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
“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.