Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward

By Anne Sexton 1928–1974 Anne Sexton
Child, the current of your breath is six days long.   
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;   
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed   
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded   
down starch halls with the other unnested throng   
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head   
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.   
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.

The doctors are enamel. They want to know
the facts. They guess about the man who left me,   
some pendulum soul, going the way men go   
and leave you full of child. But our case history   
stays blank. All I did was let you grow.   
Now we are here for all the ward to see.   
They thought I was strange, although   
I never spoke a word. I burst empty   
of you, letting you learn how the air is so.   
The doctors chart the riddle they ask of me   
and I turn my head away. I do not know.

Yours is the only face I recognize.
Bone at my bone, you drink my answers in.   
Six times a day I prize
your need, the animals of your lips, your skin   
growing warm and plump. I see your eyes
lifting their tents. They are blue stones, they begin   
to outgrow their moss. You blink in surprise
and I wonder what you can see, my funny kin,   
as you trouble my silence. I am a shelter of lies.   
Should I learn to speak again, or hopeless in   
such sanity will I touch some face I recognize?

Down the hall the baskets start back. My arms   
fit you like a sleeve, they hold
catkins of your willows, the wild bee farms   
of your nerves, each muscle and fold
of your first days. Your old man’s face disarms   
the nurses. But the doctors return to scold   
me. I speak. It is you my silence harms.   
I should have known; I should have told
them something to write down. My voice alarms   
my throat. “Name of father—none.” I hold   
you and name you bastard in my arms.

And now that’s that. There is nothing more   
that I can say or lose.
Others have traded life before
and could not speak. I tighten to refuse   
your owling eyes, my fragile visitor.
I touch your cheeks, like flowers. You bruise   
against me. We unlearn. I am a shore   
rocking you off. You break from me. I choose   
your only way, my small inheritor
and hand you off, trembling the selves we lose.   
Go child, who is my sin and nothing more.

Anne Sexton, “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” 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 Birth & Birthdays, Parenthood, Living

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Persona

 Anne  Sexton


Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts and raised in Weston. The daughter of a successful businessman, Sexton’s childhood was materially comfortable but not happy. Her relationships with her parents were difficult, perhaps even abusive. Sexton’s closest confidante was her maiden great-aunt. She attended boarding school and after graduation enrolled in Garland Junior College for one year. Sexton later described Garland as . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Birth & Birthdays, Parenthood, Living

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Persona

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