Friday, October 31, 2014

The Living Dead

 Honouring our poetic ancestors

The Truth the Dead Know
Anne Sexton (1928 - 1974)

For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June.  I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape.  I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch.  In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely.  No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead?  They lie without shoes
in the stone boats.  They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped.  They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

As I write, it's the night of Halloween in Australia, a few hours ahead of places in the Northern Hemisphere. Aussies, especially the kids, have borrowed it from America. I've already given out lollies to trick-or-treaters and admired costumes, including an impressive skeleton.

Halloween is based on Samhain, the time when Pagans believe the veil between the worlds is thin, and the dead revisit us. It is a time to honour our ancestors. The children who come knocking don't know this. Nor do they know it's a seasonal festival, and that this is the wrong time of year for it here. 

In the Southern Hemisphere this is really the time of Beltane, a festival celebrating the sexual union of male and female.

This poem by Anne Sexton speaks of both — the deaths and funerals of her parents, and the lovers' world of touch.

Sexton's struggles with mental illness and her eventual suicide are well-known. I won't reiterate them here. The Wikipedia article (link on her name, above) gives you the basics.  She is a very recent poetic 'ancestor', having died in 1974, but deserves that status as one of a handful of  'confessional' poets who permanently changed the way poetry was written and viewed, making the deeply personal their subject matter in ways that were previously considered tasteless and unsuitable. Today most of us write more or less confessionally.

Sexton remains one of the most famous of the early confessional poets. Many people find her poetry, particularly the later work, strange and disturbing. Many others find it brilliant and beautiful.

I don't know when this one was written, but it seems to me to have a flavour of her earlier works.  It doesn't sound mad, just sad and heavy. It's also beautiful, with a formal music. I copied it into a poetry scrapbook by hand when I was in my early twenties and knew nothing about the poet, but fell in love with the poem for its beauty of language.

There are books by and about her at Amazon. Her poems can be found at PoemHunter, and there is a discussion of her poetics at The Poetry Foundation.

When subject to copyright, poems and photos used in ‘The Living Dead’ remain the property of the copyright holders.


  1. Rosemary, how strangely in same time we thought about her...I just done reading her two books "Transformations" and "Love poems", and going to read more. Latest post on my blog dedicated to reading one of her poem. Sadly, I find more and more poets, whose literary work was a therapy....Thanks for honouring today Anne Sexton.

  2. ... more like stone seems the blessings of life and of funeral rites are for the living, not the dead. Thank you for this poem today.

  3. I have admired Anne Sexton's poetry but have never read this one. The first stanza made me smile a bit...letting the dead ride by themselves in the hearse, being tired of being brave. Very human emotion expressed. I do like the 'confessional' poets that write life as it is. Good share, Rosemary.

    1. Yes, you're right: very human emotions expressed in this, which are immediately endearing.

  4. Great choice, Rosemary, and I enjoyed your chatty comments after. In the poem, I so admire her unusual imagery - "where the sun gutters from the sky, where the sea swings in like an iron gate", and "My darling, the wind falls in like stones from the whitehearted water". Very beautiful. Thanks for bringing us these goodies, week after week.

  5. I have not yet made time to read Sexton yet. Some of the collections mentioned on PoemHunter will added to my reading list.

    1. Happy to have widened your scope for enjoyment! *Smiles*.

  6. I do enjoy Anne's poetry. This was an excellent choice Rosemary it's honest and she was brave considering her parents died so close together.


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