Crossing the Atlantic

By Anne Sexton 1928–1974 Anne Sexton
We sail out of season into an oyster-gray wind,   
over a terrible hardness.
Where Dickens crossed with mal de mer
in twenty weeks or twenty days
I cross toward him in five.
Wrapped in robes—
not like Caesar but like liver with bacon—
I rest on the stern
burning my mouth with a wind-hot ash,   
watching my ship
bypass the swells
as easily as an old woman reads a palm.
I think, as I look North, that a field of mules   
lay down to die.

The ship is 27 hours out.
I have entered her.
She might be a whale,
sleeping 2000 and ship’s company,
the last 40¢ martini
and steel staterooms where night goes on forever.   
Being inside them is, I think,
the way one would dig into a planet
and forget the word light.
I have walked cities,
miles of mole alleys with carpets.
Inside I have been ten girls who speak French.   
They languish everywhere like bedsheets.

Oh my Atlantic of the cracked shores,
those blemished gates of Rockport and Boothbay,   
those harbor smells like the innards of animals!   
Old childish Queen, where did you go,
you bayer at wharfs and Victorian houses?

I have read each page of my mother’s voyage.   
I have read each page of her mother’s voyage.
I have learned their words as they learned Dickens’.   
I have swallowed these words like bullets.   
But I have forgotten the last guest—terror.   
Unlike them, I cannot toss in the cabin   
as in childbirth.
Now always leaving me in the West   
is the wake,
a ragged bridal veil, unexplained,
seductive, always rushing down the stairs,   
never detained, never enough.

The ship goes on
as though nothing else were happening.
Generation after generation,
I go her way.
She will run East, knot by knot, over an old bloodstream,
stripping it clear,
each hour ripping it, pounding, pounding,
forcing through as through a virgin.
Oh she is so quick!
This dead street never stops!

Anne Sexton, “Crossing the Atlantic” 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 Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature

Poetic Terms Free Verse, 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 Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Confessional

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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