Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound

By Anne Sexton 1928–1974 Anne Sexton
I am surprised to see
that the ocean is still going on.   
Now I am going back
and I have ripped my hand
from your hand as I said I would   
and I have made it this far
as I said I would
and I am on the top deck now   
holding my wallet, my cigarettes   
and my car keys
at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday
in August of 1960.

Dearest,
although everything has happened,
nothing has happened.   
The sea is very old.
The sea is the face of Mary,
without miracles or rage
or unusual hope,
grown rough and wrinkled
with incurable age.

Still,
I have eyes.
These are my eyes:
the orange letters that spell   
ORIENT on the life preserver   
that hangs by my knees;
the cement lifeboat that wears   
its dirty canvas coat;
the faded sign that sits on its shelf   
saying KEEP OFF.
Oh, all right, I say,
I’ll save myself.

Over my right shoulder   
I see four nuns
who sit like a bridge club,   
their faces poked out   
from under their habits,
as good as good babies who   
have sunk into their carriages.   
Without discrimination   
the wind pulls the skirts   
of their arms.
Almost undressed,
I see what remains:
that holy wrist,
that ankle,
that chain.

Oh God,
although I am very sad,
could you please
let these four nuns
loosen from their leather boots
and their wooden chairs
to rise out
over this greasy deck,   
out over this iron rail,
nodding their pink heads to one side,   
flying four abreast
in the old-fashioned side stroke;
each mouth open and round,
breathing together   
as fish do,
singing without sound.

Dearest,
see how my dark girls sally forth,
over the passing lighthouse of Plum Gut,   
its shell as rusty
as a camp dish,
as fragile as a pagoda
on a stone;
out over the little lighthouse
that warns me of drowning winds
that rub over its blind bottom
and its blue cover;
winds that will take the toes
and the ears of the rider
or the lover.

There go my dark girls,   
their dresses puff   
in the leeward air.
Oh, they are lighter than flying dogs   
or the breath of dolphins;
each mouth opens gratefully,
wider than a milk cup.
My dark girls sing for this.
They are going up.
See them rise
on black wings, drinking
the sky, without smiles
or hands
or shoes.
They call back to us
from the gauzy edge of paradise,
good news, good news.

Anne Sexton, “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

Source: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981)

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Poet Anne Sexton 1928–1974

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects Separation & Divorce, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature

Poetic Terms Epistle, Confessional

 Anne  Sexton

Biography

Much of Anne Sexton's poetry is autobiographical and concentrates on her deeply personal feelings, especially anguish. In particular, many of her poems record her battles with mental illness. She spent many years in psychoanalysis, including several long stays in mental hospitals. As she told Beatrice Berg, her writing began, in fact, as therapy: "My analyst told me to write between our sessions about what I was feeling and . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Separation & Divorce, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Epistle, Confessional

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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