Rhyming with the Dead

By Sandra Marchetti

On a walk about a month ago, lines from an older poem of mine, “The Waters of Separation,” ran through my mind repeatedly:

we wait riven
to the rocks peeling back,
black in the water.

I find you, my darling,
knelt down and stung

Why was I singing my own line? The stanzas sounded like another voice, not my own, but one just out of grasp. “My darling” seemed so cloying, yet I never could revise it out of the poem. Something about that “back, / black in the water” built to a grandiose and over-dramatic edge as well. Where had I found those cadences? Then I heard Anne Sexton’s distinct voice:

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we touch entirely. No one’s alone.

Of course, these are lines from Sexton’s well-known poem, “The Truth the Dead Know,” which I’ve listened to as a Poetry Speaks recording hundreds of times, a poem I have memorized. Sexton wrote “my darling” into her elegiac poem. “Truth,” dedicated to Sexton’s parents, who died a month apart, appears strangely similar to “Waters,” which I think of as a preparatory elegy—it’s poem about how a river can separate the living from the dead. I had channeled my Anne Sexton voice without knowing it. Both scenes contain similar content—water, stones, rumination on the beloved and loss.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom outlines an argument that writers, in essence, must divorce their influences, their forbears in literature, in order to create strong, original work. He continues to say influence is so pervasive that most authors concede and incorporate others’ voices, thus creating weak work. However, I cannot see my poetic scope as anything other than inclusive of influence. My work is steel-girded because of my fathers and mothers in poetry. Instead of divorcing my predecessors, I would rather marry them or at least take up their causes. In fact, I am currently writing a book of poems centered on influence, loosely titled “Menageries,” in which each poem takes a line or the title from another poet’s poem and incorporates it into a new work. Sometimes the poet is mentioned by name within my new poem and thus he or she is called directly into the room.

Before this current project I integrated rhythm and vernacular from other poets, as evidenced above. My influences include the confessionals, Bishop, Hopkins, Dickinson, and others. I have done it both intentionally and unintentionally; indeed, this is very common in contemporary poetry. When I write book reviews or critique manuscripts, my first instinct is always to rattle off a list of influences—books the writer might have read in order to produce the work. I have found all of my poems are part of this interconnected web and that is why certain lines ring in my head—they are not wholly mine; they chime with other voices. In short, I rhyme with the dead.
“The Waters of Separation” is less formal, full of spondees and anapestic feet where Sexton’s poem is regular, and follows a strict abab rhyme scheme; however, an exploration of the temporal and corporeal is present in both. “Waters” ends like this:

by the softness
by the smoked waters

across from where we are—
on the faster side
of the stream—now fleeting.

Sexton’s dead are in transition at the end of her poem as well. Staving off the finalities of the funeral, they “…refuse / to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.” Both poems also alternate between the “I” and “We” voice, acknowledging that there are some thoughts one has individually about death, and some thoughts the dead/the beloved and the living/the lover must contemplate together, if it is possible.

As I recited Sexton’s poem, I found myself concentrating on another beloved line in “Truth,” at the end of the first stanza: “It is June. I am tired of being brave.” The speaker acknowledges her weariness—she cannot be bothered to mask her feelings, and this is, ironically, brave of her. This line represents a break in character, and an entrance into loss. When Sexton says “June” on the Poetry Speaks recording, she gives such weight to word. I remember my initial reaction to its heavy vowel jab. I have never forgotten it. “Lunch,” another poem of mine, incorporates the same syntactical maneuver of Sexton’s “It is June…” line. The second stanza of “Lunch” reads:

Sorting the demands of red-orange,
pink, cream, I flick stems on the bank,
watch them wash downstream. It is noon,

the bees are circling for somewhere to land.

This second stanza, and the beginning of the third, represents a break in the poem, which up until this point has followed a strict aba rhyme scheme in the first and then also last stanzas. The beginning of the poem describes cleaning and eating fresh produce. Here, my speaker’s attention diverts to time: “It is noon.” In addition to rhyming with Sexton’s “June,” is similar its mention of the temporal. The river, or the ocean in Sexton’s case, also seemingly recalibrates the clock in its sway. In the end, “Truth” is all about bodies: “throat, eye, and knucklebone,” and “Lunch” borrows heartily from this as well. My last couplet reads: “Fruit breaks on my teeth, spreads / through the mouth’s star—a galaxy expands.”

While scanning “Lunch,” I also can’t help but see the bees. They are buzzing, “circling” in fact. Did they migrate from Sylvia Plath’s “Wintering”? Plath’s famous last line reads, “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Do the female bees taste spring with renewed vigor for life? Is this what “Wintering” suggests? Or is spring the time of their death? Plath says, “Winter is for women—” and she intonates that the “men” will come back in the spring. The bees in “Lunch” are living in the summer, but are still “circling for somewhere to land.” They seem lost, uneasy. Plath questions her bees’ fate as well: “Will the hive survive…”? “Wintering,” though it takes place in the opposite season as “Lunch,” deals with the challenges of preparing food, survival, and ultimately, joy. Plath asks, “What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?” and I think of the fruit I held in my mouth—“a galaxy expand[ing].” A jar of honey capturing the taste of a late season rose from a year ago surely is a galactic explosion on the palate.

Of course, Plath’s poems have been tremendously instrumental to my work in their use of rhythm and rhyme. “Wintering” is irregular, unlike Sexton’s “Death,” and it showcases many spondees, internal rhymes, and near rhymes, techniques that appear in both “Lunch” and “Waters.” A few examples are Plath’s use of “hive” and “survive,” and “Winter” and“knitting.” Some of my soundplay includes “cream” and “downstream” from “Lunch,” and, of course, “to the rocks peeling back, / black in the water,” from “Waters.” The latter is one of the lines that began me thinking of Sexton and her sense of drama, but it also reminds me of Plath’s eerie description of the beehive, early in “Wintering”: “Now they ball in a mass, / Black…” The influence has circled back. Here is the other voice that demanded I leave my alliterative, vowel-driven line alone. Plath would have kept it; her poems are a rage of momentum.

As I turn back to my “Menageries” project, a line from a new poem, “Ebb Tide,” catches my ear: “I tell you I spark into fire / the grass behind my strides.” Sexton is there, and Plath too, waving their hands in the midnight air. My poems are plated with these women—their words, their works—and the lines sing out not in spite of my influences, but because of my ancestors’ songs.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Marchetti, Sandra. Confluence. Knoxville: Sundress Publications, 2015. Print.

Paschen, Elise and Rebekah Presson Mosby. Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2001. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

Sexton, Anne. “The Truth the Dead Know.” Poetry Foundation, 2015. Web. 1 June 2015.

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Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. She is also a co-author of Heart Radicals, a forthcoming chapbook of love poems from ELJ Publications. Eating Dog Press published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center's Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Gulf Coast, Phoebe, and Prick of the Spindle have honored Sandra’s work in recent contests and her poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review and in other venues.