/I thought was gone,/but it had only sunk from view/into the quicksand of my mind.” [“Grandfather Says”]

At first glance, the poems in this collection leave the reader feeling a sense of vertigo. We are shoved head first into gross human tendencies and desires, which gives us serious pause. We question if poetry is supposed to be about such ugly emotions; but this is the strange beauty of Ai. She is not easy on the stomach. She exposes us to emotions that we don’t normally want to have. She makes us face our depravity. Her brand of honesty is what gives her poetry its gritty energy—well-crafted lines that pulse with greed, sin, cruelty and dread.

Ai allows the reader to invade the inner lives her characters. She places us inside the minds of people we have never met while they are most vulnerable and force us to uncomfortably violate their privacy, to taste their sweat, and to bear witness to their disturbances. She gives us a “passport into the suffering of others” [“Delusion”]. And because we are there, in the darkness with your hands on the character’s face, rubbing the bump on his nose as he moans, we understand his nature even if seconds ago—before the poem has inflicted itself upon us—we would never have allowed ourselves to think about this:

Grandfather Says
“Sit on my hand.”
I am ten.
I can’t see him,
But I hear him breathing
in the dark.
It’s after dinner playtime.
We’re outside,
hidden by trees and shrubbery.
He calls it hide-and-seek,
but only my little sister seek us
as we hide
and she can’t find us,
as grandfather picks me up
and rubs his hands between my legs.
I only feel a vague stirring
at the edge of my consciousness.
I don’t know what it is,
but I like it.
It gives me pleasure
that I can’t identify.
It’s not like eating candy,
but it’s just as bad,
because I had to lie to grandmother
when she asked,
“What do you do out there?”
[…]

Nothing is what it seems. The abusers are sometimes the victims; the victims sometimes enjoy being victimized; and ordinary people are sometimes extraordinary under the right light. Suddenly, we realize that reading these poems is not a passive experience.

The poems in Dread are not only disturbing and raw, they are also lengthy. While most poems in this collection average between three and four pages, there are poems like “Delusion” and “The Greenwood Cycle” that are over six pages long, making them difficult emotionally for the reader to finish and sometimes even to follow.

Ai sometimes manipulates chronology without using stanza breaks, forcing the reader to take leaps of faith between the past, present and future. In “Grandfather Says” we are introduced to a young girl playing hide-and-seek, but when the game ends, we are faced with a thirty-five year old woman, who is suddenly a little girl again at the end of the poem. This creates narrative density and a mysterious sense of time within the poem, shrouding the characters in layers of psychological complexity. This confusing and panic-driven pace adds to the overall tone of the poem, allowing the reader to experience it in a rich, circular time structure instead of an easier to digest, linear progression.

Aside from dark human tendencies, another important theme in Dread is love, but in Ai’s world of Dread, even true love is examined in a hot, harsh light.

True Love
[…]
I lie in bed contentedly, despite my unease,
thinking maybe you freed yourself from me this time,
until I hear your key in the lock,
then I turn, facing the mirrored bathroom door
and pretend to be asleep,
imagining how tomorrow you’ll be so glad
I didn’t see you raise the heavy, glass ashtray
above my head for a few minutes,
before you put it back on the table
and admitted to yourself at last
that you belong to me.

A reader becomes uneasy, working through poems like this, each one a bitter pill without a warning labels. We don’t know what we will have to swallow next. Will this poem make us depressed; will this other poem make us sympathize with a pervert? We are right to wonder that perhaps this is too much Dread. But we read on anyway, because the honest depiction of brutality engrosses us. It is something to which we can relate. The mixture of poignant beauty and human vulnerability in a collision course with hard-edged characters gives these poems a truth that both troubles and surprises.

Delusion
I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on the television,
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor
and rolled there as if I were on fire.
[…]
We shared our sorrow,
ate it like bread.
It was our defense
against the senselessness of it all.
They “wanted” to believe that I was seeking
someone I’d lost
and I absorbed their need.
I understood the power of belief and used it.
[…]

We recognize this woman. She is a friend, a coworker, a cousin, mother, sister, aunt. If we were there on that day, head covered in ashes, we might have been her. For a moment, as a reader, we become lost in our own memories. We remember exactly where we were as we watched the Towers burn and collapse over and over again on television, the same way that she had watched them.

Although Ai’s poems contain snapshots of brutality, violence and depravity, they are just and truthful in their depictions; the reader is left with traces of hope.  As they depict the complexities of human relationships, tragic needs and wants, Ai’s poems, though they may be disturbing, enrich the reader’s sense of humanity.

In Dread we read of a young girl who gets molested, of a good cop who loses his brother.  In these poems sometimes the sky rains ashes and bad news for days, drowning even the fish, but all is not lost. There are times when it still “feel[s] as if the whole world/is one big candy apple,/red and juicy just for me….” [“Disgrace”]

Ai’s poems in Dread remind us about the dirty business of living, and the feelings we get from it stay with us. The experience they contain cannot help but be complicated, dark and wonderfully human.

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An Exploration of Female Desires through the Personae of the Poet Ai

One afternoon, I sat on my third-floor apartment balcony and watched a man repeatedly pounded the windshield of his wife’s Toyota Tercel with a wooden bat. The man’s anger disrupted the peaceful façade of the quiet, tree-lined street. Car alarms, set-off by the sudden rupture of passion, competed for attention. The neighborhood suddenly came alive as spectators peaked through drawn curtains to assess the situation. Reassured that their cars were not the ones being damaged, one-by-one they disarmed and sunk back into their comfortable chairs. A domestic dispute between a man and his wife was no one else’s business.

“I hate you, you cheating bastard.” The wife’s words shot out of her mouth like jagged spears of glass. Her teary eyes burned with passion as she spoke, betraying her words. As if trying to drown out her voice, the man’ s bat connected with the side mirror, the windshield, the roof, the window, and then the windshield again, creating craters with each blow. From where I sat, unable to look away, I witnessed a disturbing scene, which could have been ripped right from one of Ai’s poems, played out in front of me. Violence, love, lust, raw human emotions unchecked and uncensored are subjects that Ai captures with mastery in her poetry.

A dark force inside of the woman kept her sitting there, egging her husband. Was it fear, was anger, or was it a mixture of both that had churned and grinded together to turn into something much more powerful, lust?

Suddenly, the bat shattered the side window, causing the woman’s courage to shatter with it. She let out a terrified sob, and she gunned the Tercel down the street, weaving from side-to-side, dodging parked cars. The man ran after his wife with tears in his eyes. When she did not stop, he sat down on the curb and buried his face inside his giant hands. The bat, which seconds ago was swinging with rage and passion, was now limp between his hairy legs.

But minutes later, the dented Tercel coasted back up the street and stopped in front of the distraught husband. The wife cautiously peeled herself out of the car seat. She walked up to him and rubbed her hand over his sweaty head in gentle concentric circles. He clung to her legs and wiped his tears on her thigh. All was forgiven.

Her hands groped at his face, leaving behind hot imprints. Her body twisted itself into him. Her identity was so damaged. It had become the abject. Consumed by the sudden burst of fever between them, she acted against her own self-interest.

The man rose and wrapped his arm, thick like an anaconda, around her shoulders and maneuvered her inside. Was the display of violence just their version of foreplay?

I watched them walked out of sight, hands in each other’s back pockets like teenagers in an intimate embrace, before going back inside where I turned on the TV just in time to see a man slammed a small ball straight down centerfield with a wooden bat. The impact ripped through the air, bouncing echoes off the walls of my apartment, leaving me to wonder how a ball can keep absorbing so much pain.

Pain, love, desire, and the confusion that results when the three mixes, is this what it means to be a woman? In some women, desire seems to victimize and violate, creating a space of abjection. In contemporary critical theory, Julia Kristeva uses abjection to explain the state of being that exists between the subject and the object. Abjection is caused by loss of distinction between the self and the other. According to Kristeva, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.”

This state of abjection describes people who have been marginalized in some way, such as people of color, prostitutes and poor, abused or disabled people. In this context, “the abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.” [Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”]

To be a woman, then, is to risk being in conflict with one’s own desires, as well as society’s desire to put woman neatly away in her place. What about the way in which female desire is interpreted and expected to be acted out that makes it the wooden bat upon which some women beat themselves? And why, in contrast, for other women, is female desire such a source of power? When the self is intact, desire can be used as a way to reinforce a sense of control and as a weapon that yields power and demands change. Through their actions and the way they deviate from society’s expectations, the women who embrace their desires as a force of power are able to reconfigure the roles that they are expected to play, creating twists and turns in the social order.

ai

the poet Ai

The woman speaker in Ai’s “Why Can’t I Leave You,” like the wife and her dented Tercel, gives up control of her desires, surrendering control of her life to the desires which renders her powerless.

[…]
I undress, then put on my white lace slip
for you to take off, because you like that
and when you come in, you pull down the straps
and I unbutton your shirt.
I know we can’t give each other anymore
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can’t make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.

This woman’s desires, though she does not derive power from them, are part of her identity. They weaken her, forcing her to accept less than what she needs. Her sense of self is shattered, becoming the abject, forcing her to beg and passively manipulate instead of making demands for the things that she needs and wants, convincing her to stay with a man, who, on his best day, does not have enough within him to provide her with the contentment she desires, even if “there is safety in that.” She cannot bring herself to want more than the things that he likes or be happy unless she is making him happy.

However, she is still aware of the power of her passion, “come close between my thighs/and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.” She still knows how to use it to seduce him and exercise her limited power over him. Though she may be unaware of their full power, her desires are still the silent forces in the background that affected her inability to leave.

In contemporary poetry and literature, female desire is often viewed simultaneously as a force of mysterious power and as a source of evil and corruption. In Ai’s “The Mother’s Tales,” a mother is devoured by her own mysterious desires.

[…]
I was young, free.
But Jaunito, how free is a woman? —
born with Eve’s sin between her legs,
and inside her,
Lucifer sits on a throne of abalone shells,
his staff with the head of John the Baptist
skewered on it.
And in judgment, son, in judgment he says
that woman will bear the fruit of the tree
we wished so much to eat
and that fruit will devour us
generation by generation,

This mother is judged for the desires and sins of all the generations that came before her. Being born a woman, she is shackled by her womanhood. This is her sense of self. But the self, in this case, is in conflict and her identity is poorly constructed, so the ego breaks down and becomes the other—the abject.

This mother is victimized twice, first by the man who had abused her and convinced her that a woman must be beat; and second by her own sense of morality against her female desires. And then as with most victims, she continues the cycle of victimization through the lessons that she passes on to her children.

so my son,
you must beat Rosita often.
She must know the weight of a man’s hand,
the bruises that are like the wounds of Chris.
[…]
And she must be pregnant always
if not with child
then with the knowledge
that she is alive because of you.
That you can take her life
more easily than she creates it,
[…]

With blind rage against the desires that made her weak and female, this mother instructs her son to rip his wife’s power from the womb, from the sacred place where life emerges. He is taught to take his wife’s desires and twist them into knots from which he can hang her like the body of Christ. This mother, a woman made so powerless by the circumstances of her own life, is only able to empower herself by becoming an indirect aggressor. By demanding from her son that his wife “must know the weight of a man’s hand,” she is creating a new generation of men whom she can control, even if that control comes at the abjection of other women.

This mother is so far removed from her own desires and sense of self that she is only defined by violent acts. They have become her truth—a truth, which to her is sacred and immortal like her religious beliefs.  She accepts the burden to pass on this violence against female desire as a way to stop its corruption. In telling her son to beat desires out of the woman who lies with him and spawns his children, this mother is gaining back a sense of who she is. Through her lessons, she reaffirms her place in a world, even if it is a place where women only exist in the space of abjection.

The self in the personaes Ai’s poems inhabit is often broken, but is always present, dictating actions and reactions. A woman’s desires stab at her from the inside, puncturing the ego, reshaping her identity. But if she can get a hold of these desires, she can wield them like weapons. In the “Tired Old Prostitute,” Ai’s persona experiences abjection brought on by her chosen profession, but she finds a way to re-envision herself and return her sense of self to its object state.

This is my property, I laid for it, paid for it, you know,
and I just want to build a cement walkway
right up to my front door.
I’ll be the only whore within fifty miles
who can claim she did something with her hands
that didn’t get a man hard.
What? — but I’m so tired. Can’t you wait a while?
I’m forty-five, my breath’s short, I like to sleep alone.
Yeah, yeah, I rolled in my jelly and it felt good,
but this belly isn’t wood or steel.
Man, turn your butt to my face.
But wait, I need a little help, help me, sweet thing.
Pull down your pants.
I like to see what I’m getting now,
before it gets into me.

Despite the fact that she was once victimized by her desires, this woman’s identity has found a way to reestablish itself, and it is now as steady as the house—she has “laid for it, paid for it.” Sitting on a firm foundation of self-reliance, but with desires still very much a part of her life, she is in control. She tells men what to do. “Pull down your pants./I like to see what I’m getting now,/before it gets into me.” She tells them what she likes and how she likes it.

In women who have a strong grip on their powers like this “tired old prostitute,” the ego employs desires to reverse the direction of powerlessness, allowing the woman to break out of her traditional role and rewrite cultural norms. From the prostitute to the woman in “Old Woman, Young Man” Ai’s poems expose cultural norm through her characters’ deviation from them.

[…]
Unashamed, I part my legs.
As always he says, look there’s a rose,
yes, but it’s lost its teeth.
He eats without tasting
and I reach to scratch my name
on the damp face rising
with a few crinkled gray hairs
shoving their white-tipped heads
against his scarred and frightened lips.

This “old woman” breaks cultural norms by acting out her desires with a younger man, taking what is traditionally a male role, and empowering herself through it. Unlike the wife in the Tercel who allowed her desires to oppress her, this old woman embraces her power and seeks pleasures from it. She satisfies her desires, but not at the cost of sacrificing her sense of self.

Another situation where the female desire is in control can be found in the poem, “Woman.” This woman knows what pleases her and is unabashed in going about getting it.

The adobe walls of the house
clutch the noon heat in tin fists
and while bathing, I fan my breasts,
watching the nipples harden.
I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to,
and shift my weight from left buttock to right,
while the water circling my waist tightens,
as if you had commanded it.
I stand up, spreading my legs apart,
Ready to release the next ribbon of blood.

 This woman knows her desires. She is unashamed of them. “I fan my breasts,/watching the nipples harden./I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to.” She wants to discover her pleasures. She celebrates the “ribbon of blood” that is released from her. She celebrates the life that is created as the product of her pleasures and desires.

All right. You want me now, this way.
I haven’t locked the door.
My swollen belly feels only its heaviness,
and would weigh less than the pain
chipping away at my navel with an ice pick of muscle.
I can carry you.
The blood, halved and thinned, rolls down my legs,
cupping each foot in a red stirrup
and I am riding that invisible horse,
the same one my mother rode.
It’s hungry, it has to be fed,
the last man couldn’t, can you?

She is strong and bold. Her female desire is a source of limitless power. “I can carry you,” she declares. She rejoices and embraces the life force that courses through her. She is the creator. “Riding that invisible horse,/the same one my mother rode,” she is part of a something bigger, something which connects all women.

This woman knows what she wants, and she wants a man who can play the role that she casts for him. “It’s hungry, it has to be fed,/the last man couldn’t, can you?”

To be a woman is to know desires. A woman’s desires and her identity are linked. This is her sense of self.  However, female desire as determined by the constructions of patriarchal power is a concept that is inherently in conflict with itself.  In women whose identities are poorly constructed, the ego breaks down and become the other—the abject. When this happens, the woman is rendered powerless by her desires, victimized by her needs. The wife in the Tercel was such a victim. She was violated by her desires and became weaken by them. The repeated beating of her husband’s bat terrified her, yet at the same time, it excited her desires for him. Though she tried to leave, she came back, never realizing that she had the power to create change for herself.

However, in women who have a strong grip on their powers, like the “tired old prostitute” and the “old woman with the young man,” the ego employs desires to reverse the structure of power. By demanding that their female desire be acknowledged, these women expose flaws in what society deems as acceptable behavior from and toward women. And by deviating from conventional thinking, they act as agents of change, forcing society to bend to their needs, finding power in female desire instead of allowing it to suppress their voices.

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Anne Sexton ~ Summoning the Self through the Body

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Anne Sexton

As a confessional poet, Anne Sexton exploited the intimate details of her life for her poetry. “Poetry milks the unconscious,” she said. Sexton lamented and celebrated female identity, sexuality and power by revealing painful and shocking personal details about her life. Though she always insisted that her poetry was not autobiographical, her exploration of difficult and tabooed female subjects, such as: abortion, menstruation, menopause, masturbation and desires, was done with such frankness that most readers and critics felt the line between Anne the woman and Sexton the poet was often blurred.

According to Sexton, “poetry should shock the senses. It should almost hurt.” Sexton’s life was one with many deep hurts; hurts that drove her to madness and to her eventual successful suicide attempt. “I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted for me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep the nightmares out,” Sexton said.

Sexton struggled to indentify her voice and its volume. A large portion of her poems deals with the role of women in a patriarchal society. Her process of interpreting life and creating poetry consisted of how Anne the woman and Sexton the poet, though separate entities with different ambitions, merged into one female voice through the subject matter that was Anne’s life. This voice was trying desperately to define itself in a society where male voices have always been more powerful.

In this essay, I will discuss the concept of female identity through poems that are focused on the body. These emotionally fierce and sexually liberating poems about the physical female form transcend the topic of Sexton’s personal life and journey into the profound. In order to show her strength, Sexton stripped the woman, leaving her without armor. She claimed a place for womanhood by first removing the clothes that restrain and hide the bodies as if they were a source of shameful secrecy; and then, without apologies or shame, she exposed both the beautiful and ugly functions of these bodies. As a result, she helped spark a much needed dialog on the value of women, thus, assisted in the chipping away of gender prejudices. And though, Sexton was received with shock and disapproval, she did succeed in heightening the understanding of female needs, encouraging women to claim their identity and sexuality, which was a necessary step toward to societal acknowledgement of female empowerment.

I will use the poems “In Celebration of my Uterus,” “Menstruation at Forty” and “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” which are all body poems, to point out various examples of where Sexton’s poetry backs up my claim on how female identity is summoned through the stripping of the female speaker in order to reveal the body underneath, exposing the prejudices and limitations that women are subjected to in their everyday life. These poems not only depict the female body as a source of celebration but also as a bearer of pain and a natural shell for complex emotions and desires.

In Sexton’s “In Celebration of my Uterus,” the speech used is conversational, “They wanted to cut you out/ but they will not. They said you were immeasurably empty/ but you are not.” This keeps the poem in a domestic, common place. By using this type of language, attention is called to the fact that this topic should be a natural, everyday conversation. However, though the speech is conversational, “will not” and “are not” are used instead of the contractions “won’t” and “aren’t”, resulting in the emphasis of the words “not” at the end of both lines. “…they will not” and “…you are not,” through the stress on the words “not,” the speaker claims what is her. Immediately, from the very beginning of the poem, the speaker’s voice is one in the position of power over her own body.

“There is enough here to please a nation./ It is enough that the populace own these goods.” The repeated usage of the “s” sounds throughout the poem gives the diction a soft female quality. Though this is a noticeable contrast to the position of power of the first four lines, it works. The contrasting quality between the softness of the sounds and the strength of the speaker’s voice is representative of the conflict between societal expectations on how a woman should behave and her own desire to attain strength and control over her body.

The end rhyme of “not” and “not” is also the most stressed rhyme in the stanza, which helps to reiterate the point the speaker is making about the state of her uterus. Though there are no rhyme schemes present in the poem, end rhymes can be found throughout, such as: “wings” and “dying,” to which “wrong” is a slant rhyme. “Wrong” is also a slant rhyme of “torn.” In the same way, “bird” rhymes with “girl” and “out” rhymes with “not.”

Everyone in me is a bird.
I am beating all my wings.
They wanted to cut you out
but they will not.
They said you were immeasurably empty
but you are not.
They said you were sick unto dying
but they were wrong.
You are singing like a school girl.
You are not torn.

The rhymes and conversational speech in the poem work cohesively together to create a smooth and easy reading experience, especially when the poem is read aloud. The reader is taken through the poem without coming across any language or sonic road blocks. These devices fool the reader into a false comfort. The speaker ends up digesting big chunks of the speaker’s uterus without realizing that what is bitten off, under normal circumstances, would be something very difficult to swallow.

With the repetition of the phrase “one is,” the poem becomes incantatory. Sexton pays homage to Walt Whitman as the women chant praises to their healthy uterus:

…one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,
one is at the aquarium tending a seal,
one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,
one is at the toll gate collecting…

There is a dark underlying humorous approach to a serious subject in this poem. Is a woman defined by her ability to produce children? If this is so, then is a woman’s body only an object, which owes its ultimate purpose to men? Is the only way for a woman to identify herself is through her sexual, breeding relationship with men? What about her desires, her needs for love and self expression? Is a woman’s identity and spirit based solely on the functioning or malfunctioning of an organ? Sexton’s approach to raising these questions is through the chanting of absurd incantations about the uterus. The humorous tone lightens the mood in the poem, but it does not take importance away from the message of the poem.

Sweet weight,
in celebration of the woman I am
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
I sing for you. I dare to live.
Hello, spirit. Hello, cup.

Sexton satiric wit shines through as the women go on and on with their chants. The poet’s uncanny ability to disassociate herself from her body, yet without manifesting a disdain for her own flesh, creates for the reader a whole image of a woman. Even though she’s been accused of crudeness, the utterly honest and feminine approach Sexton took allowed for an undistorted look at the struggles of being female, which in turns, helps to counter her crudeness.

On the crudeness of daring to be too female, Robert Boyers said the following about Sexton, “There is something awesome, even sublime in a woman who is not afraid to sound crude or shrill so long as she is honest, who in her best work sounds neither crude nor shrill precisely because she is honest.”

Sylvia Plath also had comparable praises about Sexton’s aesthetics and subject matter. Plath said that Sexton’s “are wonderfully craftsman-like poems and yet they have a kind of emotional and psychological depth, which I think is something perhaps quite new, quite exciting.”

Similar to “In Celebration of my Uterus,” the theme of summoning the female identity through the body is also found in “Menstruation at Forty.” This poem is also intensely physical; the language is rooted in the speaker’s body. The poem shocks the reader with its candid portrayal of the speaker’s hopes and dreams, dreams which traditionally, often get tangled up inside the womb. This poem allows the reader an opportunity to journey with the speaker in her search for womanhood.

The womb is not a clock
nor a bell tolling,
but in the eleventh month of its life
I feel the November
of the body as well as of the calendar.

The strength of the speaker in this poem comes from her positive self discoveries. The harvesting within the body marks the realization that even though one phase of life was ending, another journey of another kind continues. This point reiterates the value of a woman as more than just baby-making machines. The speaker puts her fertile self away, in order to find a new and different version of herself in the other aspects of her life. As a result, she makes the important statement about how a woman’s identity is not intrinsically connected to the insistent, clicking clock inside her womb.

Aside from the intense subject matter, this poem is also strengthened by its images. “Images are the heart of poetry,” said Sexton. Her images, like her poetry, came from the unconscious. They are raw like “the legs from Michelangelo” and surprising like “blood worn like a corsage.” The following lines jump off the page, painting an image that cannot be contained:

…The never acquired,
the never seeded or unfastened,
you of the genitals I feared,
the stalk and the puppy’s breath.

In the Contemporary Poets of the English Language, Sexton said, I prefer to think of myself as an imagist who deals with reality and its hard facts.”

There is a loose iambic rhythm found throughout this poem. However, there are a few lines where the iambic meter is very strict, “This time I hunt for death” and “a thin and tangled poison,” but for the majority of the lines, the iamb is present, but without being too imposing. However, the iamb is flip to trochaic in instances when a central point needs to be emphasize. A few examples of where the lines are forced out of rhythm are: “You! The never acquired,” “Love! That red disease—” and “David! Susan! David! David!” These detours from the iambic rhythm create hot spots in the poem where the reader is directed to pay attention to what is being said. These instances are where the speaker asserts her voice. She speaks of her blood and of her babies; and she wants to be heard.

Though a rhyme scheme is not present in the poem, the music of the poem can still be felt in the like and unlike sounds bouncing off one another. The differences are created in the sonic contrasts between Germanic root words and Latinate root words.

All this without you—
two days gone in blood.
I myself will die without baptism,
a third daughter they didn’t bother.
My death will come on my name day.
What’s wrong with the name day?

In reading the lines above aloud, the reader can intuitively distinguish between the contrasting sounds of German sounding root words such as, “blood,” “death” and “wrong,” which are associated the body to Latin sounding root words such as, “baptism,” “daughter” and “brother,” which are associated the emotion. And in the intermingling of these sounds, a tone depicting the speaker’s conflicting emotions is generated; a tone that can be perceived on a deeper level than the meanings of the words themselves. The reader is invited to understand the female speaker intimately, not just from the knowledge of her body through the words used, but also through the sounds her heart makes in the way that the music of the poem is being played out.

Sexton has been disregarded as a craftsman by many critics. Some claimed her poetry is mostly driven by the open-wound approach to highly intense subject matter, but that it lacks the aesthetics of a technically trained poet. In “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator,” Sexton proved her critics right. In this form and this instance, there are qualities in the construction of the poem that proves to be lacking.

I believe this poem would benefit from a more consistent meter along with slant and/or more surprising end rhymes. The power in this poem comes from the sense of control that is imposed upon the reader by the end rhymes, which are all true rhymes. Without being in stricter verse, the refrain along with the rhyme scheme feel unnaturally restricted. I believe this poem would be stronger had there been a more dominant and consistent meter to contain it.

The poem is made up of seven six-line stanzas with an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The sixth line in each stanza is rhymed to the refrain, “At night, alone, I marry the bed,” which is repeated in the seventh line of each stanza. The music in this poem is heavily dependent on the rhyme scheme, but the poem lacks the central heartbeat of a strict meter. The end rhymes are also expected and unsurprising. There is only on instance where the reader is not greeted at the end of a line with a word or an idea that takes the breath away. It is in the rhyme between “together” and “feather” in the third stanza.

Take for instance this night, my love,
that every single couple puts together
with a joint overturning, beneath, above,
the abundant two on sponge and feather,
kneeling and pushing, head to head.
At night alone, I marry the bed.

To make the poem even less interesting structurally, the internal rhymes feel accidental, such as: “overturning,” “kneeling” and “pushing.” And so, with all true end rhymes and few enjambments, a sing-song quality is created. It is inescapable. It resonates throughout the poem and overwhelms the seriousness of the subject matter. The underdeveloped form feels as if it is poking fun at the speaker.

Though the poem’s construction shows weaknesses in form, the subject matter being discussed is undeniably powerful. The tile is bold and declarative. Yes, the speaker is lonely, her affair, sexual in nature, has ended; but she is taking back control of her pleasures. She is in charge of her body, claiming that even though “I horrify/ those who stand by. I am fed.” Though she may be a woman in desperation, breaking “the way a stone breaks,” “at night, alone,” she is still filled with desires, which she chooses to satisfy. In acknowledging her sexuality and needs, the speaker claims her power and identity, and because this power is claimed at a moment of weakness, the speaker is made more powerful.

The speaker’s pleasures are not tied to those of the man who had left her. And her satisfaction does not have to wait to be fulfilled by the next man who comes along. She is her own fulfillment. Referring to her body in third person, the speaker claims:

Finger to finger, now she’s mine.
She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

The “other woman” in this poem is also a strong figure, “She took you the way a woman takes/ a bargain dress of the rack.” Who is this woman who has come into this relationship and yanked the man away from the speaker? We do not know. All we know is that she is a woman, and she too feels a sense of entitlement to her desires. She has taken what she wanted because it gives her pleasure.

This poem is also brave in its explicit examination of female sexuality. Written at a time when a woman’s sexuality is seldom recognized nor discussed in the public arena, when a woman is expected to be a happy baby-maker without needs or desires of the flesh needing to be addressed, I find this poem poignant in both its power and loneliness.

This last stanza feels devastatingly lonely.

The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Outside in the night, youths are feeding on each other, while inside, this woman is alone, finding a way to feed herself. “They are overfed./ At night, alone, I marry the bed.” Loneliness usually spawns from the comparison of the things we do not have or have lost to the things that others have but are taking for granted.

Sexton’s voice and poetry is a mixture of honesty and pain. She was her own persona in her poems. Sexton used her life, her feelings, body and poetic voice to strike back against oppression. She made demands of womanhood by exposing its crudeness, beauty and repulsiveness. Her courage to use her own life as subject matter allows the reader to examine the journey of female discovery and the search for womanhood with a clarity that is untainted by self-consciousness or the desire to censor oneself in order to please others. Through the personal explorations and confessions, Sexton comes full circle with her journey. Through all her roles and realizations, at the end of it all, Anne the sad woman is taken by the hand by Sexton the powerful poet and was told to love herself and her body.

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