Perhaps only three times have I read a poem and been truly affected by it.
One time was on reading an Anne Sexton poem (The Double Image) here in Stockholm, a poem which has the line:
And I had to learn
why I would rather
die than love.
The week I’m writing this (September 5-11) is National Suicide Prevention week and this line by Anne Sexton touched a particular nerve and made me think about two friends who took their lives three years ago. The phrasing in Sexton’s poem: ‘And I had to learn’, emphasises the cruel lesson which depression gives us, the chemical exchange in the brain which has no rational reason but asks questions of you that you don’t really have the answer to.
Sexton’s poem addresses how her desire to look after her child is being foreshadowed by her long standing struggle with depression. She writes an anti-love poem for her daughter, explaining all the reasons why she was unable to love her through her formative years. A confession which shows how her declining mental health has forced her to adopt a new kind of philosophy. The pain of having this intimate stranger in her life means she has to rethink her own existence, her own priorities and come to terms with the tragic situation in front of her. Sometimes life dictates that love is not something that can be simply tapped at the source. What Sexton does beautifully is take the chance to break the taboo that loving someone is for some reason natural or unconditional when everything around you is screaming lie.
Why this poem sings loudly for me now and this week in particular, is in the UK, where I am from, our public health service is being dismantled and privatised. Which means mental health services will be set upon by the free market and individuals in the same situation as Sexton are treated as customers rather than patients.
Beck Levy is an artist and writer who has had to deal with severe depression for a large part of her life and writes a rallying call on this subject for National Suicide Prevention Week-
“The bottom line is that in this ongoing crisis, “awareness” and “ending stigma” are toothless if depoliticized. All the awareness in the world won’t dismantle for-profit healthcare. Applying free-market principles to human needs wreaks havoc on our bodies. Awareness won’t end capitalism’s tyranny over our survival… All the awareness in the world won’t change the problematic definition of disability as contingent on one’s level of participation in the economy/desirability in the labor market. Ending stigma won’t end the reality that, in a carceral society founded on inequality, to be marked different/deviant is to be marked disposable.” (Suicide Didn’t Kill Me, but Capitalism Might)
What I loved and what pained me most about Sexton’s poem is the airing of her guilt in the ways in which society has made her feel for ‘abandoning’ her child. Choosing her self-preservation over her child’s is a selfish act society tells us, how can a good family function when you are choosing yourself over something more vulnerable than you. Capitalism will calmly place this idea in your head and then never protect you when you become vulnerable in the process.
Sexton writes in ‘The Double Image’-
Once I mailed you a picture of a rabbit
and a postcard of
Motif number one,
as if it were normal
to be a mother and be gone.
But what is normal in a crisis. When a capitalist society is stream-lined to function without the sick, when all pressure is piled back upon you by being apart, you have to grasp to the desperate idea of sending an image of a rabbit as a form of caring for someone. Turning to poetry, turning to a rhyme scheme is for Sexton a cave of catharsis that she has carved out for herself. She is sending to the shoreline of her and her daughter’s relationship something which will cloud out the witches calling her ‘selfish’, ‘absent’ or ‘irresponsible’.
Someone once wrote about poetry that it stops the clock. It casts all around you obsolete for as long as you are tuned into it. You are alone with a page and you are having a conversation. Far more than prose or drama, for me it is a two way exchange. With Sexton I feel she wrote this knowing it was a conversation she would have with her daughter later on, perhaps knowing she wouldn’t be around for much longer. When her daughter was ready she could take this explanation, like you might find an answer-phone message you forgot to listen to and understand that in writing this poem she is packaging the care she wants to feel for her daughter.
And I take comfort with this idea of poetry as packaged care. When the clock is stopped and you are alone with it, somehow it doesn’t matter that the words come years later than you were ready to hear them.
‘The Double Image’ Ending:
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.
Sofia, Sarvat, Cian and I wish you a pleasant reading.
SRL issue 16 will be published Sunday 18 September. We are looking forward to read fiction by:
and poetry by
Anton Yakovlev and Sergei Esenin in translation by Anton Yakovlev