Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Tuesday Poem: "The Operation" by Anne Sexton

After the sweet promise,
the summer’s mild retreat

from mother’s cancer, the winter months of her death,

I come to this white office, its sterile sheet,

its hard tablet, its stirrups, to hold my breath

while I, who must, allow the glove its oily rape,

to hear the almost mighty doctor over me equate

my ills with hers

and decide to operate.

It grew in her

as simply as a child would grow,

as simply as she housed me once, fat and female.

Always my most gentle house before that embryo

of evil spread in her shelter and she grew frail.

Frail, we say, remembering fear, that face we wear

in the room of the special smells of dying, fear

where the snoring mouth gapes

and is not dear.

There was snow everywhere.

Each day I grueled through

its sloppy peak, its blue-struck days, my boots

slapping into the hospital halls, past the retinue

of nurses at the desk, to murmur in cahoots

with hers outside her door, to enter with the outside

air stuck on my skin, to enter smelling her pride,

her upkeep, and to lie

as all who love have lied.

No reason to be afraid,

my almost mighty doctor reasons.

I nod, thinking that woman’s dying

must come in seasons,

thinking that living is worth buying.

I walk out, scuffing a raw leaf,

kicking the clumps of dead straw

that were this summer’s lawn.

Automatically I get in my car,

knowing the historic thief

is loose in my house

and must be set upon.


Clean of the body’s hair,

I lie smooth from breast to leg.

All that was special, all that was rare

is common here. Fact: death too is in the egg.

Fact: the body is dumb, the body is meat.

And tomorrow the O.R. Only the summer was sweet.

The rooms down the hall are calling

all night long, while the night outside

sucks at the trees. I hear limbs falling

and see yellow eyes flick in the rain. Wide eyed

and still whole I turn in my bin like a shorn lamb.

A nurse’s flashlight blinds me to see who I am.

The walls color in a wash

of daylight until the room takes its objects

into itself again. I smoke furtively and squash

the butt and hide it with my watch and other effects.

The halls bustle with legs. I smile at the nurse

who smiles for the morning shift. Day is worse.

Scheduled late, I cannot drink

or eat, except for yellow pills

and a jigger of water. I wait and think

until she brings two mysterious needles: the skills

she knows she knows, promising, soon you’ll be out.

But nothing is sure. No one. I wait in doubt.

I wait like a kennel of dogs

jumping against their fence. At ten

she returns, laughs and catalogues

my resistance to drugs. On the stretcher, citizen

and boss of my own body still, I glide down the halls

and rise in the iron cage toward science and pitfalls.

The great green people stand

over me; I roll on the table

under a terrible sun, following their command

to curl, head touching knee if I am able.

Next, I am hung up like a saddle and they begin.

Pale as an angel I float out over my own skin.

I soar in hostile air

over the pure women in labor,

over the crowning heads of babies being born.

I plunge down the backstair

calling mother at the dying door,

to rush back to my own skin, tied where it was torn.

Its nerves pull like wires

snapping from the leg to the rib.

Strangers, their faces rolling lilke hoops, require

my arm. I am lifted into my aluminum crib.


Skull flat, here in my harness,

thick with shock, I call mother

to help myself, call toe to frog,

that woolly bat, that tongue of dog;

call God help and all the rest.

The soul that swam the furious water

sinks now in flies and the brain

flops like a docked fish and the eyes

are flat boat decks riding out the pain.

My nurses, those starchy ghosts,

hover over me for my lame hours

and my lame days. The mechanics

of the body pump for their tricks.

I rest on their needles, am dosed

and snoring amid the orange flowers

and the eyes of visitors. I wear,

like some senile woman, a scarlet

candy package ribbon in my hair.

Four days from home I lurk on my

mechanical parapet with two pillows

at my elbows, as soft as praying cushions.

My knees work with the bed that runs

on power. I grumble to forget the lie

I ought to hear, but don't. God knows

I thought I’d die—but here I am,

recalling mother, the sound of her

good morning, the odor of orange and jam.

All’s well, they say. They say I’m better.

I lounge in frills or, picturesque,

I wear bunny pink slippers in the hall.

I read a new book and shuffle past the desk

to mail the author my first fan letter.

Time now to pack this humpty-dumpty

back the frightened way she came

and run along, Anne, and run along now,

my stomach laced like a football

for the game.

by Anne Sexton

For more information about poet, Anne Sexton, see:


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