In today’s episode of “what stupid thing did a clueless cis-gendered white man do”, we’ll examine Collin Kelley’s poem “Saving Anne Sexton”, which the Georgia Center for the Book decided to make its featured poem of the day. We had hoped it was perhaps an April Fools’ joke, but it turns out, not so much. For wherever there are poems and poetry, there are entitled broets ruining things for the rest of us by appropriating female bodies and using them as props in their “art”.
Ordinarily, we would be less gung-ho about raking a poem across the coals like this. But the poet himself called for a “closer reading of the poem” in a Facebook thread that will no doubt shortly be deleted. Buckle up, Collin–we’re only too happy to oblige.
“Saving Anne Sexton”
Because she saved me once, it’s the least I can do.
There was a note left at my door, scribbled in haste,
about where to make the exchange.
I imagine her bound inside a box, waiting it out,
in a dark warehouse for morning rescue.
SV: The trope of women needing to be saved by men who know better is exhausting, and the start of this poem is no exception. From the first line, I am exhausted. Certainly, the poet is using this act of salvation in both directions, attempting to repay a favor to a woman he adores — but when we attempt to use things in “both directions” we need to be mindful of context and that simply reversing roles does not actually hold up, much like it does not hold up when we reverse genders in discussions of sexism and oppression. It’s not the same. Throughout the course of this poem, the poet’s treatment of Anne Sexton’s book as an extension of her body creates a power dynamic that is, frankly, disturbing. The poet’s lack of awareness regarding this makes it doubly so.
I arrive early, the pink paper clutched in my grip.
I park inside a gate, walk up a ramp, ring a buzzer.
A window snaps up and a hand appears.
I put the paper in open palm and it draws back.
Minutes later, the box is pushed across to me,
larger than I expected, and the window closes again.
I rush back to my car, cut the tape with my dull car key
until I find her bound and gagged in masking tape
under wadded up newspapers from New Hampshire.
SV: When Kia and I expressed our disappointment with the poem in the comments of the Facebook post, Collin Kelley responded: “I find it disheartening that this poem is being so incredibly misinterpreted and reduced to “violence against women,” which was absolutely not my intention. Apparently, I should have used better metaphors to clearly delineate the book (which is is what is being rescued here) and the person.” The poet is metaphorically turning Anne Sexton into a book and then binding and gagging her with masking tape. The poet is turning Anne Sexton into a book and rescuing her. There is no misinterpretation going on here. This metaphor is violence against women. The issue is not our “interpretation” of the poem but the fact that this interpretation was not even considered during its creation or subsequent publication. The issue is that appropriating female bodies in art and the aestheticizing violence against those bodies is so commonplace that it deserves no mention.
KG: I don’t think it’s possible to claim that, as a poet, you were unaware of the double meaning taking place in many of these lines. Or at least, if you were unaware, you might need to go back to poet school. Had this been another poet–one who had not so famously committed suicide–there might be an argument against reading “bound inside a box, waiting it out” as her coffin. But I find it very hard to believe that the poet wasn’t aware, if not deliberately aiming for a dual reading here: the book is “bound inside a box” as Anne is “bound inside a box” (her grave). For what other reason would one have to “save” Anne Sexton? We don’t think of saving folks who have died of natural causes. We want to save those who have died tragically, perhaps prematurely–those whom we feel deserved more time.
To this end, even the title of the poem is deeply problematic. Kelley claims to have been moved to become a poet because of Sexton’s work, yet he infantalizes and patronizes her by suggesting she needs to be “saved”. This calls to mind Die Dragonetti’s words on “sad girl misogyny”, where sadness and death are fetishized to serve the (usually male) poet’s art. Anne Sexton lived and died on her own terms. In life, she made a very conscious decision to reject salvation, to be the arbiter of her own destiny and mortality. This isn’t to say that we should glorify Sexton’s suicide, that we should pretend it wasn’t tragic, a great loss. But to post-humously exhume her, to imagine a scenario where she might want or need to be saved is at best chronically naive, and at worst dehumanizing.
Anne is pristine for all her travels, like three decades
have not separated us, like she never died when I was five.
The Book of Folly is stamped on her in red and black,
the words she made her business tucked inside.
I open tight covers and see her signature,
imagine her wrist touching the gilded edges,
trace the big A and S, the x that marks the spot.
SV: “Pristine.” Again, when you’re using Anne Sexton’s body as a stand-in for her book, the word choice matters. I should not have to say that in poetry, word choice matters. Word choice matters! There’s something unsettling in having the first adjective used to describe something/someone that was previously “bound” and “waiting for rescue” reflect cleanliness, purity, a lack of being tarnished by whatever it is the poet envisions has happened in the last thirty years. A woman’s purity after rescue is such a crucial component of the “saved damsel” mythos, and I can’t help but keep reading the “the words she made her business” line and thinking yes, yes, she made it her business and you are taking it as if it is yours.
KG: Women are so often robbed of their agency–in life, and in literature. That Kelley idolizes Sexton, yet still feels it is his place to “save” her displays a kind of arrogance that I can barely conceptualize–an arrogance that must come from occupying, for so many years, a position of extreme privilege. Even if we are to accept Kelley’s flimsy argument that “IT’S A METAPHOR!”, that he’s simply writing about a rare edition of Sexton’s “The Book of Folly”, how is that any less insulting? Do we need Collin Kelley to dig up this tome? Do we need Collin Kelley to venerate Sexton? As if Sexton herself, her legacy as a writer, is somehow insufficient? I think not.
Let’s also consider the sexualized language in this strophe–lines like “I open tight covers”. Again, I find it unlikely that the poet was unaware of the dual meaning present in this line–for how, really, are the covers of a book in any way “tight”? Tight is, however, a word often employed in the diction of sex and sexuality, and paired so closely with “covers” calls up images of both a bed and a burial shroud–disturbing, certainly, but missing the mark as far as reverence and appreciation go.
And then, of course, the poet invokes Anne’s physical body, imagines her “wrist touching the gilded edges”, the kind of line we might expect to see in a love poem–an intimacy that belies Kelley’s claim that all this is meant to simply convey digging up a forgotten book. Is it wrong to feel an intimate connection with a poetic predecessor, a dead mentor whose words helped shape us creatively? Of course not. But to sexualize a dead woman, to romanticize her suicide by writing a poem that amounts to digging up her “bound and gagged” corpse–perhaps I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s wrong, but it’s certainly disappointing.
This is a rescue 30 years too late, but I know
she would say that I saved the best part,
the things that kept her up at night,
now sitting on my shelf safe from harm.
SV: The rescue is complete, and the “best part” of Anne Sexton is “saved” by a male poet who can preserve her legacy (and keep her pristine) better than she can herself. This poem is particularly appalling as the first in a line of poems chosen by the George Center for the Book to celebrate National Poetry Month as it continues a long-standing tradition of publishing men whose work gags women, however metaphorically. As it continues a long-standing tradition of publishing men whose work treats women as objects, literally converts them to objects for the purpose of poetry, and insists at any rebuttal that we, women, are incapable of reading, are incapable of understanding the complex metaphors of male poetics. Women can tell the difference between misogyny and art. We can and we will. Men can continue writing misogynistic poetry and journals can continue publishing it but I will continue yelling about it and I will not shut up. I will not be gagged.
KG: It’s the “30 years too late” which (if you’ll excuse the bad pun) really put the nail in the coffin of Kelley’s “IT’S A METAPHOR!” defense. For why would it be thirty years too late to rescue a book? Kelley is pointing the reader towards the double meaning that has been obvious from the fourth line of the poem: Sexton is dead, and, tragically, the male poet was unable to exhume her corpse in time to revive her. He must, therefore, be content to “[save] the best part”, the book that he can put “on [his] shelf safe from harm”. I think it is this line that, ultimately, is the most patronizing. The poet can preserve the book because it is an object without agency, something he can keep and hoard and guard from the horrors of the outside world. The poet is aware that he is “30 years too late” to protect Sexton, the woman, in this way–but the desire expressed in these lines is clear: if he could, Collin Kelley would love to have white knighted Sexton, to “keep her safe”. Except, of course, Sexton chose to end her life. Collin Kelley is literally expressing a desire to rob Sexton of her free will, to protect her not from the outside world, but from herself. This is dehumanizing. It’s insulting. And to deny the conflation of “The Book of Folly” and Sexton’s body is ridiculous. Do I think the poet meant to insult, to offend? No, of course not. But they never (or rarely) do. What’s so disappointing about this poem is that it speaks to a naivety, an utter lack of regard for women, and particularly for women poets. The poet thought he was paying tribute. Instead, he was digging up the long-dead corpse of his idol and puppeting it for his own gratification. It’s sloppy, and it’s disappointing. I don’t believe the poet is a terrible person, but I do believe he’s chronically out of touch with contemporary criticism.
SV: While we’re writing this, several other people have joined us in responding to the poem and the poet has sort of apologized, by way of saying he’s asked the administrators to remove the poem and adding that it was not his intent to dehumanize or victimize Anne Sexton or women. This is positive, kind of, but deleting an instance of misogynistic art is not the same as retracting it with a statement, and deleting it now also deletes the voices of the women who have called the poem out as problematic. It gags us, again, with no promise of anything better in the future of poetry.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised feminist poet and essayist. Her first chapbook, MY HEART IN ASPIC, will be published by Porkbelly Press in 2015 and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in No Tokens Journal, VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Bone Bouquet, Weird Sister, and elsewhere. She is an assistant editrix at Fruita Pulp and can be found online at sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com & @coolniceghost.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she works also as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work has been published in Curbside Splendor, Westerly, Cordite, and Going Down Swinging, and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She can be found online at kiagroom.com, and tweets @whodreamedit.