Anne Sexton

Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know," from All My Pretty Ones (1962), can be considered "confessional" in the sense that the poem's speaker can be clearly identified with the poet herself; yet at the same time, the poem is a meditative lyric which raises fundamental questions about the nature of death. The primary philosophical tension of the poem opposes the societal construction of death as an occasion for social and religious ritual and the poetic construction of death as an occasion for creative and personal exploration. The poem begins at the funeral of Sexton's father - who had died only three months after the death of her mother - and it takes the form of a bitter elegy for both her parents:

Gone, I say and walk from church, refusing the stiff procession to the grave, letting the dead ride alone in the hearse. It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate myself where the sun gutters from the sky, where the sea swings in like an iron gate and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones from the whitehearted water and when we touch we enter touch entirely. No one's alone. Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes in their stone boats. They are more like stone than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

The highly symmetrical form of the poem - four quatrains with interlocking (abab) rhymes - suggests a sense of confinement or enforced order from which the speaker is trying to escape. Yet the speaker's utterance ofthe single word "gone" represents her inability to make any public comment about her parents' death. The word cuts in two ways: the parents are "gone" to the grave, but she too is already "gone," mentally and spiritually absent from the scene, as she walks out of the church. Instead of joining in the funeral procession and thus participating in the expected rituals of mourning, Sexton refuses "the stiff procession to the grave" and instead drives to Cape Cod. This escape into a new landscape - one which suggests the desire to be surrounded by sea and sky rather than by artifacts of the human world -allows her to regain at least a partial sense of being alive.

The dominant gesture of the poem is one of refusal: the speaker refuses to ride in the funeral procession; the parents "refuse / to be blessed" in their dying; and the poem itselfrefuses to allow the familiar poetic tropes ofnature as consolation or of the elegy as redemption. Nature is presented in terms that suggest indifference or even menace: in a series of striking images, the sun "gutters from the sky," the sea "swings in like an iron gate," and the wind "falls in like stones." Even in her attempt to escape human society for the natural world, the speaker can only find metaphors taken from the human realm. Gutters and gates both represent liminal zones, boundaries between one space and another: between the speaker and her dead parents, or in psychological terms between the speaker and her ability to experience the cathartic emotions ofgriefand mourning. At the same time, the stones seem to be hurled at the speaker and her lover by an angry, "whitehearted" sea, as if punishing her for her refusal to behave in a more respectful way. These images reinforce the speaker's sense of isolation: if people die "in another country," then we can never know "the truth the dead know." Yet if the characteristic posture of the speaker in Sexton's poetry is that of the lone or isolated female, "The Truth the Dead Know" offers at least the possibility of interpersonal contact. The two middle stanzas show the speaker with her lover, and their touch reassures her that "no one's alone." The progression of pronouns in the poem - from "I" in the first stanza to "we" in the second and third to "they" in the fourth - suggests the psychological journey of grief from a focus on the bereaved self to an engagement with the dead.

The final stanza is perhaps the most deeply engaging. Sexton returns to the question posed by the title, which seems to have been forgotten in the trip to the Cape: "And what of the dead?" The question is of course a rhetorical one, since it is formulated in such vague terms as to offer no possibility of a response. Sexton herself responds by suggesting an analogy in the form of a metaphor that is almost riddle-like in its formulation: "They lie without shoes / in their stone boats." The "stone boats" - echoing the stones of stanza III but also suggesting a coffin or grave that transports the body to the land of the dead - are described further as "more like stone / than the sea would be if it stopped." These lines - though at first paradoxical - work according to a definite poetic logic. The absence ofmotion suggested by the sea stopping is perceived as even more still than an object that never moved, such as a stone. The poem ends with the curious reduction of the dead to "throat, eye, and knucklebone": rather than souls waiting to be blessed, the dead are represented by seemingly random parts of the physical body. But while the strange choice of body-parts might seem to emphasize the arbitrariness ofdeath, we can read Sexton's choices symbolically as well. The throat and the eye represent speech and vision, respectively, and thus suggest primary modes of interaction between human beings. The "knucklebone" can be read in different ways. On one level, it is that recalcitrant part that cannot be elevated to any transcendent level of meaning; on another level, it can be associated with violence or abuse. The rhyme of "knucklebone" with "stone" emphasizes the finality of death, one that allows no access to an abstracted "truth" which the dead might be privileged to know.

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