23 April 2012

the rowing endeth

Anne Sexton lived what seems like the archetypal life of an poet: a complex intertwining of great joy and great pain, creative genius, awards and accolades, depression, broken relationships, and mental illness. Her story, like that of so many artists, ended in suicide, maybe because she felt everything that happened to her intensely. She was described as being "like person with no skin, no protective layer, just a mass of exposed nerve cells, she felt every pain and could write it." Her poetry is all provocative, some because it's scandalous, and some because it incisively expresses universal human questions, fears, and hopes about what God is like.

Her last book before her death was entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God, and this is the last poem from that book. It's a raw account of a woman trying to make sense of her experience, and I'm struck by her unexpected hope in the goodness of God despite hurting so badly that she chose to die rather than endure it any longer. Of the few poems I've read, and the even fewer that I've understood, this is my favorite. Many thanks to Drs. Horne & Walters for first giving it to me.

The Rowing Endeth

I’m mooring my rowboat
at the dock of the island called God.
This dock is made in the shape of a fish
and there are many boats moored
at many different docks.
“It’s okay,” I say to myself,
with blisters that broke and healed
and broke and healed–
saving themselves over and over.
And salt sticking to my face and arms like
a glue-skin pocked with grains of tapioca.
I empty myself from my wooden boat
and onto the flesh of The Island.

“On with it!” he says and thus
we squat on the rocks by the sea
and play–can it be true–
a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces.
A wild card had been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when He took out the cards and dealt.
As he plunks down His five aces
and I sit grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth
and into mine,
and such laughter that He doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.
Then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs
the sea laughs. The Island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.

Dearest dealer,
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.


  1. lump in my throat. love this. thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, this is my favorite of hers too. And I'd need to spend actual time with the Starlings number, but it seems neat at a glance. I love that you're sharing this. And man, Anne Sexton. Wooee. I've read most of that collection, and this number tying it all up makes it all worthwhile. So good—I had forgotten. Your blog is full of good reminders.