Just Once

One time I knew what life was for, in Cambridge along the Charles.

Just once I knew what life was for. In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;walked there along the Charles River,watched the lights copying themselves,all neoned and strobe-hearted, openingtheir mouths as wide as opera singers;counted the stars, my little campaigners,my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my loveon the night green side of it and criedmy heart to the eastbound cars and criedmy heart to the westbound cars and tookmy truth across a small humped bridgeand hurried my truth, the charm of it, homeand hoarded these constants into morning only to find them gone.

—Anne Sexton, “Love Poems,” 1969

One time I knew what life was for, in Cambridge along the Charles. We walked alone against snow that stuck to my hair and melted on my cheekbones, wet flakes scattering creepy shadows on the walks. Crossing a bridge over the Charles, river gray with ice, we asked, How do we make good art? How do we change the world? Later we paused at the gate to Quincy, kicked snow around, went into warm rooms buzzed with talk and jammed off our boots, water pooling on the wood. But first we stood on a hunched bridge over the Charles and told our truth to the frozen cars.

Here are the facts of Anne Sexton’s life: She was born Anne Gray Harvey in 1928 in Newton, Mass.; she married, cheated on, and divorced a man named Alfred Sexton; she had two children, who would later recount both her affection and her abusiveness; she killed herself in 1974; and she wrote poems, good poems, poems unapologetic about their authorship by a body with guts and breasts. Throughout all, she was depressed, dramatic, prone to fits of forgetfulness, drug- and alcohol-dependent, utterly magnetic, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Some laud Sexton as a feminist writer, especially in her “Love Poems,” which chronicle the “post-pill paradise” of the frustrated yet sexually liberated suburban woman—a sexy Betty Friedan. Indeed, there is something deep and urgent and vital to these poems, something that gets at the root of being made of bones and nerves and skin. Sexton’s honors were astounding. In Cambridge alone, she was appointed to the Radcliffe Institute and was the first female member of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Harvard.

Made of dramatized bits of her life, Sexton’s poems are strident, brazen, intensely self-aware, and often so throbbing with joy and suffering they knock me unsteady. I don’t trust that this good can totally nullify the damage she may have wrought as a person, or that the important work the poems often do can transform troubled author into feminist icon. I don’t trust that we can keep score. But the words themselves are true and luminous: “Just once, I knew what life was for.”  They are something that abide.

I first started reading Sexton the summer after sophomore year in high school: “The Love Poems.” That summer I babysat and perched long days sweating behind the community pool desk. I was in love. I cried about it. I wrote angsty, painstaking stories and grew tan. When my family went to Cape Cod at the end of the summer, my sisters and I ran along the beach at night, skinny-dipping, our skin smoothed with sand.

In those years, during the busy schooldays, I’d leave lunch to crouch between the meager shelves of the high school library, unwrapping the cellophane of granola bars quietly so I would not be called out, consuming the one shelf of American poetry my school owned. I wanted the strange beauty that was poetic language, and I invented obscure systems to teach myself. When I met Sexton at 16, I was suspended somewhere between daisies and scars.

When I walk along the Charles four years later, the words come into my head. Just once, I knew what life was for. I feel it in the way the light puddles on the water. The way it goes blurry on my nerves, neoned and strobe-hearted. At night, the light from the parking garage by the business school is so strong it casts shadows on the bench by the Weeks footbridge, the bench where I have argued and murmured and talked, huddled in my red jacket crying my truth to the west-bound cars. I sit on that bench in the winter watching my friends smoke cigarettes, cupping their red hands around their red-tipped lighters in the raw wind.

When the speaker in Sexton’s poem walked along the Charles, it must have been some time in the sixties, since the “Love Poems” were published in 1969. Cambridge was (and still is) crawling with poets, a puzzle for the contemporary scholastic: How many writers can fit on the head of Cambridge’s pin? At that time, Lowell was teaching at Harvard; O’Hara and Rich and Ashbery had graduated; Bishop was about to come. Sexton and Plath (another confessional from Boston) had taken a BU workshop together taught by Lowell some years earlier. Anne Sexton did not live in Cambridge. But I like to think that when she walked the Charles, that was where she was.

One time I knew what life was for in Cambridge along the Charles. A friend and I got down on our bellies along the damp bank and listened to daffodils. Someone had told us to go listen to plants growing, said that we could hear them if we were very, very still. We were, and we heard them. We lay watching lights swim over the river, spilling in wet dabs, our bellies on goose poop, our backs on stars. Hoarding our constants for the morning. Afterwards, we snuck into the boathouse and stripped off our clothing and stood under the hard scald of the locker room shower for no reason at all.