Mar 4, 2013

Anne Sexton's "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound"


As the photos suggest, I’m sometimes infatuated with the ocean, though all I do is look at it. But who can deny that the sea’s motor goes on and on and on. Surely it will wear out someday, yet it doesn’t. Only the sky is bigger. So we sometimes become annoyed at the hugeness and endlessness of oceans, which so belittle our human situation. At the same time, who can fail to be stunned mute at all that action, all that beauty?

Anne Sexton, for one.  I think the opening of her "Letter Written on a Ferry . . . " is an absolute winner and attention-grabber, even as it considers attributing to the 

ocean the speaker’s ennui:

           I am surprised to see
      that the ocean is still going on.

Today, rather than going on and on about the jackpots I’ve found in a poem, I'm asking readers to pick their favorite images or lines from the poem. Although I love several of Sexton’s details, today I'm just as fascinated by the progress of her observations and thoughts. How does she get to the nuns and what is it that she’s doing with them, particularly after the opening references to her failing relationship, to life preservers, life boats (made of cement!), and seemingly crucial little items for getting us through our lives. Can keys and wallets save her, or us? 

I was waiting for Sexton to turn on the nuns and criticize or mock them. However, while I hear some comedy in certain details, I think the overall picture is respectful. She sees the nuns as having found a way to escape the oldness of the sea; unlike the speaker, they are not weighed down by lost love and aging. In fact, doesn't Sexton envy them, perhaps because they're safe up there, out there, flying above the perils of romantic relationships, with all that gravity and the pull of the sea?  



WAS said...

Unbelievably, I’ve never heard of or read this poem before today. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that only things that don’t lie are. All the details are striking beyond belief… the car keys dangling over the side of the boat as the narrator contemplates suicide; the sea as near death itself; the “KEEP OFF” sign that convinces her to live because she has eyes to presumably see how the world tries to deny her existence; the nuns as infants with only their “holy wrist, that ankle, that chain” to keep them from nothingness; the strange prayer of “Oh God, though I am very sad, let these four nuns” die so she can see someone else’s death (the most extreme form of self-abnegation I can imagine); and finally the flying nun hallucination that turns all the horrible, unspoken pain into ecstasy (by making the unknown known, one supposes). The tone of this poem is such a delicate balancing act: clipped and voluble, sarcastic without irony or bitterness, kind without demonstrating any love, throbbing with feeling although the heart is so broken as to seem emotionally dead, full of ideas and implications about life and death and love and beauty but there are so painfully few words outside the immediate details of the environment one feels any reality or meaning in those concepts is as far away as a distant, unseeable lighthouse. I guess for my contemporary eyes the most striking detail is the reference to “Plum Gut”, the lighthouse by the notorious Plum Island germ warfare/disease control lab, in its somberness reminding us how easily and eagerly we all agreed to let the chemical weapons manufacturers turn swords into ploughshares by taking over the world’s seed supply. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the poem, how the truth is always so much more horrible the closer you get to it, the real hope is in knowing you do not have a clue.

Anonymous said...

Sexton is not a favorite of mine, but I do love the last couple of lines.

Banjo52 said...

Bill, I’m always glad when a poem hits a nerve (not a great metaphor, sorry), and I appreciate the education on Plum Gut. In spite of Sexton’s suicide 14 years later, I’m not as sure as you are that the poem is specifically about suicide, as opposed to a less defined and precipitous inner void of despair and depression—a blankness. But it’s surely possible that the nuns’ flight is an odd image of death and afterlife—as well as something like happiness or triumph or at least escape.

Having them fly sidestroke, with open-mouth breathing, in unison like fish (do fish breathe in unison?), is so fanciful that I find it comic (along with a couple of other images), and suicide seems too dark for such a verbal frolic. Also, the fact that they’re calling back something about “good news” seems oddly hopeful (and for me, a fresh use of “good news” compared to the traditional and thus trite, watered-down Christian use of the phrase).

On the other hand, I’d guess that some suicidal ideation might take on just such fanciful forms, or even be downright comic. After all, whatever else suicide might be, it must feel like an escape in the mind of the victim, and escape to “the gauzy edge of paradise” is what the speaker, as puppeteer, is attributing to the nuns. And surely flying around in the sky is a fairly traditional view of an afterlife. (Maybe it's odd that I find it so bizarre when four nuns in their habits are doing it . . . )

I wonder if we’d be having this discussion if we didn’t know of Sexton’s own suicide, but again, I'm not about to argue that self-destruction is absent from the poem. Thanks for steering me that way.

AH, that’s at least a small victory. I don’t know what you’ve got against synchronized swimming in mid-air. I’ve tried it often and it’s better than LSD, I swear.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I found I liked this poem more when I read it from bottom to top. Tried it the other way and lost interest quickly. Might I ad that I also like the second photo of the distant ship in a sea that reminds me of a Rothko. Little delineation from top to bottom. Guess it's just a tipsy turvy kind of reading all around.

Banjo52 said...

PA, I've gotten that Rothko effect one or two other times, messing around on Mac's adjustments. I guess that's manipulative, but isn't all art manipulative?

Reading in revers--interesting. I do think the nuns are the most interesting part of the poem, so maybe it would work for me too. But aren't you equally let down by the first three stanzas if you get there in reverse? I'll give it a try, but since I know what I'm looking for, it seems like a false experiment.

Stickup Artist said...

Not much to add after WAS's comment up there. That comment is a work of art itself. Anyway, I'm totally caught up in a visual of the flying nuns. I'm picturing them as a Magritte painting with a vast blue, fluffy clouded sky. I love the poem for all it's contrasts and contradictions; a mirror, an echo of an existence without overt sentimentality.

Banjo52 said...

And Stickup, I think the bit of bizarre humor in her vision of flying nuns works against sentimentality.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I'm with Bill--I have never read this poem! It's quite lovely and very sad.....

I see that slight shift in her voice (as you hint) when she sees the nuns. I hear a slight appreciation for the absurd when she notices them initially, but then she gets swept up in fantasizing about them rising up, her "dark girls." She suddenly takes ownership of them (she sounds protective and adoring)...she longs for the paradise of good news.

The speaker is "very sad"---such loneliness here. But I love reading it.

And those first two images--WOW.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah and Bill, I'd never seen it either, btw. This just occurred to me: maybe the poem's treatment of Christianity would have been (or would still be) found too controversial for anthologies and other text books?

Hannah, I really like your summary of Sexton's three or more attitudes in the poem. And isn't it quite an accomplishment to make a "very sad" poem that some or many intelligent readers like a lot?

Brenda's Arizona said...

I like PA's comment, reading in reverse. I read this poem when you first posted it - and have been contemplating it for 4 days. You'd think I would have come to some peace about it.
Interesting to think that everything we 'think about' can be made into a poem or essay. And your photos ... another essay is created just looking at them!

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, thanks. The poem "has legs," I think, but I hope it's not costing anyone sleep. I want poems to disturb me, but not make me entirely or permanently crazy. More seriously, that's another benefit of Sexton's partly humorous treatment of the nuns--I care about her vision, but it's at least slightly comforting to think that maybe she can find some levity in the bizarreness of her own thoughts, even in their sadness.

Randall said...

Some nice photo's and love the post. Never heard of Anne Sexton but then not much of a reader. Awesome!!

Something about the life preservers being made of cement. Not sure if these reads right but if she saying what she thinks supposed to save her she finds out otherwise. If so, that was cool. :)


Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjo, I saw this quote and thought you need it:
“Poets make the best topographers.”
― W.G. Hoskins, Making Of The English Landscape

Banjo52 said...

Randall and Brenda, thanks for that. Brenda, I agree with Hoskins, though I've also found some good topography in novels--I figure I need to say nice things about novels whenever I can.

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