“I wish to enter her like a dream”: Anne Sexton and the Prophecy of Healing

  • Cassie Premo Steele


As we have seen, it is only now, after twenty years of developments in feminism and psychoanalysis, that the significance of Sexton’s life and work can be recognized. Likewise, Sexton’s spiritual poetry can be read, only now, for its important and visionary qualities. I will show how Sexton not only struggled alone to make sense of her pain, but also how she managed, alone, to create a vision of healing from her pain. Recent critics, given the benefit of twenty years of change in society, have begun to reassess Sexton’s work for its innovative ideas about sexuality and spirituality. Some focus on Sexton’s ability to celebrate the body and its erotic life in her poetry.1 Others link the prophetic quality of her later work to recent developments in feminist spirituality.2 Still others, and I locate myself in this category, make explicit connections between the attempt to celebrate the sexual and the spiritual.3 Given the argument I have made earlier concerning childhood sexual trauma, I will argue, Sexton’s vision of healing from that trauma consists of a connection between the body and spirit. Trauma injures both the body and the spirit; a vision of healing from trauma must address both the body and the spirit together. As Maria P. P. Root writes, “The [spiritual] characteristic of feminism is important to trauma, because one of the prominent wounds of trauma is the crushing of the human spirit … which may be the hardest wound to heal.”4


Sexual Trauma Male Figure Childhood Sexual Trauma White Feminist Love Poem 
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  1. 1.
    Alicia Ostriker writes that Sexton is committed to the erotic view of life in “Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience,” in Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 3–18, p. 7. Estella Lauter praises Sexton’s refusal to cover up and her refusal to be shamed into silence in Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 25. Brian Gallagher claims that it was “on matters of overt sexuality” that Sexton made the most significant contributions to a protofeminist dialogue. See his “A Compelling Case,” Denver Quarterly 21:2 (Fall 1986): 95–111, p. 105. Finally, Liz Porter Hankins argues that despite Sexton’s Puritan background, she attempts to achieve a sense of identity through the body, in “Summoning the Body: Anne Sexton’s Body Poems,” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 28:4 (Summer 1987): 511–524.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Brian Gallagher, in the essay cited above, calls Sexton a “major religious poet,” a poet of “belief in belief” (111), while Estella Lauter, also cited above, claims Sexton’s work from 1970–74 as a prophetic body of work (23). Further, Louise Calio writes that Sexton and Plath are “modern pioneers” of goddess poetry in “A Rebirth of the Goddess in Contemporary Women Poets of the Spirit,” Studia Mystica 7:1 (Spring 1984): 50–59, p. 51. For more on Sexton as a spiritual poet, see David J. Johnson, “Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Toward God: A Jungian Perspective of the Individuation Process,” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 7:1–2 (March 1986): 117–126; Kevin Lewis, “A Theologian on the Courtly Lover Death in Three Poems by Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath,” Lamar Journal of the Humanities 8:1 (Spring 1982): 13–21; Diane Wood Middle-book, “Poet of Weird Abundance,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12–13:2–1 (Spring–Winter 1985): 293–315 (cited hereafter as Middlebrook “Poet”); William Shurr, “Mysticism and Suicide: Anne Sexton’s Last Poetry,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 68:3 (Fall 1985): 335–356.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Alicia Ostriker writes that after Transformations Sexton sees herself as “the heroine on a spiritual quest… [while the] woman question … deepens and darkens” in “That Story: Anne Sexton and Her Transformations,” The American Poetry Review 11:4 (July–Aug. 1982): 11–16, p. 13 (cited hereafter as “That Story”). See also Diana Huma George, “Is It True? Feeding, Feces, and Creativity in Anne Sexton’s Poetry,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 68:3 (Fall 1985): 357–371.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    “Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality,” Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappraisals, ed. Laura S. Brown and Mary Ballou (New York: The Guilford Press, 1992): 229–265, p. 238.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1953); rpt. (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 188–189; originally published as Le deuxième sexe (Paris: Gallimard, 1949).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Elizabeth Waites, Trauma and Survival: Post-Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders in Women (New York, Norton, 1993), p. 4.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    I know “goodness” is not a very precise word for what I am trying to convey here, but interestingly, the synonyms for this word imply an absence of the sexual: chastity, purity, morality, and decency among them. Further, I have decided to use the word “goodness” throughout this chapter on healing since, according to Arthur Green, sexually abused children often feel a profound sense of “badness” about themselves. See “Childhood Sexual and Physical Abuse,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, ed. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 577–592, p. 579. See also Finkelhor and Browne, “Initial and long-term effects: A conceptual framework,” in A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse, ed. D. Finkelhor (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1986): 180–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America, (New York: Crossroad Press, 1993). I have chosen this work among many for several reasons: it provides not only explanation but criticism of the movement; it attempts to convey the differences as well as the commonalities among those who call themselves “spiritual feminists;” it does not rely only upon first-person narratives in the present but rather attempts to interpret the stories of women in the light of the double history of our society and the movement’s development. What has been labeled the feminist spirituality movement began in the early 1970’s when (mostly white) women began to form small groups to share and discuss their experiences as women in what was called “consciousness raising,” or CR groups (3; 44). During these discussions, many women began to talk openly, not only of their daily experiences, but also of their spiritual yearnings: their growing dissatisfaction with patriarchal religion, their desires to be priests, their visions of a female god. From this beginning and into various forms—such as retreats, workshops, and individual study—a pattern began to emerge under the rubric of feminist spirituality, defined by, above all, an emphasis on the need for empowerment and healing, which is accomplished by the valorization of nature and women, and which includes a reconstruction of history (3).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Such groundbreaking works include, in order of publication, Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (Baltimore: Penguin, 1971); Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); M. Esther Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern: A Psychological Interpretation of the Feminine Principle as Portrayed in Myth, Story, and Dreams (New York: Bantam, 1973); Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe—7000–3000 b.c., Myths Legends and Cult Images (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), rpt. as Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe—6500–3500 b.c. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Rosemary R. Ruether, Religion and Sexism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974); Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    The poem is the first in “The Jesus Papers” series, which makes up the third part of The Book of Folly in the original publication, and the second part of the book in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems. All citations are from The Book of Folly in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981): 297–345. Diana Hume George describes “The Jesus Papers” as “Sexton’s radical retelling of the story of humanity’s creation, fall and renewal,” in Oedipus Anne (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 80.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Debora Ashworth remarks that many women poets in the United States use Mary as a way to address God in “Madonna or Witch: Women’s Muse in Contemporary American Poetry,” Women’s Culture: The Women’s Renaissance of the Seventies, ed. Gayle Kimball (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1981): 178–186, p. 180.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    All citations are from Live or Die from Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981): 93–170.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Interestingly, such a statement is also made by the French feminist theorist, Hélène Cixous, in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” from 1975. Reprinted in David H. Richter, ed. The Critical Tradition (Boston: Bedford, 1998): 1454–1466. Sexton’s connection to French feminism will be examined later in the chapter.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    “Housewife into Poet: The Apprenticeship of Anne Sexton,” The New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters 56:4 (Dec. 1983): 483–503, p. 502.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    “Anne Sexton’s ‘Motherly’ Poetics,” Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, ed. Francis Bixler (Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988): 92–101, p. 100.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Kathleen Nichols, “The Hungry Beast Rowing Toward God: Anne Sexton’s Later Religious Poetry,” Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 165–170, p. 165.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    “Anne Sexton’s Island God,” Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, ed. Francis Bixler (Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988): 169–183, p. 179.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, “Goddess Manifestations as Stages in Feminine Metaphysics in the Poetry and Life of Anne Sexton,” Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 117–144, p. 436.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    Citations are from Love Poems in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981): 171–220.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    Rise B. Axelrod, “‘I Dare to Live’: The Transforming Art of Anne Sexton,” Concerning Poetry 7 (Spring 1974): 6–13. Rpt. in Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (Boston: Hall, 1989): 177–185, p. 181.Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    Citations are from The Death Notebooks in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981): 347–413.Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    Sexton’s poetry thus predates the contemporary reinterpretations of sexuality in feminist spirituality characterized by feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether: “Sin is not a fall into sexuality, but a fall into oppression and injustice. Salvation is not a flight from the body, nature, and history, but a reordering of the social systems by which we live our embodied historical lives so that the full value and dignity of all persons can be realized.” See “Asceticism and Feminism: Strange Bedmates?” Sex and God: Some Varieties of Women’s Religious Experience, ed. Linda Hurcombe (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1987): 229–250, p. 245.Google Scholar
  23. 30.
    A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community (New York: Norton, 1994), p. 231.Google Scholar
  24. 31.
    Lynette McGrath, “Anne Sextons Poetic Connections: Death, God, and Form,” Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, ed. Frances Bixler (Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988): 138–163, p. 146. Italics mine.Google Scholar
  25. 32.
    As Hilary Clark writes of the poem cited from The Death Notebooks, “The death wish in ‘Seven Times’ involves a desire to return to a lost maternal nurturing, a lost mother-daughter intimacy.” See “Depression, Shame, and Reparation: The Case of Anne Sexton,” Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing, eds. Joseph Adamson and Hillary Clark (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999): 189–206, p. 200.Google Scholar
  26. 33.
    Jennifer L. Manlowe, Faith Born of Seduction: Sexual Trauma, Body Image, and Religion (New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 62.Google Scholar
  27. 36.
    Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor note that in ancient times, “Spinning and weaving were imbued with magic powers, and inscribed spindle-whorls are found in innumerable Neolithic sacrificial pits sacred to the goddess.” See The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p. 51. See also Marta Weigle, Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), which is a good sourcebook for myths, images, and literature on both European and North and South American meanings of spider and spinster archetypes.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    From This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985): 205–218; pages 205 and 214. Originally published as “Quand nos lèvres se parlent,” in Cahiers du grif no. 12. English translation: “When Our Lips Speak Together,” trans. Carolyn Burke, Signs 6:1 (Fall 1980): 69–79.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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