Thursday, January 29, 2009


Recently I met with professor Karen Alkalay-Gut of Tel Aviv University on the grounds of McLean Hospital. I had missed her when I was touring Israel in Dec. of 2007. I was supposed to conduct a workshop with her poetry class but there was a strike going on and it had to be called off. So it was good to catch up with her for a brief while. She is starting to research a book about poetry, poets, and mental illness, and she told me McLean is the place to start. I agree, as the hospital has been declared a literary landmark. Many a great poet paced the halls here: Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman, to name just a few. She sent me an article that I decided to post on the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene that deals with the poet Anne Sexton and her use of Pop Culture in her work.


Karen Alkalay-Gut

Words in a poem, sounds in movement, rhythm in space, attempt to recapture personal meaning in personal time and space from out of the sights and sounds of a depersonalised, dehumanised world. They are bridgeheads into alien territory. They are acts of insurrection.
R.D. Laing (37)

It might be difficult to conceive of Anne Sexton as building ‘bridgeheads into alien territory.’ Indeed, despite her popularity she is often perceived as a kind of victim, and until very recently, much of the criticism of Anne Sexton’s poetry focused primarily upon her scandalous and disturbed life. This is particularly true in the decade following Diane Middlebrook’s sensational biography (Middlebrook 1991) which suggests that Sexton’s work only leads back to a hallucinatory woman controlled by her madness and aberrations. But in the following pages I wish to argue just that: through the use of popular culture Anne Sexton attempts a revolution, a reconception of herself as well as the contemporary concepts of art and identity.

Because so many readers discuss the difficulty of separating Sexton’s life from her work, the devaluation of her life would in itself be a great obstacle to the understanding of her poetry. But just as it is difficult to imagine actually contextualizing her very personal voice in an additional or alternative framework to her biography, an alternative analysis seems irrelevant to her extraordinary poetry of the self. The usual paths into her poetry just don’t seem to lead anywhere else than her self, and although we can identify the literary allusions, the psychoanalytic innuendoes, the feminist statements and the abject confessions, they fail to explain the attraction of her work. This is particularly true of her later poetry, which defies traditional methods of reading – not because the poems are impenetrable, but because they initially appear raw, associative, and replete with ostensible nonsense.

But nonsense is by nature comparative and relative, and depends upon an alternative rationale. Often Sexton’s apparent non sequiturs can be discovered to be heard parts of dialogue, and Joanna Gill has recently discussed this as an intentional strategy in “Hurry Up Please, It’s Time.” Gill argues that “the poem enters into a critical dialogue with Eliot's “The Waste Land,” making sophisticated and purposive use of multiple personae, self-reflexively contemplating questions about memory, language, and subjectivity, and juxtaposing private introspection and public display.” (Gill 2003, 41). This argument is strong, and indicates that Sexton’s work is not simply spun from the self, but that literary allusions and contexts are significant throughout her poetry.

Sexton's poem refers to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, to the Sibyls of classical mythology, and to Buddhist texts. Like Eliot's "The Hollow Men," her poem inserts incomplete fragments of prayer or Gospel, borrowing a line from the Book of Common Prayer ("Forgive us, Father, for we know not") which is, itself, a borrowing from the Gospels ("Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" [Luke 23.34]). In both poems, these allusions are typographically set apart, as though to imply that they are spoken as an aside, or that we are in the presence of several simultaneous voices or levels of contemplation. That the quotations in both cases are incomplete suggests failure and confusion, and foreshadows the lack of resolution in the text as a whole. Sexton's poem juxtaposes the intense and mystical and the superficial and mocking, hence the refrain "La de dah" which mimics Eliot's "Weialala leia / Wallala leialala" and in so doing subverts its serious and incantatory potential. Indeed, Sexton's line parodies the presumptuous erudition of Eliot's phrase, mimicking its intonation and transforming it into a slang reference to snobbery (Gill 2003, 43).

Gill’s work is a powerful step forward in lending validity to Sexton’s language, imagery, and purpose and countering the constant accusation concerning what David Trinidad calls “the blatant deterioration of her talent,” echoing numerous other critics and poets. However, Gill’s context remains a literary one, one to which Sexton can not be confined, and although Gill notes Sexton’s references to "jello," "milk," "juice," and "peanut butter" and the subsequent identification of America “with consumption and thus inevitably with expulsion,” there is a far greater and more significant context of popular culture within which Sexton places herself.

If, for example, we trace the snatches of pop culture that permeate this pivotal poem, “Hurry Up Please, It’s Time,”* the poem becomes part of a dialogue with contemporary social contexts. References to the comic film of Walter Mitty, suggestions of the comic strip Gasoline Alley, and verses from a quintessential pop song by Al Jolson (with significant hiatuses) create a larger social scaffolding, and the many literary and social allusions emerge as integral parts of developing dialogues. This substantive use of the popular arts obfuscates the distinctions between levels and degrees of culture, and favors instead the original, ‘mad’ lateral thinking of the eccentric individual who is more driven by the need to comprehend contemporary existence and less by the need to be accommodated by and to transform a literary canon. In this way the exploration in the poem becomes far more intimate, unique, and genuine. This approach is aided by some of the concepts of R.D. Laing’s existential explanation of schizophrenia and society in his popular classic, The Politics of Experience, with the intention of a general, cultural quest out of a stratified and unsatisfying culture into unknown territory.

The choice to use various elements of popular culture is critical. Although films are often employed by Sexton's contemporaries, they are usually references to ‘art films,’ such as films by Goddard in poetry by Adrienne Rich, or the classic film of “Dracula” at the conclusion of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or even Sexton’s own use of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in the final verse of “Her Kind.” These references lend a patina of intellectual respectability to the image, whether the immediate reference is ‘caught’ or not. In the earlier poem “Her Kind,” for instance, the allusion to Joan of Arc bestows upon the speaker a sainted identity even while it confirms a social definition of madness:

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waving 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. (Sexton 1999, 15)

In Sexton’s later poetry, however, the needs have changed. It is precisely the lack of respectability of film that is the issue in “Hurry Up,” since it goes against the modernist cultural hierarchy. Popular films have rarely been considered acceptable points of reference in modern poetry. When Berryman jokingly quoted Eliot, “I seldom go to films…said the Honorable Possum.”(Berryman 1964, 60), he was not referring to Eliot’s own echoes of Tristan and Isolde in “The Wasteland,” but to a general poetic prejudice. Allusions to an ephemeral genre not only tie the alluding work to a transient source that will soon disappear, but also help to create the assumption that the alluding work is no ‘better’ than the alluded work, for it too possesses a similar transience.

Even if films can be granted, the use of comic strips in the seventies would have diminished the respectable patina of the poem. Stefan Economou recently noted, “Who apart from an academic rag-picker cherishes Pogo or Krazy Kat or Gasoline Alley, even while the movies of that era are still publicly revered on 100-best lists?” (Economou). While contemporary cultural criticism may well find treasures in these strips, it is difficult to imagine a critic of the seventies taking seriously a poem with reference to these characters. But it is precisely the discrepancy between the prevailing culture and the proffered culture that is essential to the conflict in “Hurry Up,” because it is indicative of more basic conflicts both within the society and within the individual.

In the poem, “Hurry Up Please It’s Time,” Sexton sets up two polarities, the normal life and the life of fantasy and imagination, and attempts to seek meaningful existence in their relationship. Skeezix, the foundling from the comic strip “Gasoline Alley” who grew up in real time with Sexton and millions of other readers of the 20th century, is the person against whom the speaker initially places herself. He is the ‘ear’ of normality, and her repetition of the word ‘middle,’ living in Middlesex, (l. 32) and middle-class (l. 218), emphasizes this need to be connected to and accepted by the norm.

The opening confirms this need to connect the eccentric behavior of the speaker with a normal world outside. The poem begins with a response to the Hemingway remark in A Movable Feast with which the entire collection, The Death Notebooks, begins: “Look, you con man, make a living out of your death”(Sexton 1999, 348). “Hurry Up” opens with a dialogic analysis of this phrase: “What is death, I ask./ What is life, you ask” (l. 1-2). The rest of the poem addresses these issues – how to make a ‘living’ out of death. “You,” it will be determined twenty lines later, is Skeezix, who is set in opposition to the speaker, replying to the question of the speaker “What is Death?” with a suitably positive interrogatory-response, “What is Life?” This appears to be an encouragement to concentrate on the positive and realistic aspect of her inquiry. And indeed, the speaker immediately realizes the significance of this question, the distinction between ‘making a living’ and actually living, and the necessity of understanding the importance of the question concerning the nature of life. This initial response becomes the basis for the exploration of the purpose of her existence. This search for an understanding of death and its reversal in the optimistic middle-class question is the entrance into the poem.

But there are also other dimensions, such as the repeated sound of ‘pocketa-pocketa,’ the neutral engine sound that the dreamer Walter Mitty hears as he drives, always transforming its rhythm into the changing musical score for his various fantasies. He is an astronaut, a pilot, a brain surgeon. The imaginariness of his existence, if not the specific fantasies, provides Sexton with a model for the conflict between what R.D. Laing calls ego and self, social identity and personal identity. Laing’s initial premise in The Politics of Experience is of contemporary identity as essentially schizophrenic, “a split in our experience. We seem to live in two worlds, and many people are aware only of the ‘outer’ rump. As long as we remember that the ‘inner’ world is not some space ‘inside’ the body or the mind, this way of talking can serve our purpose. (It was good enough for William Blake.) The ‘inner’, then, is our personal idiom of experiencing our bodies, other people, the animate and inanimate world: imagination, dreams, phantasy, and beyond that to ever further reaches of experience”(Laing 1967, 18). Labeled by his colleague David Cooper “anti-psychiatry,” Laing’s basic theory is that the distinctions created between madness and sanity are essentially arbitrary social ones, determined by a society that finds certain behavior uncomfortable or threatening to itself, and promotes this split within the self which exists in everyone in varying degrees. In this context the discourse of madness can actually help to shed light upon the schizophrenia of modern experience. If it is possible to posit that it is the society that is mad, then the mad person may be just the one to find a sane alternative. This concept was extremely popular during the late sixties in discussions of individual and political madness and has many literary implications, but for a person certifiably insane, it must have been personally very liberating.

It is within the interrelationships between the outside world of popular culture and audience and the inner world of personal madness that the poem is attempting to maneuver. For this reason Skeezix, whose ‘father’—Walt Wallet— is the ideal combination of romantic American poet (Walt Whitman) and capitalistic metonymy, is a good ‘person’ with whom to begin a dialogue. Skeezix not only seems to be a constant companion here casually referred to mid-dialogue, but also appears in an identical offhand yet intimate manner when he opens a short prose piece of Sexton’s entitled “All God’s Children Need Radios.” The story, a series of diary entries from 1971, begins with an ambivalent address: “Thank you for the red roses. They were lovely. Listen, Skeezix, I know you didn’t give them to me, but I like to pretend you did because, as you know, when you give me something my heart faints on the pillow” (Sexton 1988, 23). While Skeezix might also refer to Sexton’s husband, Kayo (whose real nickname is also cartoon-like), or a real or an imaginary lover, this popular and imaginary identity reinforces his role of what Alicia Ostriker terms a “courage-giving alter ego,” a male muse (Ostriker 1986, 194). Skeezix provides an initial point of contact and contrast between her and the world.

Unlike the contemporary ‘fantasy’ companion, such as James Stewart’s giant rabbit, Harvey, in the1950 film of that name, Skeezix is just an average orphan, yet ‘normality’ itself is designated here as caricature and two-dimensional. It is not surprising therefore, that his usefulness as a partner for dialogue is limited and Skeezix retreats into the 3rd person and the wistful past (symbolic memories of his safeguarding the poet’s hat while she is fishing) as the poem progresses. The speaker moves from desiring the comfortable funny-page ‘average’ universe, from longing to fit into the ‘outside’ vision of the world, to craving a more basic and exciting quest of imagination. And it is something of the awareness of Walter Mitty that allows it.

“I was a nothing crouching in the closet,” Sexton told her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, in 1961 and he replied, “Never see “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?” [sic] (Middlebrook, Anne Sexton, 401). Although it would take her over a decade to put this reference directly into her poetry, it was very good advice. The film adaptation of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947) starring Danny Kaye varied greatly from its literary source. For Kaye’s milquetoast protagonist actually becomes a far more heroic figure than Thurber’s Both protagonists have unrealistic fantasies of fame and success, but the moral of Thurber’s story is that fantasizing makes Mitty unfit for the world. Kaye’s Mitty, on the other hand, actually has the opportunity to fulfill his wildest dreams, saving beautiful and romantic heiress Virginia Mayo from jewel thieves and his country from evil Nazi spies. Mitty’s liberation from the desperate need to make a living ultimately allows him to conceive and act upon creative moneymaking schemes, making him the superior man in all ways. Everything is reversed in this film: even the psychiatrist – who is supposed to help Mitty realize that his real romantic experiences have only been fantasies – is ‘really’ a disguised Nazi spy played by Boris Karloff. This is not only the kind of film Sexton must have seen as a teenager, but was most likely exposed to on television as an adult; and its parallel with her own madness as well as her experiences with psychiatrists, could not have failed to have significance to her.

The film of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” becomes significant in understanding “Hurry Up Please Its Time” and other poems from this period in a number of ways. First, the ‘pocketa-pocketa’ heard by Mitty and Sexton indicates the transformation of droning reality (and regular rhythm) into imaginative fantasy. (It is impossible to ignore the extent to which Sexton was under pressure by critics and friends to write a more controlled and regular verse. “Pocketa-pocketa” recalls this to some extent). Also, Danny Kaye’s character does more than merely dream. In an incongruous but almost exact parallel of Sexton’s later poems, Mitty discovers that his ‘real’ life does not at all suit him. He has been defined and confined by his mother, fiancée and employer, and reduced to an almost nonfunctional figure. But it is his fantasies (constantly decried by these people who try to socialize him) that prepare him to cope with the extraordinary romance-spy situation; allow him an opportunity to conceive of a totally transformed life and most significantly to fulfill this conception.

There are three categories of existence in the film: 1) there is a ‘real world’ - a middle-class existence which is stultifying. 2) There is also a fantasy world in which Mitty creates himself as hero. This world of imagination is considered by all to be detrimental to his ability to function in the ‘real world.’ 3) Finally there is a ‘real, real world’ an integrated world in which Mitty’s eccentricities and fantasies prove useful tools to transform the earlier personal inadequate reality into a more significant and productive one. In fact through the openness of mind aided by his capacity for ‘fantasy,’ Mitty not only realizes that his psychiatrist is really out to get him, proving his paranoia real, but he is able to use that knowledge to stem the danger of fascism and nascent McCarthyism. Once Mitty understands that the ‘real, real world,’ the dialogue between his fantasy and reality, is the one which integrates all of his needs and allows all of his personalities to emerge, his ability to cope with – even control and change – his stultifying life, becomes apparent. He becomes the liberated and liberating hero he has always dreamed of being. This seems to be a lesson for the speaker of “Hurry Up” – to follow through with the liberating dreams for her poetry despite the surrounding criticism, and this lesson is parallel with the development of the poem.

“Experience,” notes R. D. Laing, “may be judged to be invalidly mad or to be validly mystical. The distinction is not easy…” (Laing 1967, 108). Like Walter Mitty, what Sexton sought was to transform the use of her madness from a sensationalist one that people sympathize and identify with, to a validly mystical one that can transform reality. The basic movement in the poem can be traced through the repetition of lines from prayer, moving from repeated apologies for her helplessness to an assertion of the usefulness of her madness in society, from echoing ritualistic pleas such as “Father, forgive me…” to envisioning the possibility of helping to bring transformation. Rather than a divided self, with a total separation between the exhibitionist Ms. Dog, and the sorrowful Ann, there is an alliance. The bold Ms. Dog will be put in the service of the sincere quest for transformation.

Bring a flashlight, Ms. Dog,
and look in every corner of the brain
and ask and ask and ask
until the kingdom,
however queer,
will come.

If the last line of Sexton’s poem recalls Ginsberg’s 1956 poem, “America,” “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” (1984: 146) it is because it also follows a similar development. The social misfit becomes the prophet. One of Laing’s biographers, John Clay, recognizing the similarities of Laing and Sexton’s vision, notes that Laing featured a poster of Breughel’s “Fall of Icarus” in his consulting room. He adds that the figure of Icarus, in the painting and in Sexton’s poem on the subject “symbolises the indifference of the ordinary world to the high-flier” (Clay 1996, 78). In their conclusions to their poems both Ginsberg and Sexton assert that it is their very aberrance, their very sense of being apart and a part of society that can contribute something redemptive. The difference here is that while Ginsberg comes to accept himself as he is in “America,” and approvingly finds that self a good and useful one in effecting change, Sexton’s conclusion appears defiantly individual despite the disapprobation of the world. The ‘ego’ who seeks approval will someday be the leader of the authentic self. Sexton’s remarks to her psychiatrist reveal the lack of confidence in this direction, while confirming that this is, indeed, her direction.

“As a poet it may be better to be crazy than to be educated. But I doubt it.” (Middlebrook, Anne Sexton, 126) The distinction made by Michel de Certeau between ‘strategies,’ a system created by an individual to function within a society of which one is a part, and ‘tactics,’ techniques of coping from within a social system in “the space of the other” (De Certeau 1984, 25) is relevant here. Sexton pledges to continue to search, but she remains alone, alienated, resolved. She is not putting her shoulder to the wheel, joining in on her own terms with society’s struggle, but is seeing herself as the outsider who saves society, as the Joan of Arc of “Her Kind,” even at the expense of her own life.

With the general structure and direction of the poem in place we can return to the subject, which is as much poetry, poetic voices and goals, as ‘life.’ The setting, established early in the poem, is the arena of the presented self, the poetry reading:

Who’s that at the podium
in black and white,
blurting into the mike?
Ms. Dog.

The day is slipping away, why am I
out here, what do they want? (86-87)

Sexton’s brief essay, “The Freak Show,” deals with this alienation outright, but her estrangement from her presented ‘poetry persona’ and its association with her conception of her life as a solitary dramatic presentation appears most clearly in her posthumously collected poem, “The Play.” The problem with the play, as she points out, is its monologic nature:

The curtain falls.
The audience rushes out.
It was a bad performance.
That’s because I’m the only actor
and there are few humans whose lives
will make an interesting play.
Don’t you agree? (Sexton 1999, 440-1)

In both poems isolation and estrangement are presented clearly, and to deal with these complex inquiries into identity a dialogic structure is necessary, since identity is presented as something that can only be defined by others. If there is no other, there is no me.

In “The Play,” the audience is invited to become part of the dialogue if only to judge the failure of the performance, but in “Hurry Up,” the dialogue emerges from discussions with others, with the reader, as well as with parts of the selves. Carrie Noland has pointed out the fact that poetry, like other literary discourses, is dialogic, and for Sexton the need for an other in her poetry is desperate. Yet the dialogic nature of poetry is not usually observed because of the assumption of its lyrical and confessional character. When Sexton divides into two characters, Anne and “Ms. Dog,” it is to engage in a dialogue with herself, to analyze the nature of these identities. As Estella Lauter has pointed out, Sexton’s “later persona ‘Ms. Dog’ becomes a way of extending the parts of herself to and about whom she can speak....” (Lauter 1984, 27). This is no more an artificial dialogue than a dialogue in a novel.

There are several characters and personae here. The first and most distracting for some is the willfully exhibitionistic child, who wants to show her ‘cunny’ to little boys.

Why shouldn't I pull down my pants
and show my little cunny to Tom
and Albert? They wee-wee funny.
I wee-wee like a squaw. (9-12)

One of the first reviews of this poem found the word and the childlike tone totally exasperating. Clearly, however, Sexton was trying out something that Theodore Roethke had attempted in his “Praise to the End,” to revert to infancy, not only, as Steven E. Colburn argues, “to follow the associative leaps of the childhood imagination, with its intermingling of sensations, cognition, and fantasy” (unpublished, 1), but also to prove to what extent the child-poet is mother to the woman. This “new boldness… a refusal to be shamed into silence” (Lauter 1984, 25) is as much a dramatization of a poetic goal as a return to infancy For the boys here need to see her ‘cunny,’ the intimacy in her poetry, not because of her exhibitionism, but because of her awareness of the limitations of their awareness of the relativity of their vision. It is ‘they’ and not her who ‘wee-wee funny,’ but they have not been made aware of the ‘other.’ Although critics such as Ben Howard have said that the dominant voice of this volume is “that of the cute, defiant, and often naughty little girl…” (McClatchey 1978, 181) this tone masks defiance with an acceptable cuteness, and is not found in later stages of the poem. It appears to be regressive and exhibitionistic behavior, yet this childhood outburst develops into the basis of her poetics.

I have swallowed an orange, being woman.
You have swallowed a ruler, being man. (23-4)

This ‘simplistic’ definition of gender refers forward to the image of fruition in the myth of creation delineated in Sexton’s “Eighth Psalm” (Sexton 1999, 408), in which the goddess-woman of creation is ‘a magnitude…she is many,’ ‘well-pleased’ because she has ‘swallowed a bagful of oranges’ (93). The image of the male, on the other hand, is of penis-as-measuring-stick and as instrument-of-absolute-power. This gender distinction is also the basis of her poetics. Unlike the “bag of green apples” swallowed by the fearful pregnant speaker in Plath’s “Metaphors,” Sexton’s oranges are vaguely equated with fruition and nurturing, providing no answers but only images. Therefore her conclusions will not be conclusive in any way, will not provide a standard measuring stick for others.

Because the nurturing child-woman cannot seek answers, yet answers are still needed, there are other aspects of the poet, such as the multi-faceted Ms. Dog, frequently linked by critics to ‘man’s best friend’ as well as Eliot’s ‘foe to man’ who digs up dangerous secrets. There is also an obvious connection with Berryman’s Mr. Bones, the alter ego who allows a freedom of exploration and expression forbidden to the ‘proper’ individual. Ms. Dog appears in “Is It True?” from The Awful Rowing Towards God (Sexton 1999, 452) as possessed: “Ms. Dog, /Why is you evil? / It climbed into me./ It didn’t mean to.” But this is a controlled and willed possession which includes both the animalian and the divine: “I have for some time,/ called myself/ Ms. Dog./ Why? / Because I am almost animal/ and yet the animal I lost most -/ That animal is near to God, / but lost from Him” (“Is It True,” Sexton 1999, 448). Maxine Kumin confirms the biographical verity of this confession, noting Sexton’s love of palindromes, (Kumin 1999, xxx) and in “All God’s Children Need Radios,” her undisguised autobiographical narrator makes a complex association between herself and the dog,

“Oh Lord,” they said last night on TV, “the sea is so mighty and my dog is so small.” I heard dog. You say, they said boat not dog and that further dog would have no meaning. But it does mean. The sea is mother-death and she is a mighty female, the one who wins, the one who sucks us all up. Dog stands for me and the new puppy, Daisy.

Ms. Dog is the existential poet-ego and for Sexton this poetry ego is extremely complex –despite the apparently intimate nature of her work, her unique role was spokeswoman for ‘the madwoman in the attic,’ the ‘middle-aged witch.’ The editors of her Selected Poems note: “She served as ritual witness to the inner lives of large numbers of troubled people” (Sexton 1999, xx). This role was as confining as it was liberating. As Victoria Radin says in a review of Diane Middlebrook’s biography, “Craziness was Sexton’s public face” (Radin 1991, 46). And this face was reinforced by the approval of her readers. “Sexton’s craziness was inextricably rubbered on to her poetic persona: it was her subject. Actually getting well—when in addition to the therapist there were relays of aides, relations, lovers, a heroic husband and even two small mothering daughters—must have seemed even more crazy” (Radin 1991, 47). That this was a manufactured persona, a role differing only in public acceptance from her previous ‘mad’ self-conception as courtesan, is also clear. As Radin notes:

“…it is hard to see that Sexton ever really got away from that pre-therapeutic notion that prostitution was all she could be good at. Her poetry sold things she should have reserved; delivered with rehearsed catches and breaks, they were the equivalent of her faked orgasm.” (Radin 1991, 47)

Radin’s discussion here shows the relationship between what has been called “confessional poetry” and the new celebrity culture after the popularization of television. Elaine Kendall notes that in this period: “publicists had learned that the more intimate a star’s confession, the more widely his or her image could be disseminated” (Kendall 1962, 38). In discussing the relationship between exposure and intimacy in the poetry of Berryman, for example, David Haven Blake points out the significance of the appearance of exposure: Blake’s observation on Berryman, that “recognizing the relevance of fame to confessional poetry has serious implications to the ways in which we study and value this work” is, as he notes, significant in the works of his contemporaries (Blake 2001, 730).
Sexton too was very aware of this presentation of self. Middlebrook pointed out that Sexton always introduced her readings with the multi-pronouned, multi-perspectived, “Her Kind.” “I have been her kind” introduces herself both as a witch and as the analyst of this witch, the difference in “Hurry Up” is that she is trying to overcome the confinement of this mask, to begin a genuine exploration.

Although early in “Hurry Up,” she describes herself as a pond waiting for Novocain, Ms. Dog wishes for comfort, shelter and protection, yet continues to live the life of the Pobiz stripteaser, promoting her poems in readings that she perceives as a form of prostitution of integrity. It is a common division in Confessional poetry. Berryman and Plath write about it and Theodore Roethke’s “Lost Son” also finds himself at this point at the beginning of his search into the self, his ‘schizophrenic experience,’ and complains:

I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money. (100-1)

But Sexton’s is even more confusing a prostitution because it masquerades as ‘true confession,’ as ‘authentic’ for effect, and in an alienated third person she describes this masquerade onstage:

Is she spilling her guts?
You bet.
Otherwise they cough...

The need to dig into the depths of the self has become something of an imperative, and the imperative has become of itself inauthentic. This inauthenticity is also understood to be true of the bold sexuality that was beginning to be perceived by reviewers as ‘too much,’ and the ‘straw that broke this camel’s back.’ The inauthenticity, furthermore, is understood by Ms. Dog to be linked to the mutual lack of communication, a function of preconceived demands by the audience for sensationalism and show.

…what do they want?
I am sorrowful in November...
(no they don’t want that,
they want bee stings).
Toot, toot, tootsy don’t cry.
Toot, toot, tootsy good-bye.
If you don’t get a letter then
you’ll know I’m in jail...
Remember that, Skeezix,
our first song?

Reverting to Al Jolson is not only an escape, a Berrymanlike blackface mask of joy and rhythm concealing sorrow, but also a reminder that an absence of communication is a sign of imprisonment, and that this truth (half-hidden) even appears in the most ubiquitous arts. The vague allusions to Berryman, who had earlier that year committed suicide, are also concerned with the isolation and alienation exhibited in his poetry. However the Al Jolson quote is incomplete. The crucial line, the reassurance of reciprocity, felt in its absence, comes just after ‘goodbye’: “Watch for the mail, I’ll never fail.” This situation in which honest interchange and support are deemed insignificant or intolerable by others is an important contribution to her isolation. Mikhail Ann Long, writing about the suicidal tendencies of Sexton, builds on the concept of David Richman that suicide “itself is a communication…a cry for help, an appeal to others. What has been largely overlooked… is the reciprocal, two-way nature of communication.” Richman adds, “There also seems to be an imperviousness or non-reception to verbal messages from the suicidal person by the relatives” (Long 1993, 27). Long points out that in Sexton’s “Live or Die,” of which “Hurry Up” is a part, “the primary key to Sexton’s mood is that the people around her remain inhuman, or at best non-human, throughout the poem…” (Long 1993, 38-9). I prefer the term “complicity,” a social agreement not to recognize certain subjects, to keep the inner and outer selves separate. “In the last months of my mother’s life,” says Linda Gray Sexton, “I chose to ignore her cry of loneliness. I refused to make her last days less painful…” (Linda Gray Sexton 1994, 186). This is what Laing calls ‘transpersonal invalidation,’ adding, “This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time” (Laing 1967, 31). The alternative to inauthentic communication, however, is total isolation, an even more frightening state. In Plath’s “Daddy,” isolation is freedom: “So daddy, I’m finally through./ The black telephone’s off at the root,/ The voices just can’t worm through” (Plath 1981, 224). This assertion of freedom, however, is turned in Sexton’s poem to a proof of punishment, as she steals and transforms Plath’s state: “Them phones gonna be torn out at the root.” Sexton’s next, qualifying lines are: “There’s power in the Lord, baby, and he’s gonna turn off the moon” (144-5).
What appears as a victory over the other in Plath’s “Daddy” is in “Hurry Up” a terrible threat. And the result, total isolation, is also adapted from an image from Plath: “But they pulled me out of the sack,/ And they stuck me together with glue,” writes Plath, referring to the failure of her suicide attempt. And Sexton metaphorizes Plath’s literal sack as a state of suicidal estrangement: “There’s a sack over my head. /I can’t see. I’m blind” (151-2).

Throughout Sexton’s poetry there are unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the other, and the failure throws the speaker back into a world in which there are no solutions. An early example is “Music Swims Back to Me” (Sexton 1999, 6) in which the failure of the “Mister” to respond results in the closed framework of the poem – beginning with “Wait, Mister” and ending with “Mister?”. Here it is a disconnected experience of isolation, but in “Hurry Up Please,” the borders of complicity are understood as given. Complicity is assumed here not because the speaker has gone out of her mind and the others are needed for an anchor, but because she cannot perform, cannot present her audience with what she thinks they want, cannot really be what they need her to be. It is her very identity that is rejected

Behind Ms. Dog is “Anne,” weary and “sorrowful in November,” knowing her role in the complicity, knowing her audience wants “bee stings” ?- powerful, compressed, painful and formal verse, ‘confessions’ that no longer reflect her situation. Even the reader here is implicated as a victimizer, a kind of Plathian “Daddy.” “And you too! Wants to stuff her in a cold shoe/ and then amputate the foot” (321-2). Plath opens her famous poem with an address to the father that strangely places the reader in the role as father:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot (Plath 1981, 222 )

Plath’s suicide (and her own potential demise) is clearly seen by Sexton as at least partly caused by external forces. The parallels between Sexton’s alteration of Plath and a citation in Politics of Experience are surprising. “Men do not become what by nature they are meant to be, but what society makes them…generous feelings…are, as it were, shrunk up, seared, violently wrenched, and amputated to fit us for our intercourse with the world, something in the manner that beggars maim and mutilate their children to make them fit for the future situation in life”

Expectations of the audience must have played a very large part in the new conception of the role of the woman poet, and examination of this subject is not only a personal matter but one basic to the woman poet. As Jane Hedley has recently noted: “Sexton’s transgressiveness involved not only her themes or subject matter; it also had to do with the positioning of her poems’ aggressively female speakers” (Hedley 2000, 98). Sexton also seems to have been aware that Plath’s demise was at least in part caused by the poetic limitations imposed by her audience during her life. Sexton’s speaker here is clearly unwilling to live (and die) like Plath, apparently wanting not only the separation from the father/reader, but also a new integration, not to get rid of Ms. Dog, but to be able to use her to develop Anne.
This delineation of the separate selves, later to find a new integration is in fact the basis for the structure of this poem, a structure which may well be as organized as her earlier ‘workshop’ poems were, but without a narrative or logical principle. The integration begins midway in the poem, as the images from the first half are completed in the second. The sack of the first half that covers her head and blinds her (151-2) is escaped:

I am a fortunate lady.
I’ve gotten out of my pouch

This integration is also reflected in the parallel images and their context. Morning rituals early in the poem sap her energy, so that even the toast is demanding.

I must butter the toast.
And give it jam too.
My kitchen is a heart.
I must feed it oxygen once in a while
and mother the mother.

But from this imperative of nurturing she moves to the religious joy of being nurtured as the poem nears its conclusion and life begins again:

Once upon a time we were all born,
popped out like jelly rolls
forgetting our fishdom,
the pleasuring seas,
the country of comfort,
spanked into the oxygens of death,
Good morning life, we say when we wake,
hail mary coffee toast
and we Americans take juice,
a liquid sun going down.
Good morning life.
To wake up is to be born. (245-257)

The same activity that was seen as ‘mothering the mother’ is now birthing the self. Oxygen fed to the world is now part of the birth/death image equated. From trying to fish, the imagery transforms the speaker to one fished.
Yet the entire construction is too pat, too much like a planned poem. At this point of integration the speaker turns, not to another, but to herself, if only to laugh at her poem and the formulaic structure it has followed:

Middle-class lady,
you make me smile.
You dig a hole
and come out with a sun burn.
If someone hands you a glass of water
you start constructing a sailboat.
If someone hands you a candy wrapper,
you take it to the book binder.

The glib Ms. Dog, then, has only solved the problem poetically. And from the selling of packaged phrases the focus changes to learning primary language, to trying to approach the divine, to her baby’s first word, “utter.” Baby language in Roethke was a sign of deep regression into a pre-conscious state. In an interesting twist Sexton uses the most adult, maternal language possible to describe objectively her daughter’s first word, ‘utter,’ the beginning of speech as a complete experience.
Learning to talk is a complex business.

My daughter's first word was utta,
meaning button.
Before there are words
do you dream? (285-289)

Sexton’s language consciously and purposely broadens to include all the languages of the self.
The still-present need and the artificiality and the limitations of overcoming the complicity of isolation remain.

When the dog barks you let him in.
All we need is someone to let us in.
And one other thing:
to consider the lilies in the field.
Of course earth is a stranger, we pull at its
arms and still it won’t speak. (331-336)

What has changed is the awareness that her quest has become valid and even possible, not in spite of her madness and her poetic prostitution, but because of it. And it is not a personal quest alone. The references in this poem to works of other poets such as Roethke, Berryman and Plath indicate that by incorporating their quests her own quest becomes archetypal and she might learn to transcend their curtailment. She will risk Prufrock’s “overwhelming question,” and will try to surpass the goals of “The Wasteland.” Eliot’s Sybil wishes only to die, and "The Wasteland" later is resolved only through acceptance, but Sexton’s poem seeks to go beyond acceptance to resolution. She is resolved to transform the nature of life and her poetry, and the search itself becomes an attempt at integration of the self, successful or not. Although ‘living’ is initially attached to Pobiz and ‘fighting dollars,’ it comes to address the quest to use her poetry to create life out of the desire for death.

The need to get “straight with the Maker” is a need that is if not fulfilled, at least accepted in the course of the poem, and all who search , however awkwardly and misguidedly, are equally heroic. From the deep center of the poem which describes in Roethkean images the experience of negation of the self by others,

When mother left the room
and left me in the big black
and sent away my kitty
to be fried in the camps
and took away my blanket
to wash the me out of it
I lay in the soiled cold and prayed.
It was a little jail in which
I was never slapped with kisses.

I was the engine that couldn’t.
(168-177) …

there is an unexplained movement toward the acceptance of all selves, a validation for all quests, a waking into the world after a schizophrenic experience that is unlike Roethke’s recovery in “The Lost Son,” “as my own tongue kissed my lips awake” (Roethke 1966, 56) only in that it is consciously archetypal. It is this universality towards which the concluding images lead:

There is the hand of a small child
when you’re crossing the street.
There is the old man’s last words:
More light! More light!

By evening out the cultural hierarchy, equating the mutual comfort of holding a child’s hand with Goethe’s dying hunger for ‘more light,’ the poem makes individual and disparate quests equally valuable, with only one kind of quest rendered unworthy. Returning to the image of exhibitionistic flaunting which begins the poem she comments on Goethe and the comfort of a child:

Ms. Dog wouldn’t give them her buttocks.
She wouldn’t moon at them.
Just at the killers of the dream.

The use of popular culture alongside contemporary poetry and philosophy, as well as the incorporation of different and dissenting voices, then, is quite central to the argument of “Hurry Up,” as well as to many other works and performances by Sexton. This incorporation has been recently seen in a study of Sexton’s teaching methods as well. Alienation both within the individual and among members of society is ubiquitous and the crazy renegade woman poet is the most attuned to it, and therefore is most appropriate to lead the search for a solution. This is the validation of the dream, no matter how sloppy, crazy, and unpoetic it might be, and this is the recognition of its popular ubiquity.24

Liz Hankins has argued that this poem is concerned with a reaffirmation of the body, and states: “She transcends history, rationality, society, and assumes her own unique identity—she becomes through her body and its parts” (Hankins 1987, 512). However, it should be clear that the body is not the end, but the means of communication. Showing her buttocks here or her nudity to the delivery boy is neither exhibitionism, nor confession nor revenge, but communication through the body. At the beginning of the poem the function of stripping is at first derisive mooning (What is death, I ask. / What is life, you ask. /I give them both my buttocks, / my two wheels rolling off toward Nirvana: (1-4)

Why shouldn’t I pull down my pants
and moon the executioner
as well as paste raisins on my breasts?
Why shouldn’t I pull down my pants
and show my little cunny to Tom
and Albert? They wee-wee funny.
I wee-wee like a squaw.

Later it becomes an acknowledgment of a hidden difference that has to be acknowledged and incorporated. Naked, the speaker here can dare to seek what is hidden in the world. Naked also, the lack of a “ruler” is acknowledged and flaunted. This absence of a standard for measurement becomes the basis for the acknowledged rationale of the poem itself. “But more than that,” Sexton’s speaker concludes, “to worship the question itself” (344).

This resolution to stand naked before questions is certainly part of Sexton’s final years. Paula Salvio’s brilliant analysis of Sexton’s pedagogical techniques in her last workshop notes that Sexton assigned students to write an imagined interview with her, a question a week. The emphasis on the question left her consistently vulnerable, and necessitated the apparently open form of some of her later poems.
The conclusion of this poem is very similar to the way in which critics such Lynette McGrath and William Shurr perceive Sexton’s suicide. It is presented as a daring quest, a leap of faith. Shurr writes: “Should there be no light beyond, at least the adventurer has left behind a vision of sublime light” (Shurr 1985, 353-4). Had Sexton not committed suicide, it would have been easier to perceive the argument of “Hurry Up Please It’s Time” in its positive direction. But as Laing reminds us:

The experience of being the actual medium for a continual process of creation takes one past all depression or persecution or vain glory, past, even, chaos or emptiness, into the very mystery of that continual flip of non-being into being, and can be the occasion of that great liberation when one makes the transition from being afraid of nothing, to the realisation that there is nothing to fear. Nevertheless, it is very easy to lose one’s way at any stage, and especially when one is nearest. (Laing 1967, 38)

Despite the fact that she indeed did lose her way, in this poem at least Sexton appears very near. Her placing of “Hurry Up” in The Death Notebooks after the poems concerning her anger and frustrations and before “O Ye Tongues” which alternate psalms of creation with psalms of explanation, makes it a pivotal one for the awareness in this book that the speaker is seeking to take control of existence, of creating a new world by proclamation. Despite her awareness that she was perceived by others as lacking ‘taste,’ and despite her internalization of this deep criticism, she was determined to find her own way. Her use of the popular culture surrounding her—as opposed to the elitist culture of modernism—was part of her attempted redefinition of culture, her act of insurrection.

*Since this article concentrates so closely on “Hurry Up, Please, It’s Time,” quotations from this poem only will be referred to by line numbers. All other quotations from poetry are referenced by page number.

1. See for example the discussion of Sexton by the Poetry Society of America in “Anne Sexton: The Life vs. the Work” (http://www.poetry

2. That Laing was already a household word in Sexton’s lifetime is clear from the way he is dismissed in Howard Moss’s introduction to The Poet’s Story (xi). “Dr. Laing is shedding light on a problem Chekhov already understood…”

3. The scene of the vampire impaled on a stake and the villagers’ revenge was so popular in foreign classic vampire films it was parodied in Polanski’s 1967 classic, The Fearless Vampire Killers

4. For more academic discussions of this distinction, see the works of Ludwig Binswanger and Rollo May.

5. For the sense of ongoing identification readers still have with this comic strip, one need only read the fan letters at .

6. Robert Secor has noted that Thurber’s Mitty “is awakened from his dream by the mundane cares of ordinary life.” (Secor 1987, 74)

7. I mention the actors and not the characters because of the key role they as stereotypes from other films play in Mitty’s fantasy.

8. I will not here deal with another important element of the film. The psychiatrist in the film - who tries to convince Mitty by using his authority and other manipulations that Mitty has actually lost his ability to identify and control reality - is actually one of the villains in the film. Boris Karloff playing the psychiatrist is of course in actuality part of the Nazi spy ring, and his function is to keep Mitty from understanding that his actions in the past days have been real and significant ones. This transformation of the apparent trustworthy guide to reality into the miscreant and criminal must have made some impact on Sexton’s evaluation of recent events with her own psychiatrist.

9. Morton has noted the progress in the use of this prayer, (Morton 1989, 110).

10. “If, as Bakhtin states, the ‘dialogic orientation of discourse is a phenomenon that is, of course, a property of any discourse, then poetry, too, must retain the trace of other types of contemporary discursive practice”(Noland 1999, 41).

11. See George, who equates the Orange of “Psalm 8” with language, “especially the language of poetry that operates by the creation of metaphor and images—another gestation, another birthing” (George 1985, 370).

12. I disagree here with Carolyn King who associates the name as "possibly a descendent of Eliot's Wasteland dog... whose activity underscores both the attempt to bury memory and the failure of faith in resurrection and thus in ultimacy of life" (King 1989, 137). Certainly in this poem, Ms. Dog doesn't seem to have that function.

13. The full noting in her diary of Nov. 19, 1971 is as follows:
“Oh Lord,” they said last night on TV, “the sea is so mighty and my dog is so small.” I heard dog. You say, they said boat not dog and that further dog would have no meaning. But it does mean. The sea is mother-death and she is a mighty female, the one who wins, the one who sucks us all up. Dog stands for me and the new puppy, Daisy. ..Me and my dog, my Dalmatian dog, against the world… “My dog is so small” means that even the two of us will be stamped under. Further, dog is what’s in the sky on winter mornings. Sun-dogs springing back and forth across the sky. But we dogs are small and the sun will burn us down and the sea has our number. Oh Lord, the sea is so mighty and my dog is so small, my dog whom I sail with into the west. The sea is mother, larger than Asia, both lowering their large breasts onto the coastline. Thus we ride on her praying for good moods and a smile in the heavens. She is mighty, oh Lord, but I wish my little puppy, Daisy, remain a child.
Too complicated, eh?”

14. Middlebrook’s point is somewhat different, noting that the use of multiple pronouns "conveys the terms on which she wishes to be understood: not victim, but witness and witch" (Middlebrook 1989, 449).

15. As Louis Simpson called it, referring to “Menstruation at Forty” (quoted in Kumin 1999, xix-xx).

16. The full chorus of the song written by G. Kahn, E. Erdman, D. Russo, and T. Fiorito and performed by Al Jolson in blackface is:
“Toot, toot, Tootsie, don't cry,
The choo choo train that takes me,
Away from you, no words can tell how sad it makes me,
Kiss me, Tootsie, and then,
Do it over again.
Watch for the mail, I'll never fail,
If you don't get a letter then you'll know I'm in jail,
Tut, tut, Tootsie, don't cry,
Toot, toot, Tootsie, Goo' bye!”

17. The guilt of complicity marks Linda Sexton’s autobiography. One example: “Daddy and I pretended nothing was happening: if we pretended maybe we could make it so” (Linda Gray Sexton 1994, 111).

18. See Cam.

19. E. Colby (ed.) The Life of Thomas Holcroft, continued by William Hazlitt (London: Constable & Co., 1925) Volume II, page 82,quoted in Laing, 55-6).

20. Estella Lauter has pointed out that ”Sexton’s quest is best understood…in terms of archetypal psychology, as an act of ‘ ‘soul-making’ – that is, the effort to find the connections between life and the fantasy images that are our ‘privileged mode of access’ to the soul and to those recurring worldwide figures who are tantamount to gods” (Lauter 1984, 24).

21. One parallel, “When mother left the room / and left me in the big black/ and sent away my kitty/ to be fried in the camps” (390) sounds like something of a summary of Roethke’s “Praise to the End.”

22. The pervasive influence of T.S. Eliot has been extensively noted by Caroline King, but one of the aspects of “The Wasteland” with which Sexton most identifies and which most influences her here is the division of aspects of the self into different and potentially regenerative personalities, and the need for a reintegration. Another influence here is Roethke's "I have married my hands to perpetual agitation/I run, I run to the whistle of money" (Roethke 1966, 56).

23. Paula Salvio in studying Sexton’s teaching methods comes to this conclusion: "By reading Sexton's teaching life through cultural texts that refuse to privilege high culture as the locus of political opposition, Sexton's pedagogic documents can be used to cue educators to develop more refined tastes for irony, parody, and the grotesque so that we might re-define the limited tastes that represent 'rationality' and emotional reliability in our classrooms" (Salvio 1999, 660).

24. Not all readers are puzzled by this – Robert Boyers, for example, early noted: “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 honest” (Boyers 1967, 71). Sexton also asked this:
The cry of a gull is beautiful
and the cry of a crow is ugly
but what I want to know
is whether they mean the same thing

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Thái Bình: Great Peace by Kevin Bowen, Pressed Wafer, 2009, $12.00, paper, ISBN978-0-9785156-8-3.

(Kevin Bowen)

Thái Bình: Great Peace by Kevin Bowen, Pressed Wafer, 2009, $12.00,

Review by Bert Stern PhD.

Kevin Bowen’s new, full collection, his fourth, asks less to be reviewed than to be celebrated. It gathers together the best of Bowen’s Vietnam poems, old and new, into a single volume that becomes a single, flowing poem. The individual poems are extraordinary in several ways. For one, Bowen makes us see hear, feel, and above all, see – which, as Joseph Conrad said, is “everything.” Examples of Bowen’s evocative precision are everywhere. In “Sailing to Thai Binh,” for example:

Who would have thought so much cold
this far south? Early morning we drive
Route Five, the great wide mouth
of the Red River opening before us.
Miles of wet fields stretch to the vanishing point.
The farmers who tend them have bent
their bodies already for hours to earth.
They wear red bandannas around their necks,
bundle for warmth in the rhythm of flood
and mud and rain, planting the last winter rice.

Inside Thai Binh, a war-crippled husband

. . . curls up under the blanket on the wooden bed,
the knots of his legs tuck up toward his knees.
His wife sits besides him. She rocks back and forth.

(“Postcards From Thai Binh”)

The book is full of such images of patient toil and and of suffering endured. The perspective is of a land slowly healing from war, as in “Road to Xa Ma”: “By a spring near a clearing, a tree split in half by a bomb, / quietly growing back.” But what it grows back out of is powerfully present in the many glimpses we get of the poisons in the earth and of physical and psychic war wounds still carried by Vietnamese people. Included with what Bowen sees are the gazes of mothers looking back at him through their dead sons.

We experience these scenes as Bowen experienced them on his many visits to Vietnam, and in the heart-to-heart contact he made with writers and non-writers alike. Some of these scenes are shadowed with old fears and angers, and in some cases officials stand in the way of human exchange and understanding. But the thrust of the book is overwhelming compassionate interest in the country and people he once fought to destroy.

Bowen, who served in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division during 1968-69, has worked tirelessly at peace-making on a human scale, through his work as director of the William Joiner Center, which he co-founded; in the translation projects the Center has made possible; and in his own writing. His compassion is all the keener because he carries in himself the same wounds he observes in others. A poem from an earlier collection – Not on the Map, 1996 –seems to bear directly on Bowen’s personal experience. After describing what it’s like to be in the vicinity of an incoming mortar round, Bowen concludes:

. . .it takes a life time to recover,
let out the last breath
you took as you dove.
That is why you’ll see them sometimes
in malls, men and women off in corners:
the ways they stare through windows in silence.

Thái Bình probes the wound down to the depths where it resides and sometimes celebrates a moment of healing. In “Fish Bladder Soup,” for example, as Americans and Vietnamese gather over a meal, “Something dark / inside us swims away.” But in other poems, like “The Le Thai Gardens,” the darkness remains:

History went through here on a black horse
& cut down everything in sight:
the women at the well, the dog in the yard,
it had no mercy.

All day the men feel like rain
from the sky & the women wept
as the guns lifted the lids from their eyes. . . .

The women grieve, but for the men it is different:

. . . they turned their backs
like helmets to the walls
& shut out their terrible screaming.

At night now the men’s hands
become great baskets of fish
laughing up at them
& the coma
they have yet to fall out of.


In “Dioxin Song,” the speaker wonders how many there are of these

children born into those twisted forms,
children with fins where arms ought to be, toes and legs

sprouting like flowers from their chests.”

“Somewhere,” he concludes that

. . . they too float in the sky above us.
Somewhere what doesn’t die
lives on in silent rage.

Even a moment of ordinary tranquility – a boat ride down the river at nightfall – can startlingly open to terror:

Darkness crawls up,
down river.
Lamps lit to draw fish.
Starred nets dropping.

Let us in, let us in, the dead call.
Their hands reach up, reach up.”
(“Bend in the River,” p. 14)

In several poems, women are the carriers of darkness defeated, if only for a moment:

A young girl sings in the green light:
songs of leaves on the river,
evening rain.
(“Songs in a Green Light”)

A line of female road workers

. . .keep eyes always steady
intent on the road before them,
only now and then a glance darting back,

a word, a joke passed up and down the line
and then the soft laughter
which floats off after.
(“Female Road Workers)

We catch glimpses of pastoral, nearly timeless village life, as in “Road to Son Tay,” where

. . .A woman runs gracefully across a field,
the bottoms of her pants skirting mud and dust,
a young girl follows, her pants rolled up like a temple
dancer’s sampots.
In her arms, she carries a bouquet of sugar canes. . . .

Nearly everything sparkles in this poem of people laboring: red and purple umbrellas,” “green stalks, yellow stalks, “patches of Eucalyptus, banana, pepper trees,” ducks moving
in file like lines of monks in procession,” “a lone water buffalo [that] stretches / forward toward the last afternoon sunlight. . . .” All this, delicately shaded in the last lines, where

the tired buffalo [lays] itself down,
head looking west to hills, stacked sheaves,
and graves.

These poems can open to the mythic, as in the opening poem, “The Snail Gatherers of Co Loa Thanh,” where shadowy figures gathering snails outside Bowen’s hotel window suggest renewal (“The snails of Loa Thanh back again”) and they echo the legendary construction of the city, “carved / from carcasses of shells,” made possible by a golden tortoise’s gift of arms that drive out obstructing spirits. Yet Bowen’s poem, while echoing to the myth, ends with a kind of resigned nod to the enormity of the spirits: “And we without our bows.”

Yet to this reader, these poems, pellucid and existential, are bows. In a recent newsletter from the Joiner Center, Bowen wrote:

we need to remind ourselves of the good done each day by those who work to educate against hatred, create environments for free and open inquiry, and promote peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Thái Bình reminds us how much we owe to such workers. Seventy years ago W. H. Auden famously announced that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Perhaps he’s right. But few readers of Thai Binh will think so.


* Bert Stern was born in Buffalo, New York in 1930. He was educated at the University of Buffalo, Columbia,and at Indiana University, where he earned his Ph.D. in English.

Stern taught for forty years at Wabash College, where he is now Milligan Professor of English, Emeritus. He also taught from 1965-67 at the University of Thessaloniki and from 1984-85 at Peking University. He presently teaches in the Changing Lives Through Literature program.

His poems have been published in New Letters, The American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Poetry, Spoon River Poetry Review, among others, and in a number of anthologies. His chapbook, Silk/The Ragpicker's Grandson, was published by Red Dust in 1998. His essays and reviews have appeared in Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Modern Language Review, The New Republic, Southern Review, Columbia Teachers’ College Record, Adirondack Life, and in a number of anthologies. His critical study, Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1965.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Biker Poet Jose Gouveia: Drive your motorcycle across Mt. Rushmore, and leave a skid mark mustache on George Washington’s face.

Biker Poet Jose Gouveia: Drive your motorcycle across Mt. Rushmore, and leave a skid mark mustache on George Washington’s face.

Jose “Jo Go” Gouveia, like more than a few Somerville residents is a first generation Portuguese-American. He resides on Cape Cod and has been published in six countries and four continents. He is a member of the Highway Poets Motorcycle Club and founder of the Biker Poets & Writers Association. He recently edited a biker’s poetry anthology: “Rubber Side Down.” Poet Martin Espada says of his work: “Jose Gouveia’s poetry rolls and roars into our collective imagination.” I spoke with Gouveia on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You dedicated the anthology to Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson. Why?

Jose Gouveia: Colorado T. Sky who was part of the Boston poetry scene back in the 80’s, started the Highway Poet’s Motorcycle Club in the 1970’s. He was sitting with about six or seven poets in a place called Bald Spot, Colorado. It was a hippie commune. They were biking through one day and ran into a bunch of hippies and among them was Hunter S. Thompson. Sky announced his idea for publishing Bikers and Thompson said: “I’m all for that idea.” So they proceeded to have a poetry slam between the hippies and the bikers. The bikers were doing nasty off- the- wall stuff, while the hippies were doing the peace and love thing. So it really touched Sky that Hunter S. Thompson was there and gave him his nod of approval. Then, a number of years later he was doing a radio show with Allen Ginsberg in the Boston area, and Ginsberg said that the bikers could be the next Beat Generation. Sky was taken aback by this comment. He looked down at his coffee and Ginsberg was gone. Sky looked outside, in the men's room, and wondered where Ginsberg went. It was like Ginsberg gave his blessing and vanished into thin air.

DH: You said that the acclaimed poet Martin Espada encouraged you to continue when you were about to give up.

JG: We were trying to get submissions, write grants, nobody wanted to give money to bikers, much less poets. Espada kept encouraging me. He said this is an important book--nothing like this has ever been done. I went to a party at Marge Piercy's (poet and founder of Leap Frog Press) and she encouraged me as well.

She and her husband Ira gave me the name of a friend of theirs in California who owns a small press and also happens to be a biker. And sure enough he published us.

DH: What are the defining characteristics of biker poetry?

JG: One of the other editors, and a good friend, Peddler Bridges got into an argument with me about this all the time. I don't see it as a genre I see it as a movement. Peddler sees it as a genre. If you look at the book there is everything from free verse to formal poetry.

The thing that biker poets share in common isn't so much our writing, or how we write, but it is our passion for the open road and motorcycles. As long as the poem is in some way about motorcycles you are in. There is really no requirement about how you have to write. Half the book is meant to be performance poetry, and it’s meant to be written. In the tradition of Whitman the poetry is celebratory. Celebrating the road, celebrating the freedom.

DH: Allen Ginsberg said" The Highway Poets could be for their generation what Beat Poets were for ours." Has this panned out?

JG: Not yet. When I look at what they were doing--cross country road trips--well, there are a few bikers doing that, but we are not all doing it. The Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassidy were doing it together as a group. Today poets are on the Internet. 60% to 70% of the poets I have met are from the Internet.

DH: In her poem "The Desert Motorcyclist" Diane Wakoski writes: “ Desert motorcyclist:/that is me/ and it is the man/never the machine/who betrays me."

Is biker poetry a response to the constraints of society and its false promises?

JG: Very much so. That's the thing we write about in one way or the other.
DH: How did you solicit poetry?

JG: I sent out emails to all the newspapers that I could think of that were based in vibrant art scenes. I also contact people who I met online, whose work I liked. One of the problems I had was that many of the poems I got were basically the same poem. They all could have been titled: "The Wind In My Hair." That's cliché...Come on! Drive your motorcycle across Mt. Rushmore and leave your skid marks across George Washington's upper lip, while cursing him out for being a Federalist!

DH: So you fly in the face of conventional notions of the biker as an illiterate, violent, Hell's Angels type of guy?

JG: Colorado T. Sky. is a lifelong biker and looks like one. He is a gentle guy, a professor, one of the best poets I met. He is quite the humanist actually. And I think you will find that throughout the book.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Universe Distrubed (Second Edition) by Janice Brabaw

Universe Distrubed (Second Edition)

by Janice B.

Tangled Up In Blue, $14, Copyright © 2008 by Janice L. Babaw


Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Janice B. (Janice L. Brabaw) is well into womanhood, but her poems are recollections of her teenage years, years that if true, are not pretty or happy, years in which she attempted suicide, years in which she was raped, years in which romance seemed to fail at every corner. Reading her poetry – sometimes mature, sometimes not – it is difficult to decide if she is, to be blunt, off, or whether to feel sorry for her.

Take for example: Prom Queen

They called my name and for a moment

just a moment, I thought it was real

me, prom queen – my breath caught.

But then, realization

They mock me – they hurt me

make me cry.

People I thought were friends humiliate me

I'll never be prom queen

and they'll always be laughing at me

Leave me alone to freeze in the cold

the fat pretend prom queen.

Oh, yes, there is lots of blood too in her poetry. If you want to understand Brabaw she makes it clear: "Kill me/Throw me on the floor and stab me/ watch me die/in a puddle of my own blood."

Or there is the poem "escape" in which she lays it out again

white hot suicide – quicksilver

and cold steel blades

white pale flesh

and cold spilled blood ----

that drips from the wound

to a scarlet puddle on the floor

Ah, read on, you will find many a harrowing poem, sad notes like dirges, open wounds, confessions of anguish and occasional happy lines because even sad poems look for hope.

She does, (as you will find in the poems), look forward to old age, or bright light, or romance or love, even if it is all weighted down by the heavy specter of unhappiness, misery or death.

Universe Disturbed is by a poet who tells it as it is from her point of view. It is not an easy read because it hits you in the gut – hard.

Zvi Sesling/Ibbetson Update


OR SO IT SEEMS. PAUL STEVEN STONE. (Blind Elephant Press Cambridge, Mass.) $20.

If you like novels about Brooklyn-born, neurotic, Hindu, Woody Allenish, self-questioning guys with an active fantasy life, then you should get your hot little hands on Paul Steven Stone’s “Or So It Seems.” Stone, by day, a mild- mannered Cambridge-based advertising consultant (and a member of Somerville’s Bagel Bards) has penned a novel that centers on a character Paul Peterson, a mild - mannered advertising executive, and a former member of “The Seekers of Truth,” a cult-like school of self-development. Peterson is decidedly in the camp that believes “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thus this book, in a very nonlinear fashion, examines a chain of events in the life of this middle-aged “Seeker” through a mystical prism of Hindu/Karmic jargon and sensibility.

The book’s beginning and focal point is set in a shabby Plymouth, Mass. apartment where the hapless protagonist is being dragged to an equally shabby couch for a carnal encounter with a mousy schoolteacher in heat. Throughout the novel Peterson is in constant contact with a laughing, ethereal Hindu holy man, who acts as a one man Greek Chorus to Peterson’s illusion, namely: “Life.”

Now you got to stick with this book, it has many rewards. Stone has Peterson going back and forth in time (hey—time is an illusion, right?) to the many events of his life: his divorce, his sorry relationship with an embittered father, his doting concern for his young son, etc… The book is certainly no dry spiritual tract, with stick figure characters pointing to ideology with big ham fists. Stone, has a way with words, a good satirist’s eye, and some of his best stuff is the descriptions of the ad agency where he works, his long exegesis of a single’s dance, the dissection of his failed relationship with his wife, and his bitter relationship to an angry, frustrated, deceased, father.

Having been a regular at a sad series of single dances years ago I appreciated Stone’s take on them. Here is a smoke and mirrors description of the clever deception one finds at these venues:

“ I remember like the fragment of some surreal dream a dance where the light ran amuck. Someone with a warped sense of humor must have taken control of the master dimmer-switch because for most of the evening, at moment when you least expected it, the lights would suddenly shift from dim to bright, instantly revealing a room full of shockingly older single men and women, far less attractive than those that had been attending the dance just moments earlier.

It was if monsters had been lurking in the shadows waiting to be cruelly exposed as soon as the frightmaster turned up the lights. What was even more unsettling was the way those ghastly apparitions melted from sight, back into hiding, once the lights were turned down again.”

And in this passage Stone describes the décor of the Boston Ad Agency his hero works in:

“ Now tell me what you think of these colorful arrangements of colorful shapes on the walls? Reminds me of the crayon drawings I did when I was a mere kindergarten artist. These are Hauschengaads, genuine originals or so I have been told. Have you heard of him, Hauschengaad? Big name in Confusion art?

Around here we have difficulty pronouncing his name so we call him “Who-should-care!” The general consensus that road kill mounted on the wall would be generally preferable to these original and highly eruptive Hauschengaards. But most of us are biased, you must realize, since we cannot help but associate the unwitting artist with the tasteless owners responsible for plastering his work all over our office walls.

Art collectors?

Who do they think they are kidding?

They purchase art as an investment whose tax liability magically disappears when it gets listed as office décor rather than partner enrichment.”

Stone’s novel’s conceit is an interesting one. He is constantly stepping back from the material world with his nonmaterial Hindu master to survey the scene. The most ordinary situation reveals profound truths about the human condition, and all our lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation.

Stone revealed to me over bagels one morning that David Godine, the well-regarded publisher, told him that a book like his is next to impossible to pull off well. I think Stone proved him wrong.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ Jan. 2009/ Somerville, Mass.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review of poetry collections by Mnookin, Marbrook, and Stern


Far from Algiers: Djelloul Marbrook
Winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize
Published by: The Kent State University Press, 2008

Marbrook has written an angry, beautiful collection; it’s topics often dwell on the fury of the outsider, the fatherless boy, the foreigner. By turns snide and pleading, Marbrook quickly transitions from “Djelloul/ what kind of a name is that? I invite you to notice that is the sound of deportation,” to “I am to the left of belonging/forlorn, bereft and looking in.”

Marbrook says he was prompted to return to poetry after the 9/11 attacks. The poems are steeped in the romance of an Arab culture utterly different than the clichés of terrorism. Marbrook’s exile from his heritage in Algiers shows in the poems longing for “Granadan windows, battlements, places of which strangers smell” and “A Moorish garden in al-Andalus /where an old man is watching/aspens write on walls.”

Ultimately, the collection attacks on behalf of the obscure and exiled, but also attacks the idea that any of us belong where we are. “I’ve nothing to complain about/ except the poignant delusion/ that some of us belong and/ must be vigilant for those/ who live among us in disguise“

The Moon Makes its Own Plea: Wendy Mnookin
Published by: BOA Editions, ltd.

Mnookin’s style is deceptively direct—her words never obfuscate simple beauties “I love tomatoes/ on the vine, their smell of dirt and heat” and “a house finch darts from hollyhock to hollyhock/ bending each tall stem.” Taken whole, the poems grow into a look at the kaleidoscope of love and domesticity, the routines that seem to last forever till they’re abruptly over:

You said a pond of peaches
And I took them
From your hands, I floated

if I did, and what else
I might have done—
Some slight, some lack
That gave you the tumor

While I stood around
Like the desert, refusing you water,
Even a mirage of water.

These poems are a moving record of transient pleasures and sorrows—and by the end of the book, the title poem “The Moon Makes its Own Plea” –- “Nothing gets done/except existence” it’s not the fate of the few to spend their days entirely on impermanent things: It’s the fate of everyone, from the white lilacs to the moon itself.

Mnookin’s poems have been published in a number of journals, but the effect of the collection as a whole is powerful. If a single poem is about the loss of a friend, husband or pet, the book as a whole is about the growth from an immature to mature self—and the losses and gains of every kind the process involves. The Moon Makes its Own Plea is not, finally, a book of loss, but shifting, reorganization, and pleasure.

Armature: Sharon Stern

The most moving line in Sharon Stern’s Armature—“I know how to bite the bullet/but I have no taste for it” sets the tone for this collection. The poet alludes frequently to the childhood polio that left her paralyzed and in pain, occasionally in sorrowful poems like “One”:

I don’t even know
how tightly
I can be held
brittle bones
and metal rods
and all

but it’s not a problem
there has been
no one
to do it.

More often, the context of suffering gives Stern a kind of extra sensitivity to the pain of others, and to the meaning and beauty of acts of compassion, as precise as taking care of frightened sparrows trapped indoors (daunted to confusion), or moments of pleasure as small and yet momentous as winning a game of computer solitaire (a ghoulish game!) on the first day of the new millennium.

Each poem is dated, from September of 1988 to August 2002. As I read I found myself in a strange historical countdown to the moment I knew the poetry would register the shock of September, 2001. Stern’s heart, in its softness and strength, seemed peculiarly tuned to this exact sort of wound, both general and personal, public and private.

I once carried the world on my shoulders
Now I carry the World Trade Center.
It weighs heavy on my stricken back.

Despite the hardship and sadness—a combination that creates its own rage and fine observation, Stern finishes the collection with a light, almost humorous summation
“If I had no cat/I would have left it at that.”

--CATHERINE NICHOLS is a writer residing in Somerville, Mass. You might catch her writing, or playing with her young son at the Sherman Cafe in Somerville's Union Square.