Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sexton’s “Music Swims Back to Me”

I have been unfair to Sexton, thinking of poems I didn’t like. There were many I did like. Here is one such from her first volume To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960. At the time I read this I was under the impression, as apparently most readers were, that Sexton learned to write in a mental institution.  According to Kumin that wasn’t true. She was a poet before she got there:

Music Swims Back to Me

Wait Mister. Which way is home?
They turned the light out
and the dark is moving in the corner.
There are no sign posts in this room,
four ladies, over eighty,
in diapers every one of them.
La la la, Oh music swims back to me
and I can feel the tune they played
the night they left me
in this private institution on a hill.

Imagine it. A radio playing
and everyone here was crazy.
I like it and danced in a circle.
music pours over the sense
and in a funny way
music sees more than I.
I mean it remembers better;
remembers the first night here.
It was the strangled cold of November;
even the stars were strapped in the sky
and that moon too bright
forking through the bars to stick me
with a singing in the head.
I have forgotten all the rest.

They lock me in this chair at eight a.m.
and there are no signs to tell the way,
just the radio beating to itself
and the song that remembers
more than I. Oh, la la la,
this music swims back to me.
The night I came I danced a circle
And was not afraid.

Comment: After typing it out and thinking about it as I typed I want to change “like” to “sort of like.”  Reading it the first time the “Mister?” at the end emphasizes shockingly her lostness which struck me as very effective. But I didn’t care for her “la la la.”  I suppose that was to signify her mental breakdown and perhaps she really did sing “la la la” when she was there but it doesn’t seem up to the job in the poem. Maybe there really were four ladies over 80 in diapers but I don’t see how that adds to the poem. They could as well have been in a hospital as a mental institution.

But what about the change to first person in the last stanza? She ends the third stanza with “I have forgotten all the rest” but in the last stanza begins “they lock me in this chair at eight a.m.”  Does this signify that she is having another episode or that she is remembering the earlier episode so vividly that she still needs to ask “which way home . . . Mister?”

Sort of good but not great IMCO (in my current opinion).

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