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This review is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

THE DARKLING OVEN-BIRD
Anne Sexton, The Selected Poems, edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George (Virago) £7.99
Amy Clampitt, Westward (Faber Paperback Original £5.99
Robert Morgan, Green River (Wesleyan Poetry Series, University Press of New England) £18.00, £8.50 pb
A.R. Ammons, The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons (W.W. Nortop) £12.95

This selection of Anne Sexton's work, culled from the 600 page Complete Poems, provides an excellent opportunity to track the trajectory of her career (it's best to avoid terms like development and progress, which have optimism built in). In many of her poems Sexton seems to take on the role of Robert Frost's oven bird, that songster which proclaimed the pastness of petal-fall and reached a kind of equilibrium, an equation of zeroes, in matching death to elegy: 'The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing'. Of course the irony here belongs to Frost and not to the bird, which has no scope for deviating from its tight agenda. In Sexton's early 'Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward', the poet addresses her six-day old baby, swooping characteristically into alienating imagery: the infant is a 'small knuckle', 'fisted like a snail', tips like a cup, has an old man's face. When lyricism is essayed - I touch your cheeks, like flowers' - it is immediately subverted: 'You bruise/ against me'. The effect of this accumulation is to compel the reader to assume a conciliatory subtext on the basis that the close attention which ...


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