On "The Truth the Dead Know"
J. D. McClatchy
All My Pretty Ones opens on "The Truth the Dead Know," which is their absolute isolation, against which the poet fights to save both herself and her dead parents. Her father's death, three months after her mother's, intervened not only between the different concerns of these first two books but also between the completed realization of her inheritance: in the fine print of their wills, the poet fears to find her father's alcoholism and her mother's cancer, which would at the same time prove her their daughter and destroy her. The sins of the father are revisited in the title poem, which blends memories and objects like snapshots out of order to invoke the man's loss and, again, her guilty. . . .
From Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright © 1978 by J.D. McClatchy.
In that strange, bitter elegy, "The Truth the Dead Know," Sexton seems to eschew the common rituals of mourning: "Gone, I say and walk from church, / refusing the stiff procession to the grave"; she prefers, instead to "cultivate myself" and to avoid such a powerful intimation of mortality as the death of both parents within a few months. The poem ends, however, by emphasizing not her own refusals but those of the dead, and into her voice creeps something like envy. . . .
From "The Achievement of Anne Sexton." The Hollins Critics (1984)
Ralph J. Mills, Jr.
In "The Truth the Dead Know," an elegy for both parents, she leaves the place of their death and burial in an attempt to regain, by geographical change and the play of the senses, her awareness of being alive:
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.
Nature seems barely to agree with human wishes in these lines: the guttering sun, the mechanical motion of the sea are, at best, indifferent; at worst, sinister. Human contact does, however, provide momentary relief before the final stanza puts us back where we began with the disquieting question, "And what of the dead?" That stanza ends with the poet's realization of her small comforts of the flesh that her mother and father, by dying, have relinquished: "They refuse / to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone."
The truth the dead know in the poem of that title contributes an integral part of the knowledge with which Mrs. Sexton tries to meet her experience. Such recognition of mortality colors the whole of her vision, even though she is still quite capable of salvaging images of beauty from the prospect of general destruction.
From Contemporary American Poetry (1965). Copyright © 1965 by Ralph J. Mills.
There is no doubt that the poet wants us to associate herself with the "I" of the poem; it is Anne Sexton who has not driven to the cemetery. This identification with the writer has the advantage of intensifying our feelings, but the disadvantage of embarrassing us slightly. There were good reasons why past eras were reticent on such matters. However, the poem rises above the confession and achieves great beauty. For one thing the serious tone of the verses shows that the refusal to mourn is not successful. The mourner does not escape her grief. She is haunted.
Mrs. Sexton has a fine gift for metaphor and in this poem she is at her best. "In another country people die," she tells us. It is not only forcefully said, but true. The death of the psyche, if indeed it does occur, is never witnessed. She goes on to ask:
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.
These lines I think are an example of Mrs. Sexton's power of creating images that are amazingly suggestive. She is on the Cape looking out at the sea. The dead are in stone boats, and actually they are enclosed. Presumably then they are sailing. But not on the sea that she is watching. They are surely sailing away from her in time. And this in a sense is what she wants. But she remains haunted by their stillness and their unknowability. The sea that she is watching could become dead also but its calm would not be as frozen as the stone faces she has looked upon.
Anyone who has experienced the shock of bereavement will realize that Anne Sexton has captured the feelings of the recent mourner marvellously. The landscape becomes infected with death; death enters the brain. But yet the fact of death remains incomprehensible. The corpse that one viewed is not one's loved one. So Anne Sexton writes of ghosts, of the search for religious consolation which she rejects because "need is not quite belief " No wonder she suffers nervous collapse. She is the mourner who cannot stop mourning.
From The Hudson Review (Winter 1962-63).
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