Friday, March 25, 2011

'The Truth the Dead Know' by Anne Sexton (1962)

             The Truth The Dead Know    

                   Gone, I say and walk from the 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 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 their stone boats. They are more like stone
                        than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
                        to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Anne Sexton is known for poems of great imaginative flair and wonderfully original metaphors that freewheel forward in unexpected directions and on subjects daring in their perspectives.  This is a relatively early piece and embodies an unusually restrained quality, highly influenced, I think, by the formalism of the late 1950s American East Coast school. (Another excellent piece in this vein is the much longer ‘The Double-Image’.)

‘The Truth The Dead Know’ deals with the issue of raw grief, which perhaps makes the restraint more disarming. The poem doesn’t rage. It moves with resignation. As I wrote it down I suddenly saw the influence of Robert Lowell, who had been Sexton’s teacher in Boston around this time: the composure of the form, the beautifully modulated movement from feeling to statement. “It is June. I’m tired of being brave”.

I think the way Sexton handles the rhyming pattern in the poem also acts as a very subtle effect largely as a result of the way she breaks the lines and the use of run-on. There is a formal elegance to it, which isn’t a strategy Sexton used in much of her later work. The rhymes don’t chime but play a quiet music on the inner ear. The poem also has a grace which is achieved I think by the variation of sentence length with those short declaratives dropped in: “We drive to the Cape”; “No one’s alone”; “In another country people die”. Simple statements peppered through the more descriptive passages giving the poem the exhausted, melancholic quality which perfectly echoes her sense of loss that is, somehow, more powerful by being muted, like the dead who are more like “stone / than the sea would be if it stopped” (a brilliant metaphor to end on).

Here's a recording of Sexton reading the poem. Interesting to see - in this earlier version - how the last lines are so different.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this very much, especially with Sexton's own reading. I do like this kind of understated approach, but it does have a melody, the imagery is wonderful and it's incredibly masterful. It was interesting to read and hear it after I've been writing poems about my own parents' death, and I guess from this she, like me, may not have been close to them so it's interesting to see the kind of bereavement poem that leads to.