Thoughts on Sexton’s “Her Kind”

I was thinking a lot about Anne Sexton’s poem “The Nude Swim” today. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on Sexton; I know what most people know about her personal life.  (This is not a scholarly blog.) I was also thinking about something Jean Shinoda Bolen wrote in her new book Like A Tree in the section where she discusses the four century-long women’s holocaust that began and ended with the Holy Inquisition- an extended period of violence that claimed the lives of millions of women. In her chapter “Present-Day Inquisition,” Bolen writes:

“During the Inquisition, the first to be burned at the stake were the wise women, midwife healers, who used plants to ease the pain of childbirth and herbs to heal…The Inquisition was established in 1252 by Pope Innocent IV, and continued with officially sanctioned torture for five and half centuries until it was abolished in 1816 by Pope Pius VII. It has been called ‘the women’s holocaust,’ with the number of women condemned to the stake estimated from over 80,000 (Bartstow, Witchcraze, 1995) to 9 million (Dworkin, Women Hating, 1973).”

….The same office that conducted the Inquisition (the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith) is conducting an investigation of North American nun. The Vatican announced in 2009 that there would be an apostolic visitation to investigate the religious life and beliefs of communities affiliated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LVWR), representing about 95 percent of the 68,000 nuns in North America (Fox, “Vatican Investigates U.S. Women Religious Leadership, National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2009).

What’s truly surprising is how women have survived at all in spite of centuries of brutal, inhuman oppression and violence on a global scale.

This poem deals with the What by working in the How. Specifically what works for me Sexton’s “Her Kind” is the rhythm of the poem – the A/B/A/B/C/B/C, with the final C line being oddly truncated.  Sexton uses a lot of alliteration, giving the poem a ranting quality. If you listen to the link below, you can hear Sexton read it. Her reading is more of an incantation than a rant, however. The details in the second stanza – “the skillets, carvings, shells, closets, silks, innumerable goods” connect the public life of the poem’s persona to her alternate identity. In one sense, the poem rails against of the universal trauma of having to perform “womanhood” in mid-century America.

Anne Sexton reads \”Her Kind\”

HER KIND
by Anne Sexton

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.

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.

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.

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