That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. –Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
This poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night. It begins with a quote from a letter written by Van Gogh, which says that, despite himself, he has a deep, “terrible” need for religion, and that it is when he feels this need that he goes out and “paint[s] the stars”. I think there is something profound here about man’s need for something eternal and sacred. Though Van Gogh didn’t want religion in his life, he nevertheless had a need for the sacred. By creating art — by going out and painting the stars — Van Gogh was in effect immortalising the beauty of the world. He was acknowledging the transcendent power of beauty. Though he may not necessarily feel the presence of the Divine, a painter understands eternity, and s/he understands the holiness of beauty.
Van Gogh was a tortured, troubled artist just as Sexton was. When you look at ‘Starry Night’, the painting, there is such movement in the brushstrokes, and such turbulence — almost violence — in the thick swirling sky with its “eleven stars”, boiling in the “hot sky.” I love Sexton’s description of the painting, with the “black-haired tree” slipping up “like a drowned woman into the hot sky”. This particular description really struck me. When you look at the painting you will see that the tree does indeed look as though it were made of hair. There is something so dark and sinister about that image — it’s so “alive”, and “it moves”, as Sexton writes. I love the way the night “boils” in the poet’s description, because that is exactly how the painting looks to me.
The refrain “This is how I want to die” is repeated twice in the poem. It is a sort of mantra, and is central to the meaning of this poem in my view. I know that I always bring everything back to Keats, but this reminds me of his Ode to a Nightingale. In Nightingale, the poet listens to the beautiful sound of the bird’s voice (which represents the eternal beauty of Poetry and Art) and feels that this would be the perfect moment to die:
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul/ In such an ecstasy!”
I think Sexton is expressing something similar, here. However, there is of course more violence in Sexton’s desire for death, which I think reflects her suicidal nature and the fact that she would eventually commit suicide. Sexton does not want to simply “cease upon the midnight with no pain”; she wants to be “sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Sexton wants to be a part of the violent narrative. She wants to be a part of the mythology — the world where the “old, unseen serpent swallows up the stars”. There is religious imagery here with the serpent (the devil), and the moon pushing children “like a god, from its eye”. I think perhaps that — in the same way that Van Gogh painted the stars because he had a “terrible need” for something eternal and sacred — Sexton wanted to die in a glorified way — through suicide, as a tortured poet – in order to join the hosts of dead poets that are immortal because their stories and their work is eternal. Perhaps this poem expresses a sense that Sexton felt suicide would be dramatic and violent and would immortalise her.
My final thought on this poem is to do with the final words: “no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”. This part of the poem seems extremely violent to me. Sexton is expressing her deep, dark desire to part with life, but she goes further… The “no flag” part suggests to me that the poet is saying she wants to die not as a martyr, or for any particular cause — not holding up the flag of patriotism, or religion (or even the white flag of surrender.) No, the poet does not want to die as a victim (perhaps that is part of the attraction of suicide to her). She also writes that she wants to die with “no belly”. This is an interesting image, which is clearly linked to the poet’s femininity (the belly being the home of the womb and the place in the body where life starts.) Is Sexton saying here that she wants to die with no belly — with no gender? Sexton did have children in reality, I think maybe three or even more, I can’t remember. In any case, here she is expressing a desire to die without producing more life in the process; she wants her belly — her ability to reproduce — to be gone. I think that is is mostly about not wanting to be defined by her womanhood, but rather by her abilities as a poet. There might also be a sense here in which she is saying that she wants her creative production to stop (as it would, at her death) — to be final and untouchable. Finally, the poet writes “no cry”. I think that these final words come back again to the idea of surrender. I think Sexton is saying that she does not want to die a victim, with a “cry” of pain or defiance. She wants to go willingly, bravely, and on her own terms.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh