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The Story of The Woman Who Was Not Ashamed To Die

A couple of years ago when I met Anne Sexton’s writing, I was impressed by the power of her poetry, and somewhat enchanted with the way she used words. When I returned to her poems after some time had passed, what I had failed to attend at first read started to become clear as I judged her along with how and why she’d begun to write. I could see the way the verses that I was turning over in my mind twisted and turned as they took shape in another mind and resigned to minds unbeknownst to them.  Was it a longing for death coming out of the black well where it had piled up, pervading in between the verses, that which provided such pliability, I asked contemplatively. What did it feel like to stop the hand fit to writing such poems, to foil the thought, to cut the rhythm, to stop life knowing that better could be written? What sort of a woman was Anne Sexton that she just desisted from her existence envenomed with poetry? As I searched for her, I was discovering the roots of that longing for death in our fraternal world of thought, trying to imagine the last day of survival just as it was stored in the memory. Did she look in the mirror and speak: “On seven different days, in seven different ways, I died seven times. Now in the lithe belly of the eighth, slipping through the midst of the circle I’d held onto, I’m walking to a dreamless certainty. The skin I’m scraping from my big bones is piling up in my hands. I, who grows in the crackling of the typewriter, who douses her hand taken out of the mashed potatoes into the words, who buries her face in the magnolias and screams, who whirls her neck around the lewd rhythm of music. At the age of 28, standing on the verge of insanity changing diapers, who started to write poems with doctor’s recommendation. How many verses was it per prescription? I saw it for the first time in the fine dints of the pills I poured in my hands from brown bottles. It had a voice. A manner that tightens my chest, a force that hits my head to the sky, a sight draped in a thousand silhouettes. It had its harmony, its calmness, its laying to sleep. It had an invitation to insanity, a breath heating up as insanity grew, labyrinths beclouded after insanity had taken place. It had a tone resonated with the birds dying by the window, the whelps coming from my tummy, the apples the princess ate. A nature that obliges me to the limb called typewriter, the monster called paper, the war of pencils. It had a velvety compassion that resurrected me, coaxed me to giving myself another day to live. That which dragged me by the hair bringing me forcibly and breathlessly from 28 to 46: Poetry.

“My soul is at the bottom of a sonnet, in the heart of a verse turning into a song. The eighth death is fine due to its winding. I let my flowers, my babies, and my bones  take me on a long journey.”

I started pursuing her and followed. I held the passes of the streets. I got her. There, Mrs. Sexton was coming from Boston in a fragrant afternoon of October. She still had her long, tight, buttoned-through red dress that she wore during her performance at Goucher Collage. In a sense this dress was her wildcard. She would usually wear this dress with golden buttons at poetry nights, just forgetting to button up from either the top or the bottom. The dress would pour from her big-boned wide shoulders, proud with the beautiful figure of the body it clung to. Wearing this dress, Mrs. Sexton rather looked like actresses with rabbit fur coats than a poet; in fact, she would at times consider herself one and accordingly would grow in the dress, pervading the place with a feminine essence. She had also shown the excited university students who’d welcome her at the airport and walked her to Goucher Collage the way she buttons up her dress, telling them how sometimes she’d miss a couple of them. The kids were getting all carried away with the poet’s dress touching softly her curved skin. The poetry night had passed in a spiritual fashion; holding onto the continuous applauds she was often crying out the poems. When arrived at the door of the garden of her house in Weston, she recounted the night once again in her mind. With one hand she held onto the fence and looked up.  “I looked at the sky and couldn’t see God,” she mumbled. She bunched the skirt of the dress in one hand and took off her shoes. She passed through the gate just like that and got in the house. The furniture saluted Mrs. Sexton with joy.

I followed her into the house. I watched her getting undressed, writing something on the notebook at her hand. I sneaked an eye on the notebook: “If we all believe in daisies nobody will die. Are the words too much for the paper now? Did I prolong the rehearsal of my ludicrous role a little too much with a tray full of pills? A giant woman in the middle of the large lounge, the bones are just about to jump out of the points of her shoulders. My cheekbones sticking out of my face like pimples. My eyes have grown big, my lips are huge. The distress of neglecting to have enough kisses has permeated in between my teeth. From losing my mind and the steady line of pain. I stand still on the spot where I’d become a poet out of a crazy housewife with snakes hanging out of her hair. My fits of hysteria are from my older daughter, my disengagement and cries from the younger. I offended everyone after having suffocated them. I moved my house to the land of dead poets. The strange woman who wipes her hands on her stained apron, get your face off the diapers and hear me out. Pour your drink into a wooden bowl, step forward. Tell me how the death is so warm. That the daisies in the garden got dried out. That I have eight cigarettes left in the Salem pack.”

Next morning Louise Conant came for breakfast. Mrs. Sexton made her coffee and gave her the flute concerto she bought for Louise’s birthday that was played and recorded at Taj Mahal. They sat on the kitchen table by the window. While Louise talked, Mrs. Sexton watched the titmouse settling at the feeder on the sill. At length. Drank her coffee. Sip by sip. As Louise’s voice faded away from her ears a titmouse stuck out its head out of the bottom of her cup. Mrs. Sexton kissed the tiny beak. When Louise was leaving out the door she put one hand on her back. Smiled to keep it in her memory. Doleful. Big.

She stuffed a couple pages from her desk to her purse. Hurriedly she left the house so that she wouldn’t be late to her appointment at her therapist. We ran. When she arrived at the office her face had become a little transparent. She laid out the papers she’d just stuck in her purse in front of Schwartz. It was a poem. Her way of celebrating the almost first year anniversary of their meeting. Dedicated verses. They read “Court Green” together, they talked about drugs. Though Mrs. Sexton forgot to put the papers back in her purse; it didn’t matter, I took them all after her.  But she left the lighter she’d always carry and her cigarette pack in the bowl full of daisies on the doctor’s desk.

As she walked I could hear her voice talking to me without seeing me: “I could rule death, as much as I rule words. I’d leave it to be a long full hair, to flow in the meadow. When I’m hurt, I’d wrap it up around my hand, pull it towards me, kiss the death by the neck. As my presence grows big at poetry nights, I yawn at the dispersed time. I wriggle about in every ear my voice reaches, getting in the little black holes. I could manage the truth. I bury the harmony in the paper, I pervade from the windpipes out to the ovaries. I envy those who die before me. Poetry turns into music in my voice, I pleasure myself with music. You, Anne! I see you. You’re in an awful rowing toward God. You’re eating men in your red mouth, silk fabric wrapped around your enormous body. In the rears of your mind, you’re in the shadow of your drunk father. You’re guarding the dark memories behind the name you gave to your childhood. You’re sweating with your sticky skin in your grandmother Nana’s arms. You’re standing in front of the asylum Nana was put in, with daisies in your hands! Rising slowly in an elevator up towards the layered sky. O you. Don’t let your mouth froth while you die, quench the basket full of fire you tucked in your arm before leaving.”

Mrs. Sexton met her old friend Maxin for lunch and had a couple of bites of omelette. She handed Maxin “Court Green,” and then, for them to work on, “Rowing.”  Maxin read the poems. Mrs. Sexton, looking at her friend with eyes desperate for approval, was waiting, holding still for having it a matter of life and death that her poems be liked by this experienced poet. Though she had an obscure uneasiness about it, Maxin told her that her poems were good.

“Anne, keep writing!”

Keep writing, Anne. Wasn’t it this imperative how she found vital strength for the past 28 years anyway?  Didn’t she pull herself together to be able to wake up to the next day, after crying to insanity in the hour-long phone conversations with Maxin, or shouting with laughter at someone how good her poems were? Didn’t she try to erase the memory of the helplessness of Nana, who died in front of her eyes losing herself in her single room in a cold hospital, by writing another poem every day?

Losing oneself to madness. At the point where drugs were useless, therapy was silent, maybe they were going to tie her arms around her back. Was she going lick the walls, begging for a sheet of paper? Was she then going to be labeled, crazy woman who also wrote?

She saw her sanity slipping through in-between her legs, sticky like the placenta that tore her meat apart when giving birth.

She hugged Maxin. Got in her car. Stuck her head out of the window and shouted at the receding woman. Maxin took one hand to her ear, making a gesture to show that she couldn’t hear, looking at Mrs. Sexton with questioning eyes. A farewell that couldn’t be heard, that had a car window shut on its face.

But I heard. She was speaking in her mind: “I’m in the room of my life. My age is equal to the buttons four and eight in the typewriter. I’m a middle-aged witch. A world war outside.

The ashtray the inside of which I’d cauterized, the couch slumped down with the weight of bodies, books, books, books. Stains on the carpet, changing shape day by day. A blue dog collars. Wrinkled socks hanging down on the wall. I go ahead and put a poem inside of each of them. For the forthcoming Christmas. For my daughters. A white coffee cup with the inside of it blackened. Plant roots sticking out of vases. Dusty windows. Ones that I fed the titmouse at. That I fed the world with poetry. The furniture is precising. I take my rings out of my fingers, one by one, sitting them on the table. The divorce, marriage, loneliness, the umbilical cord, the milk pouring out of my breasts. I pour vodka to the crystal glass. I take the silk dress off of me and wear my mother’s fur coat. The vodka glass in my hand, I walk to the garage. I sit inside my Ford Cougar. A sip of vodka. All the doors are shut. All the windows open. My fingers grow as I take a look at my hands again. Did I write all those poems with these hands, did I hold the papers with these hands, did I comb the girls’ hair with these hands? My eyes are dead cold. Electric blue. Nana, you old wizard! This death is the warm bosom I snuggle in, so that I wouldn’t die like you. I cling to my mother’s skin. In the sick tone of the church organ, I boil in the cauldrons of all the witches in tales.”

Mrs. Anne Sexton shrinked in her black fur. She turned the car key. As she inhaled the metallic smell coming from the exhaust, first a word appeared in her mind. Then the word fell on the tip of her tongue. Just then, another word appeared in the car window. A letter, a note. They attached to one another as if holding onto the empty boxes of a crossword puzzle. The sonnets hit the walls of the garage and rebounded. A music wrapped around the skin the fur coat warmed up. Anne Sexton, swimming in this music, wished to have been able to write this last sonnet. I got out of there immediately. I had to leave her alone while she died. The lithe belly of the eighth shrinked. The eight dropped to the side. And I had no questions left in my mind. Just this poem:  “I have ridden in your cart, driver, /waved my nude arms at villages going by, /learning the last bright routes, /survivor where your flames still bite my thigh /and my ribs crack where your wheels wind. /A woman like that is not ashamed to die. /I have been her kind.”[1]


[1] Sexton, Anne. “Her Kind”. To Bedlam and Part Way Back. 1960.


Translation: Zeynep Senahan Yıldız


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