The Awful Rowing Toward God

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Poems by Anne Sexton, 1975

The Death Notebooks was the last book of poems published while Anne Sexton was alive; she checked the proofs of The Awful Rowing toward God on the day she committed suicide. The first line of the earlier volume, like the title of the latter, suggests the main theme ("Mrs. Sexton went out looking for the gods") of both volumes and sets the tone: an ironic, often funny, yet terribly serious quest for a God she can believe in despite the evil world he (presumably) made and who would love her despite the evil she feels inside herself. Allusions to the Holocaust sometimes represent both evils. Her own death impulse ("the death baby") fuses with the destruction of the Jews: "I went out popping pills and crying adieu/in my own death camp with my own little Jew" ("For Mr. Death Who Stands with His Door Open" from The Death Notebooks ). In The Awful Rowing toward God a syllogism equating lack of belief and absolute evil uses Hitler as a code for the latter: "The priest came,/he said God was even in Hitler./I did not believe him/for if God were in Hitler/then God would be in me" ("The Sickness unto Death"). Sexton has a ferocious need to believe, "each day,/typing out the God/[her] typewriter believes in./… like a wolf at a live heart" ("Frenzy").

The quest is further complicated by gender. Sexton's imagined God is no abstract being. He is daddy supreme, precisely the kind of dominating male figure she has been struggling with throughout her poetic life. No wonder the "rowing" toward such a God (Sexton uses the ancient metaphor of the sea journey) is "awful." As William Shurr has indicated, she also explores and modernizes the mystical concept of Logos, the embodied word of God. But the final encounter with that body ("The Rowing Endeth") is ambiguous; having cheated her at cards, "He starts to laugh,/… such laughter that He doubles right over me." The words echo Sexton's evocation of incestuous rape in earlier work.

On Sexton's journey hope and sometimes terrifying joy ("Riding the Elevator into the Sky") alternate with disgust and despair. The latter dominate in "After Auschwitz," the one Holocaust poem of The Awful Rowing toward God. A number of Sexton's themes intersect in these 33 short lines. "After Auschwitz" is also one of many questionings of God and humanity in Holocaust literature.

Typically, Sexton's opening simile is not logical but catches the feeling of anger: "Anger,/as black as a hook,/overtakes me." The savage hyperbole and homey vocabulary that follow are also typical: "Every day,/each Nazi/took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby/and sautéed him for breakfast/in his frying pan." Next a two-line stanza encapsulates the indifference of the world, expands its significance into the metaphysical plane, and begins the "dirt" motif, Sexton's signifier for evil: "And death looks on with a casual eye/and picks at the dirt under his fingernail." This provokes the poet's despair over human nature, dramatized by the fact that she is stirred to actually speak it (as we are ritually reminded) and intensified by the short, choppy verses:

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

The image of evil within ("bird full of mud"), a theme of Sexton's poetry, intensifies the feeling, and "should be burnt" suggests the curse that will follow the horrible two-line refrain "And death looks on with a casual eye/and scratches his anus." (We recall that Auschwitz was called "the anus of the universe.") First, however, the poet evokes what is typically, wonderfully human, only to reveal its disgusting evil:

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say these things aloud.

This curse on all human activity—an emotionally comprehensible reaction to Auschwitz (if this is what man can do, then let him cease to function)—culminates with King Lear's famous lament. The expanded "saying" refrain, slightly more distanced now (the poet, aware of her reaction, seems to reflect on her own speaking), sets up the final, whispered line, detached from the others: "I beg the Lord not to hear."

Why? Because he might be tempted to retaliate against the woman cursing his creation? At any rate, if he can hear, then he exists. But is this really sufficient consolation "after Auschwitz"?

—David Ball