With Mercy for the Greedy
Concerning your letter in which you ask
me to call a priest and in which you ask
me to wear The Cross that you enclose;
your own cross,
your dog-bitten cross,
no larger than a thumb,
small and wooden, no thorns, this rose -
I pray to its shadow,
that gray place
where it lies on your letter ... deep, deep.
I detest my sins and I try to believe
in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,
its solid neck, its brown sleep.
True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can't. Need is not quite belief.
All morning long
I have worn
your cross, hung with package string around my throat.
It tapped me lightly as a child's heart might,
tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.
Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.
My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue's wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.
Interviewer: One of the things that's particularly interesting about this is the dedication I think, and the poem's preoccupation with religion - were you brought up in any particular religion realistically?
Sexton: Yes, a protestant one.
Interviewer: A protestant one?
Interviewer: In your poems there sometimes seems to be a special sort of preoccupation with ritual of a sort that I suppose is not very common to Protestantism.
Sexton: No, I think I'm rather attracted to Catholicism and everyone thinks that I was a Catholic and that I left the church and now I tell everyone I'm an atheist. No one knows what I am, but I think I have a great preoccupation with Catholicism. All on my own, with no influence whatsoever.
Interviewer: It's interesting that you can say, well I'm an atheist, quite surely, and at the same time have this preoccupation because...
Sexton: This is an obsession though, you see, and I'm not sure where it leads to. I even answer it in this poem by saying it is poems that have done it for me, poems are my religion. That's my answer in the poem.
Interviewer: You do come back, not only in this poem but in some others, though to very realistic details about certain features of Christianity like the crucifixion - you say "There is a beautiful Jesus, he is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef." Well this reminds one of certain sorts of very moving religious paintings in which the actual physical suffering of Christ on the cross is very present.
Sexton: Well I'm very aware of this all the time, I am very influenced by Christ and the physical suffering, perhaps more attracted to the suffering than the rising.
Interviewer: The human side of it in fact.
Sexton: Yes the human being there on the cross.
Interviewer: But yet you've never felt moved to become...to convert to Catholicism or to any other religion.
Sexton: I've thought of it and even tried it but it hasn't worked. I'm still a sceptic.
Interviewer: Indeed this poem is about...
Sexton:...about that, being a sceptic, but saying all I have to give to Christ is my poem.
from The Complete Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), copyright © 1981 by Anne Sexton, by permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Recording used by permission of the BBC.