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Swan Singing photo

I am seated at a small brown desk from IKEA, crafting a love letter.

See how the heart spills right out of me? Spills and spills, ink everywhere. This desk is too small.

Picture it: Me, a mess—though happy, relieved. Running off the edges of the furniture, staining the carpet like candle wax. My mother would be so upset.

I am writing a love letter to Anne Sexton, the woman who taught me that you can be a mess of a person and still fight to maintain a primal sense of self. That unwelless, even when bisected sharply by gender troubles, can be more than a disempowered state.

Spilling. Swooning. Nothing goes anywhere in particular, but everything goes somewhere—the heart’s prerogative. A terribly cliché thing to write. Sentimental. Fix it & keep going.

My first encounter with Anne was over a classmate’s shoulder in AP English, a course I took my senior year of high school despite underwhelming SAT scores and a shyness that nearly consumed me. Her name was Lydia. She had thick black hair and a large disorganized shoulder bag. She talked openly about having OCD, and about witchcraft and feminism, all these ways of being that seemed, in her embodiment of them, indistinguishable. I couldn’t tell where rumination ended and ritual began; it didn't matter. She remained perched between the two, shoring up her care before it turned to worry. “I try / to reach into your page and breathe it back… / but life is a trick, life is a kitten in a sack.” I couldn’t tell where Lydia ended and Anne began. It didn’t matter; I loved them both. “The love, whatever it was, an infection.”

I began to admire everything about Anne’s writing, coming as it did straight from uterus and heart. It only made sense that I, too, should own a copy of the Collected. Soon, I found myself adoring Anne as if she were some time-traveling step-mother, an embodied place of permission to be openly failing, flailing, sad but upfront about it. The modeling of self-ownership, of all our messy and unflattering and unlikeable parts, is so fundamental in a young girl’s learning how to take possession of herself, anything to combat the still-pervasive, status quo demand that she let other people do it for her.

Here’s what I know about the history of the phrase, “swan song”: That a swan’s beautiful singing, supposedly right at the end of its life, is tethered to the myth of a lifelong silence that predates it. Any penultimate sweetness conjured by the phrase only masks the stench of suppression, and I call the metaphor a suppressive one because swans are in fact vocal birds. Even Mute Swans, Cygnus olor, the infamous “ugly duckling” breed, aren’t actually mute; it’s simply that their “hoarse, muffled trumpet or bugle call,” a sound they make while defending territory, “doesn’t carry like the calls of other swan species.”*

What carries? Ugliness and fear, lack of insight; some of the worst qualities of being human, which we displace, through metaphor, onto the birds.

Sometimes we displace these things onto the poem, which as a result sometimes sings. Sometimes the singing carries. Sometimes, poem after poem, it still isn’t loud enough.

There are certain things that carry when we talk about Anne Sexton. That she wrote “confessional” poems—this and nothing more. That she and her good friend, Sylvia Plath, were cut from the same doomed cloth, defined by their melodramatic intimacies and their suicides more than the depth of their craft, their other choices, their pedagogies.

And there are certain things that don’t carry, that remain difficult to hear.

I remember nothing tangible of the moment I learned about Anne’s sexually abusive relationship with her daughter, Linda Gray. Was I in college? Was someone telling me this information?

In my brain, moments are places. I cannot locate myself in this one. I cannot locate myself in quite a few of them.

Lydia wasn't the person who introduced me to OCD.

Picture it: My mother, a mess. Scrubbing the floors daily, washing her hands until they bled; making difficult decisions about who could enter our home and when, that last part sometimes growing thin. I could not reconcile her need to keep things in their rightful state and place with my glimpse into Lydia’s shoulder bag, where everything sloshed and collided, where items partially used—pens, chapsticks, scraps of paper, edible things—moved about spontaneously, the way a body might wish to.

Like Lydia, in addition to the obsessions and the compulsions, my mother carried trauma and its aftermath, all of it with her at all times. She left trails of unwellness throughout our house, little breadcrumbs that I attempted to gather up behind her, unaware that by holding her pain myself, and at such a young age, I was sabotaging our relationship, or else falling right into my father’s traps. He—master manipulator, womanizer, reinforcer of my mother’s disempowerment, and emotionally abusive man—kept the women in the house, the quiet and ghostly two of us, convinced that they, we, were the only sources of domestic harm.

See how easily I start to slip right out of my personhood, the inherent perspective of me, when trying to describe those years? More spilling. All over the desk and onto the floor.

A few of his preferences: How long her hair had to be. What kind of clothing she could wear. What kind of food she could cook for us (carrots and corn; no other vegetables). Where she could keep her passwords. Who she could love. What she could do with her body. When she could speak with her family (almost never).

My mother kept neat stacks of self-help books in her bedroom, and despite her valid need for help I used to snatch them up, crawl behind the living room couch where a thin space between it and the wall was just wide enough for my body, and hide them. I didn’t like the idea of her becoming something else. My mother is unwell; how could a better woman, so the logic went, still be my mother? I was so young. Like the false myth of a baby bird abandoned by its parent as a result of human touch, I worried that certain ideas would leave a scent between us, permanently altering our connection. I cant explain the contradictions behind the impulse: How my desire for change, for things to be better than how they were, could smash right up against an instinct that feared certain forms of it.

So long as we’re talking about bird myths, we might as well consider whether a myth is just a metaphor dipping its toes in history. Myths, like metaphors, are technically false; no matter the veracity or permanence of the feeling, my heart is not the moon. But their falsity is beside the point. Any logical relationship between truth and fiction gets to be—in fact, must be—beside the point in the realm of poetry. It is in the space of the poem where we find them consorting, where it doesn’t make sense to claim that a fiction exists in opposition to a fact.

Which leads me to a recent dream: I am with Anne Sexton’s nephew, showing him a new project wherein I’d taken individual poems of Anne’s and “translated” them into poem templates. Think Mad Libs meets stream-of-consciousness meets poetry. I remember noticing that he was impressed, how I could see in his reaction that I was on to something. And I remember—god I love nothing more than the specificity of dream language—a single title at the top of one page: “[Mildly gendered description].”

When I woke up, I knew: I had translated “Her Kind” into a poem template in a dream.

When is a dream like a swan song?

Perhaps it’s the way Anne’s singing, even in death, continues: always an octave lower than I’m expecting, her nicotined voice paving me against the ground every time I hear it in old recordings. That hoarse, muffled trumpet call, brimming with divulgence and clumsy magic, with oranges lit beneath strange suns.

Or perhaps it’s the tiny death I feel every time my love for Anne is punctured by my realization-memory of her inflictions of abuse. How I disappear for a brief second, astonished by the true feeling in me of wanting to be able to draw lines in some places but not others, with some men but not others (women). Or—can she push the devastating thought into language?—to find love and kinship readily, with more ease and justification, for a chosen mother rather than a real one.

How I wished for so many years that my mother (I am making a sound; I am defending a territory), in certain ways, had been more like Anne.

And if you turn away

because there is no lesson here

I will hold my awkward bowl,

with all its cracked stars shining

like a complicated lie

~from "For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further”

The desire to draw an inflexible line is usually an attempt, fumbling or otherwise, to protect something harmful still pinned to one’s own heart. Mine, tired from swooning in one direction and grieving in another, retires elsewhere, confused.

Perhaps what I’m reaching for, through a mix of research and old love and close reading and dreamscapes, is clarity around the truths we carry about those we love. The truths are often more complicated and messy than we prefer, but they offer fuller, funnier, more humane portraits of the lives they qualify. And the truths are, at times, so obvious in their transgressions, so heavy with simplicity and straight evidence, that they struggle to pass through the body, difficult to digest when in proximity to admiration.

Here’s another dream: My father had shown up. We stood and faced each other on the second floor of a large, extravagant building, a banister behind him, the ground floor far below. It occurred to me that I could run into him fast enough to push him over the ledge. But why? In the moment of the dream I had no reason. One of the scariest things about life is that we sometimes have no reasons.

Then, he attacked me. I knew it was him even when he turned into a long-haired woman. She was not unlike what I picture when I picture the many other women who were once his—the longest of straight long hair gave it away—these women whom I’ve known about my whole life, long before I could understand the impact of their presence, the flesh of their personhood or the flesh of their printed image or the flesh I saw, again and again, on my dad’s bulky computer screen. Other women. Him looking, me looking away.

It would be many years before I learned that all women are not other women, or that other women are not all bad.

In the dream, she attacked me, but it was still him, and I responded by instinct, pushing back so fiercely that yes, she, he, fell over the banister. When I flung my torso against the ledge to look at my consequences, it was not my father's body I saw plastered below, face down. It was hers.

Four questions, in no particular order:

When did pity get so tangled up with love?

How do I defend her?

Who will protect me, and from what, whom?

How long do I defend her for?

If there’s a death I’m foreshadowing here, it isn’t Anne’s: This isn’t about cancellation. Rather, it is a death that belongs to a larger cycle of life, a death-action we must carry within us. It isn’t that there once was Anne, and now there isn’t; it’s that she continues to sing alongside unretractable harm. It’s that our swooning must sometimes be tempered with grief. It’s that we cannot separate the art from the artist, and the consequences of this fact—the mess, the woe, the worry, the haunting—are what it looks like to stop pretending we can.

Silence may be predictable in form—withholding / absence / dismissal—but it is wildly diverse in content. There’s the silence that Anne Sexton’s poetic voice stampeded through, noisily disrupting the restrictive mores of 1930s, 40s and 50s New England. And there’s the silence that skirts reality for the sake of an image, the silence that doesn’t want any of our heroes, or any of our mothers, to be capable of monstrosities.

Or maybe it does. Sometimes, I think it’s the monstrous women I like best. That I understand best. Fucked up women, unwell women, self-harming women. Women who wear their destruction like curls. Women with agency, even when that agency is pointed sharply back toward the self and those nearby. Thank god for some amount of pointing, some semblance of selfhood and momentum. Anything sturdy. Sturdy like Anne.

Picture it: My mother, cleaning and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning, nodding along with her surroundings, my father doing as he pleased. When she’s done cleaning, she lies down on the couch, turns on the TV, Law & Order or the news, anything formulaic. She falls asleep on the couch, a good enough bed. The next day, more work, more cleaning, more lying down, a blanket barely tucked over the toes. A good enough life?

But life equals dirt. Life equals mess. Lived-in spaces: the kitchen while you’re cooking, your body while you’re moving about. The living room, while you’re living.

Unless you don’t cook. Unless you hold the body still.

What I learned, while watching my mother during my most formative years, is that OCD is a disorder wherein you fear the consequences of your own personhood: your own capacity for mistakes, your own capacity for imperfection, your own capacity for grime. You can’t help but be suspicious of your own humanity.

Yes, I stole her books and hid them. But looking back over time’s shoulder I sometimes picture a different scene. There I am, tiny and scared and piling books behind the couch, only there’s something else going on inside me, a slightly different agenda at play, one where keeping my mother the same was not the point.

What if the point was to initiate breakdown?

What if I just wanted something, anything at all, to happen?

When I first started reading Anne, I saw a woman making things happen, a woman who found strength despite her unwellness, even through it. I wanted to know how to be strong, and I wanted to know how to survive, but at the very least I wanted to make something beautiful regardless of the fated obstacles of my life. I was a 17-year-old girl who had yet to become any kind of person, to know anything about who she was or wanted to be, how to say yes or no, how to keep close female friends so long as men were in the room. Men were always in the room. I remained mute, still. Where were my mother's female friends? I was too quiet, so my teachers said; I did not ask enough questions. (I had nothing to say. I wasn’t curious about anything, having already seen enough.) I knew only one truth: That value was found in being looked at desirously.

But I had also met Lydia, which meant I was reading Anne, which meant I was getting glimpses of women who were sad and messy and hurting and struggling and something, a substance nevertheless. I discovered the possibility of self-expression, that there are choices to be made even when you’re battling the instinct to disappear. I wanted to express everything all at once, and I also wanted to control my pain by keeping it secret.

Look at me. But please, whatever you do, don’t look at me like that.

This is how Ive come to understand writing: a vehicle for demanding both. A way to divulge the crafted self, and a way to build the authentic one. “I am often being personal,” Anne once said to her students, “but I’m not being personal about myself.” The page allows for, and is made by, productive madness, a feverish kind of magic.

Cygnus olor were first imported to America as decorations. It’s not that the eponymous ugly duckling’s journey is to be accepted despite or through some objective physical trait, but that in either story (the Danish one, the import one) he was being viewed in the wrong subjective light, mistaken for a type of bird that he wasn’t, viewed as ornament rather than substance. Once, in college, an English teacher successfully instilled in me the absolute terror of sentimentality. It will only ravage an otherwise interesting poem, he said, and his prime example was the “swan dive”: That beautiful, performative, all-tied-up-with-a-ribbon-&-bow final image or line, with which we were to never, ever end a poem. Looking back, I’m certain he never saw me, not once. Sometimes while saying the phrase he’d twirl a wrist, his pinky leading the rest of his fingers through the air, an embarrassing come hither orchestration that ended with a fist closed around nothing, driving his point home.

So how am I supposed to end a poem—quietly?

Watch out for definitions, I hear Anne whispering, that rely too heavily on the notion of excess and pretend to still be objective. Sometimes we carry things that don’t serve us. If we aren’t careful, they carry us back.

The poem I’d read out loud in class that day, the one that warranted a revisit from the “swan dive” injunction and cemented it once and for all in my eager young brain, was (coincidentally) a poem about Anne. I still remember the error of my climactic ways: something about me gazing at the blueness of her Collected cover, her knees propped up by her forearms, and me imagining that she was sitting on a basketball court (how cute that I’d chosen such a relatable place). In the poem I approach her, or she approaches me, I don’t recall, but she kisses my eyelids and leaves prints of red lipstick on each of them, an image I “cannot see myself.” (Splash!)

There are bad men, artists and otherwise, who I am perfectly fine with cancelling, including my father, whom I eventually pushed from the window of my life. But there are others; I would list them here, but their names are already dead to me. I cup my hand to my right ear and listen…nothing. I have no desire to try and save them, which is an easy choice that I make with zeal. Blessed be this life for its occasional intersection of easy choices with desperately needed ones.

But I am willing, through potentially gross error, my own finite energy, & a heart that still hopes there’s something right about it—the place it’s in, or the wholeness with which it arrives—to do the hard work of loving difficult women. This work so many daughters must do.

I don’t mean to carry the wrong things. I just mean to carry more, to mature into the bird I am, the bird I always was, the bird I want to be. To stop caring so desperately about the opinions of the dominant flock.

And I mean to take Anne at her word: That empathy does not require our knowledge of certain facts, but neither does it banish itself in the face of them; “that the worst of anyone / can be, finally, / an accident of hope.”

I used to read that line from beginning to end, interpreting its meaning based on linear order: That our lowest qualities can also unintentionally facilitate more radiant ones. But now I understand what it really means. It isn’t linear, neither empathy nor the poem: How many of our worst mistakes can be traced back, if afforded the empathy, to an initial point of hope? How many of our least acceptable fuck-ups were, for a brief moment, collateral from something once bright?

Anne made it possible for me to imagine life and writing not demarcated by recognizable wellness; to stop folding myself into little paper cartons of intelligibility and appeasement, and to instead be a witness to my own sad, powerful history and becoming: To claim my life as my own: The missing and mistaking, the living and the dirtying, the reconfiguring of how to mother and to be mothered: Myself, others, you.

Every night for one month, just before bed, I translated one Anne Sexton poem into a poem-template. And every morning, sleep hardly shaken off, I used the template to write a new poem.

During the templating, I tended to read and translate line by line, not sentence by sentence, which at times made sudden vast openings in the writing, shooting the template far away from the origin’s context. In my translations, I am consistent in some ways and contrary in others. Sometimes, either during the a.m. writing or the cursory revisions that followed, I ignored an instruction or deleted a whole line that just wasn’t working. And while I find the templates deeply interesting, I am consistently knocked over by the poems, all those lines dripping with excess emotion and familiar figures, and yet which seem (in my experience of them) to have come out of nowhere: seem like lines of poetry I couldn’t have possibly written myself.

Not everything made it into the poems. A margin note on the left side of the page from the 8th appears out of nowhere, reading: “breath is the result of the body?” No further context. Who was I asking? Another one comes at the end of the poem from the 11th, a poem that (more coincidences) includes the phrase “swan song” in its final line: “*dream about Roxane Gay!!!”

My poet’s mind, leaning into or away from sleep, sometimes took over, both during the templating and the poeming. Of course I let it, knowing the structure of a project is only made stronger by its capacity for such tangents, and that poetic procedures exist in the first place to create moments of rebellious inspiration. More often than I could have expected, I’d finish my tangent and return to the next line of the template, only to find I had somehow anticipated its instruction.

As I wrote each poem in the morning, I did not return to the originals, only my templates. And despite being an avid Sexton reader for almost 20 years now, the boundaries of my post-dreaming, pre-caffeinated state kept me far away from tangible memories of the source.

Still, the poems can't help but carry certain energetic signatures: Building materials, furniture, and other markers of domesticity. A weird abundance of animals; an allegiance to rhythm that sometimes sings but occasionally grates. Odd repetitions in tone or word. Or perhaps a more specific echo, like of Love Songs, the first discrete book outside the Collected that I consumed from start to finish, again and again, like vinyl; or of Transformations, whose “Rumpelstiltskin,” torn in two “like a split broiler” in the final stanza, has imprinted itself on my brain. That little lamb chop, my miswoven Doppelgänger.

Or there might be overlapping themes from this essay itself, the last remnants of love before complication: houses, interactions. Bodies in and out of context. Magic, used for both good & bad. Good & bad are old, old inventions. There’s nothing special about them showing up here. What’s special is the willingness to hold them both. What’s special is the growing capacity to celebrate them both. To grieve—yes, sometimes—both of them.

What’s different now is my choice to put both in the same awkward bowl.


*For a wealth of avian resources, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online.