I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
This poem conjures up a few feminine stereotypes, doesn’t it? These are the mythical categories society has created for women over the centuries, and which I think certainly still exist: the witch, the mother, the madwoman, the whore. As women, we are all pushed, warped or crammed to fit into one or many of these categories at some point during our lives. I love Anne Sexton’s tone, it’s so cutting and sharp. If you listen to her reading this poem on YouTube or the Poetry Archive you will hear her clipped, unsentimental voice which so perfectly accentuates that tone. She recognises that she has inhabited all of these feminine constructs, and invites us to do likewise.
The first construct is the witch — “possessed”, “lonely”, “twelve-fingered”; “I have been her kind”, Sexton affirms. “A woman like that is not a woman, quite”. Society has a very clear idea about what makes a woman a woman. And a witch is a ‘non-woman’. We have all been “her kind”, because any woman could be labelled a witch: women of the “night”, “haunting the black air” (these could be prostitutes, or even any woman who choses to go out at night), “lonely” women (those who are ostracized or outcast for whatever reason), and “twelve-fingered” women (this is of course an image of a witch but it also makes me think of any woman who does not fit in physically, or look like Marilyn Monroe). A witch could also be any woman whose talent or power is a threat. Writers, artists, scientists, sportswomen… any woman who threatens to be brilliant, to outshine a man. Remember that Sexton was writing in the sixties and seventies, and though the ideas in this poem are still relevant today, the world was obviously very different when she was writing.
The second stanza is about the wife or mother construct. There she is, organising the domestic furniture of “skillets, carvings, shelves,/ closets, silks…” and “fixing the suppers for the worms and the elves”; she is behaving as a wife and mother should — cleaning and tidying and cooking for her family. There is also a sense of keeping order, as she recreates the wild, magical place (the “warm caves in the woods”) into a recognisable, conventional home with all the modern necessities. She is “rearranging the disaligned”. “A woman like that is misunderstood” says Sexton. Because the mother/wife figure is so busy recreating herself as a perfect version of that construct, her needs, her interests, her talents and her personality are overlooked — she is “misunderstood.” Again the refrain, “I have been her kind” tells us that Sexton herself has lived this reality. Anne Sexton suffered from severe depression after the births of each of her children, and had a nervous breakdown which led to her hospitalisation in 1955.
The last stanza makes me think of a mixture of all these constructs, but most of all that of the madwoman, “riding in your cart”, waving her arms at “the villages going by”. These images, coupled with the “flames” biting her thigh, help to create the idea of a witch being burned at the stake. You get a sense of a disgraced woman, an outcast. “A woman like that is not ashamed to die”, says the poet. Why is she not ashamed to die? Because there are no pretences any more — she is waving her “nude arms” at the villagers — everybody knows her disgrace. “I have been her kind”. Anne Sexton died by suicide. That makes this ending so tragic to me because it makes me feel like she never felt understood, she felt trapped by a construct, a postcard image of what she was meant to be an yet she couldn’t live up to it. It makes me feel like she thought herself as having been disgraced, paraded past the villagers to be burned, a failure. It’s so sad. Society has definitely changed for the better, but these feminine ideals still exist and continue to exist in our minds, and will do for a long time to come, I am sure.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh