Friday, April 11, 2008

Poetry

Today's poem is "Buying the Whore" by Anne Sexton.

BUYING THE WHORE

You are the roast beef I have purchased
and I stuff you with my very own onion.

You are a boat I have rented by the hour
and I steer you with my rage until you run aground.

You are a glass that I have paid to shatter
and I swallow the pieces down with my spit.

You are the grate I warm my trembling hands on,
searing the flesh until it’s nice and juicy

You stink like my Mama under your bra
and I vomit into your hand like a jackpot
its cold hard quarters.

--Anne Sexton

I love the last stanza: "I vomit into your hand like a jackpot/its cold hard quarters." Perfectly phrased, and an obviously evocative image. The first couple of stanzas all open with transactions: buying, renting, paying. But then it changes to something else. What to make of that? Some of the stanzas suggest sex: stuffing the roast beef with "my very own onion." Firstly, there's the ownership of the onion. It's her very own onion. Secondly, an onion, when sliced for stuffing, can resemble a vagina, so the image of stuffing a cavity with, fundamentally, another cavity is intriguing. Thirdly, there's the stink of this stanza, the smell of meat and the pungent onion commingling. There are other sexual moments as well, such as "I swallow the pieces down with my spit", "nice and juicy", "You stink like my Mama under your bra." The poem seems to read like a chronology, with the purchaser treating the whore like a piece of meat (literally), then as something rented, then as something bought and regretted, then as a source of comfort, and ultimately with disgust. It concludes with a grotesque, begrudging payment, a jackpot of quarters vomited out. It also comes full circle, in that the purchaser of the meat at the beginning of the poem, has seared his/her own flesh until "it's nice and juicy."

I was familiar with Anne Sexton before reading this poem, but only in so far as she's a touchstone for many young writers. My impression of her was that she was someone who many people (especially women) read obsessively during high school and early college. Sexton suffered from biopolar disorder, and her poetry touched on themes that hadn't been openly discussed in poetry, themes like menstruation, abortion, and masturbation.

I enjoyed this poem, but I can see how it might spawn a million lesser imitations. In fact, despite having never really read her work, its confessional qualities remind me of all the miserable poetry I wrote as a younger man. Even so, it's difficult to ignore the forceful, violent imagery of this poem, as well as its simple yet telling structure and its economy.

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