All My Pretty Ones

My obsession with Anne Sexton started when I was a teenager. The dark, deeply troubled, and occasionally hysterical tone of her poems stuck a chord with me on a very deep level.  I was a sullen, gothy teen and any poet responsible for a poem called “Wanting to Die” had my immediate attention. Given that I had at that point already exhausted the works of Sylvia Plath, becoming myopically enamored with Anne Sexton seemed the next logical step. I tracked down all of her books and at one point I even bought a copy of Peter Gabriel’s So because it included a song about her (“Mercy Street”). Even though her most famously misanthropic poems satisfied some kind of teenage need for being morose, her work eventually meant much more to me than that. Her poems were not only a gateway into a world of more serious poetry, they were also a fascinating glimpse of how one’s own psychology could be reflected, analyzed, and understood in the context of their creative work. Over the years I have written many a poem (most of them bad) trying to mimic Anne Sexton. Thankfully, I know I’m not the only one. Her work–particularly her early work–remains untouchable. She was a troubled genius…but a genius all the same.

Below is a poem that we read in my “Poetry & Photography” class at CCNY. It’s one of her most famous poems and one that lends itself nicely to a discussion of the way a poem can address and react to a photograph.


All My Pretty Ones

Father, this year’s jinx rides us apart
where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;
a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,
leaving me here to shuffle and disencumber
you from the residence you could not afford:
a gold key, your half of a woolen mill,
twenty suits from Dunne’s, an English Ford,
the love and legal verbiage of another will,
boxes of pictures of people I do not know.
I touch their cardboard faces. They must go.

But the eyes, as thick as wood in this album,
hold me. I stop here, where a small boy
waits in a ruffled dress for someone to come …
for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy
or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.
Is this your father’s father, this commodore
in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile
has made it unimportant who you are looking for.
I’ll never know what these faces are all about.
I lock them into their book and throw them out.

This is the yellow scrapbook that you began
the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly
as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran
the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me
and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went
down and recent years where you went flush
on war. This year, solvent but sick, you meant
to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.
But before you had that second chance, I cried
on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died.

These are the snapshots of marriage, stopped in places.
Side by side at the rail toward Nassau now;
here, with the winner’s cup at the speedboat races,
here, in tails at the Cotillion, you take a bow,
here, by our kennel of dogs with their pink eyes,
running like show-bred pigs in their chain-link pen;
here, at the horseshow where my sister wins a prize;
and here, standing like a duke among groups of men.
Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,
my first lost keeper, to love or look at later.

I hold a five-year diary that my mother kept
for three years, telling all she does not say
of your alcoholic tendency. You overslept,
she writes. My God, father, each Christmas Day
with your blood, will I drink down your glass
of wine? The diary of your hurly-burly years
goes to my shelf to wait for my age to pass.
Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.
Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,
bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.

Anne Sexton, “All My Pretty Ones” 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.