Anne Sexton and the Problem of Bald James
by Nicholas Rombes
I was reading Cynthia Cruz’s remarkable book of poems The Glimmering Room (Four Walls Books, 2012) when these lines, from “Self-Portrait”, broke a years-long spell I had been under:
I did not want my body
Spackled in the world’s
Black beads and broke
Diamonds. What the world
Wanted, I did not.
Right at the phrase “…Black beads and broke” – I felt the sharp kick of recognition and, putting The Glimmering Room back down on my desk, understood that Cruz’s words activated a dark mechanism whose soft gears I could feel turning within me. They would tear me apart from the inside out, I knew, and to stop them I had to go back. To Anne Sexton. And to Bald James.
This was during an era when the edges of things grew blurred and indistinct. Probably around 1989, or 1990. I had moved into a small, one room, L-shaped apartment on Atherton Street, above a U-Haul rental office. There was a mercury lamp outside the window that hissed at night and that attracted insects that seemed impossibly, catastrophically large. Graduate school had become nightmarish, bringing out the worst in all of us. The seminar rooms – if spoken words could somehow take material shape – would have been smeared in blood, the blood of vowels and consonants.
Sometimes, on Thursday afternoons, Amy and Bald James and I would go to the Brickhouse to try to talk it out and untangle the theory and the weird transformations that gripped us.
Amy must have been my age, around 21 or 22, but on most days she looked like a 16-year old.
Tattooed on her small left wrist was a yellow daisy with a green stem. Of all of us back then, she had gotten most tangled by the wreckage of postmodernism and the words of Julia Kristeva and for reasons unknown to us had chosen Bald James and myself to confide in, as if we had any answers. Her apartment windows were draped-over in heavy black fabric and on the day that it all began to go bad she gave me a smile that wasn’t a smile exactly, but rather something like a warning in code. It frightened me, but by then it was too late, not because that smile spooked me (a smile that was reversed, somehow) but rather because of its eerie familiarity, as if I had seen it before somewhere.
Bald James was doomed, though none of us knew it at the time of course.
He was in the bathroom when Amy smiled at me. When he came out he said he thought he was sick. Amy went and pulled back one of the black drapes and in flooded the sun. The room seemed to take on a different, ominous shape.
That was when we first began to mix up Anne Sexton and Clara Wieland. We had been reading the 1798 early American gothic novel Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown, written during the ravages and chaos of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, in the early American literature seminar. (In an August 1798 letter to his brother James, Brown wrote about the complications of trying to publish Wieland: “heavy rains, uncleansed sinks, and a continuance of unexampled heat, has within these ten days, given birth to the yellow fever among us, in its epidemical form.”) We also happened to be reading Anne Sexton’s letters in the Autobiography class. During those moments in Amy’s apartment, in the new sunlight that distorted not only the shape of the room but the shape of thoughts within the room, as if the black curtains had protected us from disorder, something altogether new was introduced into our world: dread.
James grew dizzy and unsteady and Amy walked him to the small kitchen table.
She poured him a glass of water.
He sat at the white table and put his hairless head down.
A jet screamed overhead, and then another.
The building rattled.
On Amy’s bookshelves, I spotted a 1970s Kent State University Press edition of Wieland, with its fuzzy, degraded picture of a house or hut. As Bald James slowly deflated at the table, I opened to this passage, where Clara Wieland – the novel’s epistolary narrator in a novel that involves ventriloquism, murder and many, many dark nights in forests, along riverbeds, and in dangerous open fields – relates an incident where she hears voices in the night plotting her death:
But how was I to regard this midnight conversation? Hoarse and manlike
voices conferring on the means of death, so near my bed, and at such an
Clara, the first and thorniest unreliable narrator in American fiction, is so certain of her uncertainty, so possessed by doubt, so vulnerable except that she is the one – insofar as she is the sole narrator – in command of the very voices she describes. Published in the year of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which in effect criminalized unwanted political speech and writing1, Wieland is an open furnace that leads to hell. (Brown sent a copy of the novel to then vice president Thomas Jefferson who, in an era when the relatively new genre of the novel in America was still regarded with suspicion, wrote back to Brown that he hoped to read the novel soon and that “some of the most agreeable moments of my life have been spent in reading works of imagination.”) And standing there in Amy’s shape-shifting apartment, still shaking from the roar of the jet, I felt as if I too was at the threshold of some horrible, infinite future.
And at the same time, existing in a haunted parallel universe with Clara Wieland, there was Anne Sexton, whose A Self-Portrait in Letters we were also reading, with the black and white photograph of Sexton on the cover, a photograph so tragic in how Sexton looks to the left, to the spine of the book, as if she was already finished, as if the future existed but not in a way that could be reasonably imagined to allow for her.
The shock of that photograph: Sexton looking against the spatial flow of Western time, not to the future but to the dead past. We had in seminar just read the letters from 1966, the year her collection Live or Die was published. She was 38 at the time.
From 2 August 1966 to Lois Ames:
I’m scared of bugs, animals, blazing sun (having upped my Thorazine so I will
really burn), voices in my head. I am looking forward to falling in love with
African skies. I want to see it, if only I can make it despite my fears. I am all
And then, as if Amy and Bald James and I shared the same dangerous thought at the same time, without words, we whip-lashed back to Wieland where Carwin, the voice-throwing dark stranger, has set in motion terrible violence. Clara’s brother Wieland – commanded by the voice of God or Satan or Carwin’s voice disguised as God or Satan–has strangled his wife to death(“Thrice I slackened my grasp, and life kept its hold, though in the midst of pangs. Her eye-balls started from their sockets,” he tells the court) and murdered his children. When confronted by Clara about his role in using his ventriloqual voice to urge her brother Wieland to familicide, Carwin responds in self-cancelling statements:
The answer was now given, but confusedly and scarcely articulated. “I meant
nothing – I intended no ill – if I understand – if I do not mistake you – it is too
true – I did appear – in the entry – did speak. The contrivance was mine, but –
Tangled and dragged down into the muck of un-meaning, Carwin’s language leads nowhere. He is both the instigator and not the instigator of the novel’s destruction, someone whose words – as are every characters’ words in the book – are reported to us by Clara as first-person narrator whose dark desires and secrets slip through the cracks of her own writing. A typical sentence: “My mind was thronged by vivid but confused images.” If it’s possible for a novel to exist as a virus, its words and pauses sleeping but alive for hundreds of years, waiting to be activated by an unwary reader, then Wieland was a pestilence of words.
Impossibly, Clara’s long letter that constitutes the entirely of Wieland and Sexton’s letters had become mixed together, their words touching each other across centuries. Sexton, in a March 1964 letter to her friend and psychiatrist Anne Clarke:
As I may have said, I am not at home in myself. I am my own stranger.” Then, six months later, to Jon Stallworthy, her editor at Oxford University Press in London: “I understand Kafka. I understand Rilke. Only through them can I understand myself. The life story or better named, the case history, is only the machine, a Kafka machine.” And then our thoughts boomeranged back to Clara: “had I not rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no controul?
Under the pressures of theory the reality of all things eroded, including us.
Everything was unwinding very quickly.
Bald James still sat at the table.
Amy seemed to be avoiding the uncurtained window, as if she didn’t want to be seen by someone or something.
Her eyes seemed to be saying no no no no no.
It would only be months later, after her death, that I understood that in opening the dark drapes in her apartment Amy had made a decision that would seal her fate. It was the beginning of a slow suicide, as absurd as that sounds. “Obviously the machine was breaking up,” we learn from the narrator in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” “Its quiet operation had been an illusion.” Clara and Anne Sexton had raced toward this conclusion from different historical points, and reading them both at the same time during that awful semester had somehow put us in the middle.
We had entered into a new era.
An era of fear, and it wasn’t until reading Cruz’s The Glimmering Room earlier this year that I understood anything about it at all. It forever ruined Bald James, who was the most sensitive of us all. Amy, she coped the only way she thought possible, by removing herself completely.
And as for me, I made a very dark bargain, and that’s why I’m still here.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes, author of Cinema in the Digital Age and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, is an English professor in Detroit and also a columnist at The Rumpus. Some of his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oxford American, The Believer, Exquisite Corpse, and other places.