The action of reading straight through a collection of Anne Sexton’s poetry is a process of trial and error. After repeated attempts, one finds oneself falling straight through the text—its language too moist, like a piece of cake left soaking far too long in sweet wine. The way one gets after consuming too much sugar: stomach cramps, head both lolling and buzzing simultaneously.

Her images are spun from dirt she’s picked up, cleaned off and presented with the notion that her reader might not know the grime through which she ransacked. If each of her poems were a room, the floor might drop at any moment due to false bottoms.

I began my reading in 1960, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, continued on into 1962, All My Pretty Ones; skipped 1966, Live or Die—I already knew its ending—and then stopped at the backend of 1969, Love Poems, because I had gotten full.  I had eaten my share of languid anguish, and now I needed a month to digest. The journey to this place was one vivid in accounts of tears and absences of breath. By the time I decided to return all the books to the shelf, I worried I might have permanently damaged myself and become glazed over irreparably.

The interest to me was rooted in the matter of a perception of voice. Sexton’s poems in her 1969 collection, Love Poems, are ones that seem to flicker about many different feelings—taking on various personas that match each one. She embodies the hurt lover, the left lover, the rejected lover and the triumphant one. However, Sexton’s poetic tone in general makes it hard to shake the thought that all of these voices are hers—all of these emotions must be personal to actual events. Her poems are widely accepted as confessional, making them vulnerable by default, a problem when trying to embody a more aggressive voice of power. The people whom these poems speak to are assumed to be people made from tangible flesh and blood. Nonetheless, my mind goes to a place of curiosity in that these specific poems are the fantasy. For instance, my collective knowledge of Sexton promotes the idea that, yes, she was the other woman, and I have little doubt that indeed she was, or had been at one point. But I can’t move beyond the intrigue I find in subtle possibilities of fictional gesticulation.

In “The Interrogation of the Man of Many Hearts,” I spent some time flipping this voice, which I’ll refer to as Sexton’s. In my process of reading, she transformed before me from the interrogator (“Who’s she, that one in your arms?”) to the wife being discussed (“Thus I have tied these other knots, yet I would rather not think of them when I speak to you of her.”) and then to the man of many hearts (“You see the song is the life, the life I can’t live.”) But then something interesting occurred, and the poem became reflective. The voice became succinct, it was all the same: the man, the woman, the marriage itself—it was pointed inwards, evaluating what one might see through a glass window.

The collection of these love poems continues to draw me back in its quiet way of actually taking the idea of romantic poetry, and turning it on its own head. In many of these poems, Sexton transforms internally—going from the place of submissive lover to the woman choosing to love herself, all the while romanticizing each of her subjects. “In Celebration of My Uterus,” she elates over her menstruation as the determination that she is in fact not pregnant—using a lyrical, joyous form of verse, as though to say “I am free.” And then in “Song for a Red Nightgown”—I can’t help but think of menstruation, again—she ends the poem with “this nightgown girl, this awesome flyer, has not seen how the moon floats through her and in between.” Like a small internal win amongst many external losses.

Desire is rampant throughout these poems, beautifully so. And I lap it up far too quickly, then get sick, then begin to lap it all up again—because it’s hard to stop, because I want a story and I’m being left with flickering images of goo and all-natural sweetener. The poems support the reader, but only to a point—then the false wood paneling gives out and one realizes that the floor was not the ground, it was just a second story.

Harris Bauer’s “On Anne Sexton” won third prize in the Third Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. In 2013, she was awarded first prize for the poem “Cry Wolf.” Harris is a senior in the Visual and Critical Studies program. She has this to say about her essay: “I have mostly been working with the idea of fragmented storytelling. This is technically a critical essay, although it is written with an experimental tone and structure, surrounding a few thoughts I had about Anne Sexton’s poems.”