Site icon Hilary Holladay

Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind”

I have always admired Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind.” It is as good and purposeful as the nib of a fountain pen sinking into a bloviating patriarch’s fleshy old fanny.

It starts off:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.

I have been her kind.

We are not in a classroom, so let’s forget about “the speaker” and imagine this is Sexton herself. Picture the glamorous Anne, her lovely blue eyes scanning a bunch of boring houses 10,000 feet below her. Alone and under cover of darkness, she is out on the town doing her hitch. Or rather, she has done her hitch; it is on her resume, and she’s not hiding it.

But who is that “lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind”? Why, it is still Anne, speaking in an arch tone as she puts on a pair of male gaze-goggles and then flings them aside.

“I have been her kind,” she confesses with the mind-bending solipsism of a true sorceress.

The middle stanza amps up the weirdness:

I have found the warm caves in the woods,

filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,

closets, silks, innumerable goods;

fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:

whining, rearranging the disaligned.

A woman like that is misunderstood.

I have been her kind.

Honestly, can anyone read this aloud without laughing? And yes, “A woman like that is misunderstood,” but this one is so deep into parody she can’t be bothered to care.

On to the final stanza, which finds our heroine defiantly describing what she has done (not what has been done to her) in a male world intent on debasing and destroying her:

I have ridden in your cart, driver,

waved my nude arms at villages going by,

learning the last bright routes, survivor

where your flames still bite my thigh

and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.

A woman like that is not ashamed to die.

I have been her kind.

Like Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” Sexton-as-witch is an exhibitionist taking charge of her spectacle. She knows her tormentors will hyperventilate at the sight of her “nude arms” and get all queasy with delight when her thigh begins to burn.

She mocks them with each self-centering ‘I’ rhyme she throws down on the page. Swerving, swirling, she nevertheless speaks in a measured verse that approaches rhyme royal. She is that sure of herself even as her ribs crack. And notice that she never dies, quite.

To borrow a couple of lines from Emily Dickinson, she is “dying in Drama — / and Drama — is never dead –.”

And yet Sexton insists: “A woman like that is not ashamed to die.”

That line is a raised middle finger with a painted, pointed nail.

It clinches the poem; it is the truth of “Her Kind.”

I wish it had not been the truth of Sexton’s life, but I salute the courage it took for her to say what she said and live as long as she was able to stand being alive.

Godspeed, Anne! Let starlight split the black waves as you swim toward us again and again.




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