Monday, July 3, 2017

Sarah Cook on Anne Sexton

Women, witches, & wellness

My first encounter with Anne Sexton was over a classmate’s shoulder in AP English, a course I took my senior year despite underwhelming SAT scores and a shyness that nearly consumed me. The classmate’s name was Amy. She had thick black hair and a large disorganized shoulder bag; she talked openly about OCD and witchcraft and feminism, though I don’t remember her ever using those specific words; and she read Anne and talked about reading Anne because I don’t think she could imagine two more meaningful uses of her time. From Amy I learned 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 and upfront about it.

My real mother was a mess, too. But she struggled to pick up or acknowledge her trauma and its aftermath, left trails of it all over the house which I neatly piled up after her, unaware that by trying to hold her pain myself I was perhaps sabotaging our relationship from the start. Anne was also a traumatized mother and Anne also participated in, perpetuated her own cycles of abuse. This is not about sacrificing one woman for another, but rather, how 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 before she grows up and starts letting other people do it for her. Such witchy words.

My mother kept self-help books in her own purse, and despite her true need for help, I used to find them and hide them behind the couch when I was very young, afraid of her becoming something else. I can’t explain the impulse, nor the contradiction—how adolescence can be so driven by the desire for change, smashed right up against a brutal instinct that fears certain forms of it.

When I got older and started reading Anne, I recognized small pieces of my own nature in her words, and my desire to be like her and Amy and the other creative women I’d soon discover grew—women who found strength through their unwellness, or at least despite it. I wanted to be strong and I wanted to survive, but at the very least I wanted to make something beautiful regardless of the obstacles of my life; some desires we discover, suddenly, in the first moment of writing them down, but we feel them retroactively imbuing all the years behind us. In the face of my own teenage girlhood in which I’d so far failed at becoming anything at all, I suddenly saw that women could be sad and messy and hurting and struggling and something, I discovered the spectrum of making things public and that there are choices to be made even when your instinct is to disappear. I wanted to make everything public all at once and I wanted the pure ability to control all my pain in the form of keeping it secret. I did and did not accomplish each, and this is how I’ve come to understand writing: a vehicle for doing both and neither, all at the same time; a space that allows for, and is sometimes made by, productive madness, a feverish kind of magic.

My mother is still a mess though I love her, forgive her a little more each day for certain implications. My step-mothers have come and gone—not just Anne, who feels more and more like a peer at this point in my life, not unlike the ranks that Amy once belonged to: colleague, confidant, someone with flaws and failures openly shared and received. It’s true that I also had a real step-mother, and then another, and then another, until I pretended to stop counting. But this isn’t a story about them and this isn’t a story about “real” women, maternal or otherwise. I am grateful to have learned, finally, that some people can move through one’s life and just keep on going, real or not; the good ones, however, come back again and again, in different forms: mother, peer, sister, partner-in-crime, witch. They evolve and mutate right along with you, between and beyond lives, creating new orders of influence and reflection.

A witch is just a woman you can’t easily parse. Anne made it possible for me to imagine life and writing not demarcated by recognizable wellness; to eventually stop folding myself into little paper cartons of intelligibility and instead be a witness to my own sad, powerful history: to claim it as my own: the missing, the coming and going, the reconfiguring of how to mother and to be mothered: myself, others, you. Throw it all in the pot.

Sarah Cook's newest chapbook, Somewhere the / shaking, is newly out from above/ground press. She has more to say, she just needs a minute. Find her at

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