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A Feminist Far from Grimm

Anne Sexton and her Transformations

by Roger Brunyate

Anne Sexton  
Anne Sexton
At the height of her fame in the early seventies, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton toured the country with a rock band. She did not sing herself, but her poetry spoke to young people with the immediacy of pop music. It should be no surprise that one of her last projects before she finally succeeded in killing herself in 1975 should have been to collaborate with composer Conrad Susa in bringing her collection, Transformations, to the stage, set to music which itself has roots in pop.

Unlike the rest of Sexton’s work, Transformations tells stories. Retells them, actually. For her sources are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, familiar and not so familiar. Her title is surely a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that first great collection of such tales. As in the Grimm before her, Anne Sexton’s characters are transformed by the powers of magic, whether good or more frequently malevolent. The stories themselves are transformed to reflect the flip contemporary sensibility of the television sitcom and the movies. On a deeper level yet, Transformations refers to the many aspects of being a woman, and in particular to the tormented struggle with her own demons that formed the script for Anne Sexton’s life and the key to her death.

Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Mass., in 1928, to parents whom biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook describes as “characters out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel: good-looking, well-to-do, party-loving, and self-indulgent.” They had little time for her. No more did her teachers, who had difficulty in engaging her intelligence and treated her with impatience. Shortly before her twentieth birthday, Anne eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, enrolled in a modeling course, then lived for a while in Baltimore and San Francisco while her husband served in the navy. She returned to Massachusetts in 1953, where her first daughter was born.

Anne’s mental troubles were diagnosed at first as postpartum depression. She was hospitalized at Westwood Lodge, a small sanitarium near her home which was to become a frequent refuge over the years that followed, as her impulse towards self-destruction became more and more unbearable. Her therapist, Dr. Martin Orme, recognized her intellectual gifts and urged to her enroll in a poetry workshop run by John Holmes. There, at the age of 28, her artistic self was born, practically overnight. Her poems were accepted by The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The Saturday Review. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1960 and caused a sensation. In the decade that followed, she was awarded a fellowship from the American Academy of Letters, a National Book Award, a Ford Foundation grant, and the Pulitzer Prize. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1965, and named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1968.

But if Anne Sexton’s poetry garnered praise, it could also shock. As her fellow poet Maxine Kumin has written:

Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, shattered taboos, and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the flamboyance of her subject matter. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for society.

As Kumin says, Anne’s response to rejection was to transform herself into a flamboyant and provocative woman. The timid child had become an brilliant exhibitionist.

Luciana Wichert as Snow White
Production photos by JESSE HELLMAN
Luciana Wichert as Snow White
Right from the opening of Snow White, the first story in Transformations, Anne Sexton proclaims her flip irreverence, her surprising images, her hints at sexual secrets in a Barbie world:

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say,
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.

 

The awakening of Sleeping Beauty
The Awakening of Sleeping Beauty
The secrets become more explicit in Sleeping Beauty, which is treated as a story of the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. The little girl whose father used to rain kisses on the back of her neck is indeed woken by her prince after a hundred-year sleep, but all is not well:

He kissed Briar Rose
and she woke up crying:
Daddy! Daddy!
Presto! She’s out of prison!
She married the prince
and all went well
except for the fear —
the fear of sleep.

Sleeping Beauty turns out to be an insomniac, who cannot sleep without the court chemist mixing her some knock-out drops. And every time you wake her with a kiss, she opens her eyes and calls “Daddy! Daddy!”

Conrad Susa’s setting of these poems takes place, as it might be, in a mental hospital, with Anne Sexton as the narrator and the other patients taking all the roles as they come up. Each tale begins with a lead-in which is generally autobiographical. Thus Rapunzel:

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch.
Old breast against young breast…

It is clear that Sexton is referring to her great-aunt Nana who moved into the Harveys’ house when Anne was eleven, and became like a second mother to her. Nana’s later commitment to a mental institution and electroshock therapy was one of the traumatic events of Anne’s teenage years. Thus, while the story of Rapunzel takes its familiar course, and the beautiful girl is rescued from her imprisonment by the witch in the tower by the prince climbing up her hair, the focus at the end turns back to the old woman:

As for Mother Gothel,
her heart shrank to the size of a pin,
never again to say: Hold me, my young dear,
hold me,
and only as she dreamt of the yellow hair
did moonlight sift into her mouth.

 

Sarah Blaskowsky as Anne Sexton
Sarah Blaskowsky as Anne Sexton / Sleeping Beauty
in the final moments of the opera
Musically, this scene is the highlight of the opera, and rightly so. For all the verbal pyrotechnics of Transformations, for all the kaleidoscope excitement of the switched roles and theatrical legerdemain, for all the fun of catching the various pop references in Susa’s score, it is Anne Sexton’s power to write as a woman, to transform her suffering into something both radiant and profoundly moving, that makes the piece so totally worth doing.


The Peabody Chamber Opera presented Conrad Susa’s opera Transformations at Theatre Project on April 23 through May 2, 1999. The production was directed by Roger Brunyate and conducted by Harlan Parker and Brian Stone. Sarah Blaskowsky (soprano) sang the role of Anne Sexton, and the other roles were taken by Luciana Wichert (soprano), Audrey J. Babcock (mezzo-soprano), Jason Hentrich (tenor), Vijay Joshua Ghosh (tenor), John Plier (tenor), J Austin Bitner (baritone), and Jonathan Stuckey (bass).

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