Abortion Anne Sexton Essay

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (poetry) 1960

All My Pretty Ones (poetry) 1962

Eggs of Things [with Maxine Kumin] (juvenilia) 1963

More Eggs of Things [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1964

Selected Poems (poetry) 1964

Live or Die (poetry) 1966

Love Poems (poetry) 1969

Mercy Street (play) 1969

Joey and the Birthday Present [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1971

Transformations (poetry) 1971

The Book of Folly (poetry) 1972

O Ye Tongues (poetry) 1973

The Death Notebooks (poetry) 1974

The Awful Rowing Toward God (poetry) 1975

The Wizard's Tears [with Kumin] (juvenilia) 1975

45 Mercy Street (poetry) 1976

Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (letters) 1977

Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (poetry and short stories) 1978

The Complete Poems (poetry) 1981

No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose (essays, interviews, and prose) 1985

Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (poetry) 1988

ANNE SEXTON (ESSAY DATE NOVEMBER 1973)

SOURCE: Sexton, Anne. “All God’s Children Need Radios.” In No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn, pp. 23-32. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

In the following essay, originally published as “A Small Journal” in Ms. magazine in November, 1973, Sexton chronicles her experiences during the months preceding and following her mother’s death.

Roses

NOV. 6, 1971

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. Well, someone gave them to me, some official, some bureaucrat, it seems, gave me these one dozen. They lived a day and a half, little cups of blood, twelve baby fists. Dead today in their vase. They are a cold people. I don’t throw them out, I keep them as a memento of my first abortion. They smell like a Woolworth’s, half between the candy counter and the 99-cent perfume. Sorry they’re dead, but thanks anyhow. I wanted daisies. I never said, but I wanted daisies. I would have taken care of daisies, giving them an aspirin every hour and cutting their stems properly, but with roses I’m reckless. When they arrive in their long white box, they’re already in the death house.

Trout

SAME DAY

The trout (brook) are sitting in the green plastic garbage pail full of pond water. They are Dr. M’s trout, from his stocked pond. They are doomed. If I don’t hurry and get this down, we will have broken their necks (backs?) and fried them in the black skillet and eaten them with our silver forks and forgotten all about them. Doomed. There they are nose to nose, wiggling in their cell, awaiting their execution. I like trout, as you know, but that pail is too close and I keep peering into it. We want them fresh, don’t we? So be it. From the pond to the pail to the pan to the belly to the toilet. We’ll have broccoli with hollandaise. Does broccoli have a soul? The trout soil themselves. Fishing is not humane or good for business.

Some Things Around My Desk

SAME DAY

If you put your ear close to a book, you can hear it talking. A tin voice, very small, somewhat like a puppet, asexual. Yet all at once? Over my head JOHN BROWN’S BODY is dictating to EROTIC POETRY. And so forth. The postage scale sits like a pregnant secretary. I bought it thirteen years ago. It thinks a letter goes for 4 cents. So much for inflation, so much for secretaries. The calendar, upper left, is covered with psychiatrists. They are having a meeting on my November. Then there are some anonymous quotations Scotch-taped up. Poets and pigs are not appreciated until they are dead. And: The more I write, the more the silence seems to be eating away at me. And here is Pushkin, not quite anonymous: And reading my own life with loathing, I tremble and curse. And: Unhappiness is more beautiful when seen through a window than from within. And so forth. Sweeney’s telegram is also up there. You are lucky, he cables. Are you jealous? No, you are reading the Town Report, frequently you read something aloud and it almost mixes up my meditations. Now you’re looking at the trout. Doomed. My mother’s picture is on the right up above the desk. When that picture was taken, she too was doomed. You read aloud: Forty-five dog bites in town. Not us. Our dog bites frogs only. Five runaways and five stubborn children. Not us. Children stubborn but not reported. The phone, at my back and a little to the right, sits like a general (German) (SS). It holds the voices that I love as well as strangers, a platoon of beggars asking me to dress their wounds. The trout are getting peppier. My mother seems to be looking at them. Speaking of the phone, yesterday Sweeney called from Australia to wish me a happy birthday. (Wrong day. I’m November ninth.) I put my books on the line and they said, “Move along, Buster.” And why not? All things made lovely are doomed. Two cases of chancres, you read.

Eat and Sleep

NOV. 7, 1971

Today I threw the roses out, and before they died the trout spawned. We ate them anyhow with a wine bottled in the year I was born (1928). The meal was good, but I preferred them alive. So much for gourmet cooking. Today the funeral meats, out to Webster (you call it Ethan Frome country) for a wake. Eat and Sleep signs. World War II steel helmets for sale. There was a church with a statue of a mother in front of it. You know, one of those mothers. The corpse clutched his rosary and his cheek bumped the Stars and Stripes. A big man, he was somebody’s father. But what in hell was that red book? Was it a prayer book or a passport at his side? Passports are blue, but mine has a red case. I like to think it’s his passport, a union card for the final crossing. On the drive back, fields of burst milkweed and the sun setting against hog-black winter clouds. It was a nice drive. We saw many Eat and Sleep signs. Last night the eater, today the sleeper.

Mother’s Radio

NOV. 8, 1971

FM please and as few ads as possible. One beside my place in the kitchen where I sit in a doze in the winter sun, letting the warmth and music ooze through me. One at my bed too. I call them both: Mother’s Radio. As she lay dying her radio played, it played her to sleep, it played for my vigil, and then one day the nurse said, “Here, take it.” Mother was in her coma, never, never to say again, “This is the baby,” referring to me at any age. Coma that kept her under water, her gills pumping, her brain numb. I took the radio, my vigil keeper, and played it for my waking, sleeping ever since. In memoriam. It goes everywhere with me like a dog on a leash. Took it to a love affair, peopling the bare rented room. We drank wine and ate cheese and let it play. No ads please. FM only. When I go to a mental hospital I have it in my hand. I sign myself in (voluntary commitment papers) accompanied by cigarettes and mother’s radio. The hospital is suspicious of these things because they do not understand that I bring my mother with me, her cigarettes, her radio. Thus I am not alone. Generally speaking mental hospitals are lonely places, they are full of TV’s and medications. I have found a station that plays the hit tunes of the nineteen-forties, and I dance in the kitchen, snapping my fingers. My daughters laugh and talk about bobby socks. I will die with this radio playing-last sounds. My children will hold up my books and I will say good-bye to them. I wish I hadn’t taken it when she was in a coma. Maybe she regained consciousness for a moment and looked for that familiar black box. Maybe the nurse left the room for a moment and there was my mama looking for her familiars. Maybe she could hear the nurse tell me to take it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never seen anyone die before. I wish I hadn’t. Oh Mama, forgive. I keep it going; it never stops. They will say of me, “Describe her, please.” And you will answer, “She played the radio a lot.” When I go out it plays-to keep the puppy company. It is fetal. It is her heartbeat-oh my black sound box, I love you! Mama, mama, play on!

Little Girl, Big Doll

NOV. 10, 1971

Out my window, a...

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By the twilight of the Eisenhower era, America was already exhibiting signs it was ready to take on some cherished traditions of the status quo and that those alterations in the fabric of society would forever impact the way the material would be expected to fit. The changes in store for a country populated by a majority who were distinctly unready for the revolution would no longer remain an American dream deferred. Views on war, marriage, race, and sexuality were about to undergo the most radical transformation yet experienced in the short life of the new country. As Americans were readying themselves to challenge old beliefs, discussions that had forever been relegated to taking place behind tightly shut doors were being thrust to the forefront of America’s cultural conversation. The paradigm of American values was starting to swing to the left. These changes in perspective were also reflected in the poetry of the time.

America in the wake of breaking free from the shackles of post-WWII conformity was an America becoming highly sexualized and one in which traditional views on everything related to issues of sexuality were suddenly open game for poetic exploration without fear of bonfires, ostracism or even jail as a potential consequence. For instance, the longstanding and relatively stable institution of marriage came under the literary scrutiny of Gregory Corso in a poem with a title that indicated the level of directness of the challenges being made: "Marriage."

The new liberties enjoyed by writers to discuss issues previously not fit for the dainty art of poetry extended to what still remained even at the beginning of the sexual liberation of the 1960s one of the few topics relatively unexplored as a result of both enforced self-censorship and good old-fashioned pious censorship by self-appointed moral guardians. Before 1973 and the Supreme Court’s ruling on a case pitting Roe versus Wade, it was the very absence of abortion as a topic for both literary endeavors and polite social discourse that defined it as a political issue. One of the first moves toward the annihilation of that absence was Anne Sexton’s emotionally devastating work of verse whose title was even more to the point than Corso’s. In “The Abortion” Anne Sexton not only dares to extricate the issue of abortion from the dark side of human sexuality, she also becomes through her poem an oracle predicting the incendiary level of controversy which the previously quelled issue of abortion was soon to reach. What, after all, could have been a more controversial decision by Sexton than to write a poem on the distinctly adult topic of aborting a child that directly references the fairy tales told to young children?

up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all...
he took the fullness that love began.

Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.

Somebody who should have been born
is gone

The extent to which the invitation into the American discourse has taken the issue of abortion since Sexton published her provocative poem is beyond argument. The fact that between the Roe v. Wade ruling which served to dismantle the previous Draconian effort to regulate and deny access to safe medical procedures conducted by trained medical professionals and April of 2016 more than 50% of states had “imposed excessive and unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics” (Induced Abortion in the United States) indicates the level of effort that has gone into turning back the clock to make the very experience that Anne Sexton managed somehow to transform into transcendent poetry a case of the old normal become the new normal.

When reading “The Abortion” one cannot help but wonder just how long it might be before another poet is driven to write another poem about the exact same experience made necessary by the exact same legal conditions.

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