Dangerous Angels Walk Through Lent: Anne Sexton and My Ex-Husband

My grad class this semester is Confessional Poetry.  The first thing I did after registering was to print out the textbook list and see which books, if any, I already had on my shelves before consulting local libraries. As I librarian, I prefer to borrow rather than purchase as many books as I can.

I knew I had one Sylvia Plath volume, but not, alas, the one assigned by my professor.  I discovered I had two Anne Sexton tomes: Collected Poems and Selected Poems. I couldn’t remember when, or why, I had two copies of essentially the same book.

My ex-husband and I had met in college, both English majors—in Creative Writing class!—and we had kept our retained copies of college literature books side by side on the bookshelf in our living room. Once, a friend had asked, “Why do you have three copies of the same book?” (It was Ibsen: Plays Volume One and Volume Two, with nearly identical spines, not really three copies.)

“We can’t share,” I had answered, matter-of-factly, as if my own possessiveness was the most normal thing in the world. At our separation, I accidentally took his copy of A Game of Thrones when I moved out and ended up with two copies. (Was it accidental? I deliberately took his copy of the Propellerheads CD, and he ended up with my A3 album.) Anyway, in my world, owning multiple copies of a book isn’t that odd.

Last week, a few classes into the semester, we proceeded to Anne Sexton. As I read my assignment in the course-assigned text which I already owned, I found a flat, never-used penny roll wrapper marking a page. The poem on that page was “The Black Art.”

No doubt I had put it there, although I didn’t precisely recall. I did remember: even when happily, contentedly, resignedly married, the poem had reminded me of our relationship.

                              A woman who writes feels too much,

                              Such trances and portends!

Once, near the start of our dating, I had told him I was all feeling, no being.

The second stanza describes the man:

                              A writer is essentially a crook.

                              Dear love, you are that man.

Is infidelity a type of theft? Should I have known by my fondness for this poem that our relationship was doomed? Or maybe I should have known from the last stanza:

                              Never loving ourselves,

                              Hating even our shoes and our hats,

                              we love each other, precious, precious.

What did Anne mean by that “precious, precious”? She hardly could have meant the covetous soul-diseased glomming of Tolkien’s Gollum, although that was how I always heard the phrase.

                            But when we marry,

                              .  . .

                              There is . . . no one left over

                              to eat up all the weird abundance.

 In truth, years after the divorce, it’s hard to recall any moments of abundance, although we must have had them. At the time, I didn’t see “weird” abundance as essentially negative. After all, we were all very happily eccentric, we and our circle of friends.

Re-reading this poem post-divorce is like uncovering a Delphic oracle. Opaque at the time, it is only in retrospect that it is illuminated. The subconscious knows more than the conscious mind.

In class this week, I finished my oral presentation on Anne Sexton. We went on to discuss other Sexton poems. I thumbed through the book, looking for the designated page for the class discussion, when an immediately recognizable but forgotten handwriting scrawled in the margin jumped out at me from another poem. I grew chill and nauseous, and light-headed, right there in class. On page 90, on the third page of “Protestant Easter,” my ex-husband’s handwriting reached out from the past to assail me.

Nearly hyperventilating, I tried to deny that it was his handwriting, but my new partner has only gifted me with a book once, and this wasn’t it. My fiance prefers history to literature. Reading, yes; poetry, no. Vaguely, I recalled that my ex-husband must have given this book as a gift in one of those non-holiday, I was thinking of you things.

The lines he had annotated, which I discovered anew:

                         .  .  . so they decided to become Protestants.

                         Those are the people that sing

                        when they aren’t quite

                        sure.

“To C.J.,” he had written, drawing an arrow to those lines, as if defining me by Sexton’s poetry, a message in a bottle, a time-traveler across the lightyears of space.

It was true I liked singing in church; it was true singing gave me much comfort. Now I am in the midst of a great faith upheaval, having sought and discovered a new church, a new faith. I didn’t know if “[not] quite sure” accurately described me (or my faith), and if it did, how I felt about that. I didn’t like his hand reaching through time to define and confound me.

Once, we both had loved Joseph Conrad. That shared predilection equally could have been a premonition. But it wasn’t the horror, the horror! of his heart of darkness that I was left to hold, but the folly of youth. I marked our divorce finalization by giving him an inscribed copy of Conrad’s Youth: “Then I got divorced. Ah, youth!”

“Such dangerous angels walk through Lent” Anne Sexton wrote in “The Division of Parts.” (I absolutely adore the assonance!)  My new clergyman—a ‘Father’!—cautioned that Lent would dredge pain to the surface.

Presumably to be purified and healed, and not make me crazy like Anne and Sylvia.

So mote it be.

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Brigid of Kildare

February 1 is the feast day of St. Brigid of Ireland, and in her honor, I offer this book review of Heather Terrell’s historical fiction novel, Brigid of Kildare.

A three strand plot is woven to form this book. Decius, a monk from Rome, has been sent to the distant island of Ireland; there are rumors of heresy the Pope needs to verify and dispel.  He comes to the cathedral town of Kildare to observe the monastery’s abbess, Brigid. His story is told through a series of personal letters to his brother.

The second viewpoint is attached to Brigid herself. Her observations and reflections, told through the third-person point of view, are perhaps the most tricky for any author to attempt.  It is an ambitious goal to invent the thoughts of any historical figure, let alone a saint. Terrell’s Brigid is a thoroughly modern conception with a subtle feminist orientation. Her depiction of Brigid as having a warrior background seems more invention than in accordance to traditional medieval biographies. Likewise, her interpretation of Brigid’s mother, Broicsech, as a powerful equal with Brigid’s father also departs from the tradition of Broicsech as slave. And her non-prurient portrayal of the thoroughly human but faithfully denied attraction to the monk Decius, while understandable, lacks any of the narrative pull one might expect from romantic tension. Instead, it feels a bit icky considering this aspect of a beloved saint, at least for this reader, akin to imagining your own parents having sex. Some things shouldn’t be contemplated.

The last viewpoint is of a present-day appraiser. Alexandra Patterson has been hired by the church at Kildare to appraise some historical artifacts and relics. Although atypical for a church to part with holy relics, the framework for suspension of disbelief is laid: to fund the more essential service to the poor. Like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (without the lurking priest-assassins and car chases throughout Europe), a scholarly mystery unfolds—complete with a jaunt to Rome for fact-checking in the Vatican Archive. Hidden in the reliquary box is a forgotten antique manuscript, possibly the long-lost Book of Kildare.

Hagiography this is not. I had expected to see some re-envisioning of the classic tales associated with Brigid—the cloak which expands for a land-grant to the abbey; the never-ending milk-bucket; the rushes woven into a plaited cross—and I was disappointed to find these cherished stories neglected. It is the initial portrayal of Brigid as a warrior-in-training which disturbs me the most. If Terrell has heard of the stories of Brigid giving away her father’s prized sword to a beggar, or acquainted herself with the writings of the present-day Brigidine sisters of Solas Bhride, she would have known that today’s good sisters view Brigid as a peacemaker, and the gift of the sword is seen as a commitment to economic justice over national defense. This aspect of Terrell’s modern interpretation seems to me the most inauthentic.

Historical scholar I am not, but eclectic hobbyist I am, and I shall do my best. Most of the author’s historical details, if not completely factually true, seem at least plausible and within the realms of possibility.  The portrayal of the Monastery of Kildare as a center for scholarship is well known. The Book of Kildare referenced by Gerald of Wales is indeed a scholar’s mystery, a lost work of art said to be made by angels and breathtakingly beautiful. Most scholars believe the lost Book of Kildare predates the Book of Kells which is now housed at Trinity College, Dublin.  Terrell grapples with this scholarly mystery as she proposes the story of its creation and its present-day priceless historical find.

Likewise, the Pelegian heresy—Decius’ reason for his trip—is known to any student of church history. The portrayal of the Irish church as independent from Rome has been popularized notably by Thomas Cahill in his How The Irish Saved Civilization.   If you are not familiar with his book, I heartily recommend it. (Alternately, Oliver Davies & Fiona Bowie’s introduction to Celtic Christian Spirituality claims the existence of a separate Celtic Christianity “is disputed by many reputatble scholars”, but at least Terrell is in good company with the renowned Cahill.) She shows us the anticipated profession of Brigid as nun and bishop, and may be forgiven for fudging a few details. Although St. Mel conferred Brigid as Abbess, not St. Patrick as indicated in this book, since most people know only Patrick, this minor quibble will likely only deter hard-core historians.

Other aspects of the author’s historical interpretations may be more questionable.  The relative late date for the institution of the veneration of Mary (after the first-century apostles) was new to me, but more or less in line with the entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Here’s where I’ll have to rely on history scholars more knowledgeable than myself. The Catholic Encyclopedia dates the beginning of devotion to Mary from the second or third century; Encyclopedia Britannica dates it as third or fourth century.

In proposing fifth-century St. Brigid as a major contributor to the tradition of Marian veneration and as the first iconographer of the God-Bearer, Terrell seems to be off by a few centuries, but what’s a few centuries among friends?

Indeed, with this interpretation of St. Brigid as the first iconographer and initiator of the devotion to the Virgin Mary, the author offers her greatest contribution to the tradition of Brigid. St. Brigid is known as “Mary of the Gauls,” a viewpoint the author highlights by her noted decision to refer to Ireland as Gaul rather than the equally acceptable Erin or Hibernia. Brigid is also known throughout the folk tradition as Midwife to Mary. In proposing Brigid as the first iconographer of the Virgin, her Brigid is plausibly albeit metaphorically made midwife to the Virgin Mary.

Overall, this is a pleasant book. Not as dramatic as Dan Brown, and definitely not a devotion for the faithful, this book will entertain any Irish-American interest or historical fiction reader. True scholars will likely be disappointed—there’s just a little too much modern interpretation and flexibility with historical details. For readers wanting more history served in their historical fiction, I recommend instead Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.

Terrell, Heather. Brigid of Kildare. N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 2009.

Links and Further Reading

Book of Kells: http://www.tcd.ie/Library/bookofkells/book-of-kells/

Catholic Encyclopedia: http://newadvent.org/cathen/

Solas Bhride: http://www.solasbhride.ie/

Peter Tremayne and Sister Fidelma: http://www.sisterfidelma.com/tremayne.html and http://www.sisterfidelma.com/