Sexton’s last reading and Cleveland
The town where Anne Sexton came to declare her resolution to ‘do’ it.
I met a deer there, probably her current incarnation.
A little research will reveal how Cleveland has been an epicentre of significant literary life and has produced great poets like Hart Crane. After a reading at Mac’s Backs Bookstore with Cleveland State University Professor and poet, Leonard Trawick, I asked about the history of literary world and the famous visitors. I was keen to know the stories of writers who had come to avail the generosity of this city. Also moving out of New York, I realised I had entered a different landscape and a larger world. A day before, I had sought advice from Leonard.
“Read anything,” he had replied, “Anything from the Himalayas to Iraq war, anything on earth but sex.”
In New York I wouldn’t have bothered to ask for such an advice. My poems of pagan adulation and male eroticism had struck a lively chord among the New Yorkers. The other details that came forward brought forth names of Anne Sexton, James Dickey and Galway Kinnell. One of the most memorable experiences of Leonard’s remains meeting confessional poet, Anne Sexton.
In the early seventies, young poet Leonard was designated to receive Sexton. The moment he saw Sexton, he recognised her and introduced himself.
“I’ve a strange premonition,” Sexton said on seeing her young host, “that I’m going to die today. Let’s go and have a drink.”
“She had a cup of coffee and double Martini,” Leonard recalls his nervous state after hearing the suicidal intentions of the guest poet, “and I escorted her to a reception that the University had organised. The authorities had arranged a few philanthropists to have lunch with her. But those wealthy people knew nothing about Anne Sexton.”
After a short while, she became so upset that Leonard thought she would do something outrageous. But Sexton kept drinking vodka quietly. Leonard feared she wouldn’t be able to read after drinking so much. Yet much to his surprise, she got up and gave a good reading. Afterwards, Leonard took her to the student centre where she spent an hour with the upcoming talents.
Abruptly, Leonard recollects, instead of staying in Cleveland for the night as planned, she decided to go back the same day. Once again, Leonard drove her back to the airport. That, Leonard revealed, was Sexton’s last public reading. Six months later, she committed suicide.
Decades later, a drive with Leonard and later with Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs in the city where Anne gave her last reading presented an altogether different city. Once a centre of steel industry, Cleveland has turned into an empty town. Today its sole source of livelihood remains the cancer research and other health related services that the city so proudly offers. Compared to the Himalayan lakes, Lake Erie was an ocean. It contains a major chunk the world’s fresh water. As I went to its shores, I found it frozen. Or was it hibernating in the memories of its past visitors and woke back to life in summer only.
... and in the cemetery of the famous dead a raccoon that came hunting for crumbs,
in fashion of the town itself making a living out of service to the aged and the ailing
Like the pear blossoms the deer had dared to come out to greet the spring from Hart Crane’s bridge where he once waited to kiss his cruel mistress, the Sea.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)