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Anne Sexton

Dreamed 1974/10/4 by J.D. McClatchy

I got to know Anne Sexton around 1972. We grew to be friends, and were an odd pair. She was by then a celebrity, and a wreck. But a glamorous and compelling one--constantly looped on vodka and pills, desperately divorced, mentally unstable, but dressed in a long red satin dress with her husky voice and raucous laugh. I, on the other hand, was a serious-minded graduate student, nervously gay, wide-eyed.

When I first visited her, to do an interview, I arrived at her suburban house on the dot of eleven, as agreed. One of her daughters answered the door, explained that her mother wasn't feeling well and was still in bed, and would I wait in the living room please. An hour passed. The daughter reappeared and asked if I'd follow her upstairs. Mother was still in bed, but would see me there. I was shown into the bedroom. Anne was in the midst of a huge bed, propped up on pillows, in a swank bathrobe. She motioned me to a chair. I mumbled something about not wanting to trouble her. That launched her on an account of her recent woes and illnesses. She wound up with the latest complaint, rubbing her hands over her robe. "And I have very sensitive nipples," she said. "You'll see."

Ann Sexton, poet; black and white photo.

Yikes. I'd only just been introduced. Oh, but all that sorted itself out soon enough, and we became pals. Within a couple of years, she asked if I would serve as her literary executor (I declined)--a request, I only realized later, that was part of a determined and gradual withdrawal that culminated in her suicide. A couple of weeks before she killed herself, she was calling me from the pay phone in a mental hospital, insisting she was receiving radio transmissions in her cavities and would I come check her out of this hellhole. My sympathy pulsed, but even I knew enough not to intervene. She came home. I called in. And when, one day that I telephoned, I was told by a housekeeper that Anne was in Baltimore, giving a poetry reading, and would return tomorrow, I said that I'd call back the day after. In fact, I forgot to do so.

That night I had a dream.

I was watching the evening news. Walter Cronkite was announcing that the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton had died, and behind him was an inset showing some sort of grainy home movie of her. She was sitting on a sofa, with a child on her lap. She had on a dress and a hair-do that resembled photographs of my mother when I was small. And the child in her lap, I then noticed, was a young boy, in shorts and a horizontally striped T-shirt, with a buzz cut. I recognized him as well. Sexton had no son. The boy was myself.
Early the next morning, the dream throbbed--when, suddenly, the phone rang. It was Howard Moss. He wondered if I'd heard the news. Yesterday, Anne Sexton had committed suicide.

My dream, of course, had to do with my guilt at not having telephoned her when I'd promised to. But the coincidence was more than uncanny and remains as my only (unreal) experience of precognition. I could as easily--as I do now--have read her last poems to see the same unwinding, the same cries and whispers, the same stark refusals. As a reader, instead of as a dreamer, I could have been a child on her lap.


J.D. McClatchy is a poet whose works include Scenes from Another Life (1981), Stars Principal (1986), The Rest of the Way (1990), Ten Commandments (1998) and the libretto for the opera Emmeline. This account is excerpted from Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Rockerick Townley, 1998, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press).

--Chris Wayan

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