Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Anne Sexton in “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel

Anne sexton
Mercy Street

Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real

All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head

She pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seam

Let’s take the boat out
Wait until darkness
Let’s take the boat out
Wait until darkness comes

Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
Nowhere in the suburbs
In the cold light of day
There in the midst of it so alive and alone
Words support like bone

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Wear your inside out
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
‘Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s arms

Pulling out the papers from drawers that slide smooth
Tugging at the darkness, word upon word
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest, he’s the doctor
He can handle the shocks
Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips
Of kissing Mary’s lips

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
‘Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s arms

Looking for mercy
Looking for mercy
Looking for mercy
Mercy, mercy

Anne, with her father is out in the boat
Riding the water
Riding the waves on the sea

Track duration: 06:48
“Mercy Street” as written by Peter Gabriel
Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

This song was my introduction to Anne Sexton. It appeared on Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So, which was his most commercially successful, having such huge hits as Sledgehammer and In Your Eyes(the song from John Cusack’s movie “Say Anything”). It’s an excellent example of biography in song, mixing the person and the poet.
Anne Sexton was born in 1928 to a well to do family in Boston, Massachusetts where she went to private schools and briefly became a model in her late teens. She eloped with her husband at 20 and had two daughters soon after.
Accounts vary on when she began writing poetry, but her first collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published in 1960. Nearly every year after that was a new book, including the four for children she wrote with lifelong friend and Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin. Her career was going wonderfully, a Pulitzer Prize, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and numerous other awards, grants and fellowships, along with teaching gigs, including one at Oberlin College, here in Ohio. Her play Mercy Street premiered Off Broadway in 1969. But increasingly, manic episodes and suicide attempts led to hospital stays which interrupted her writing and wreaked havok on her family. Alcohol worsened things. So, at the age of 46, one autumn afternoon in 1974, she committed suicide. From the song, I assumed she had drowned herself, and was surprised to learn that actually she put on her mother’s fur coat, took a glass of vodka and locked herself in her garage with the car motor running.
Why do we remember so many women writers for their suicides? Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Sexton. Sure, male writers kill themselves, but that’s not the main focus of their lives. Hemingway committed suicide, but we mostly remember his macho activities; big game hunting, running with the bulls. Why is it different with women?
I don’t really like Sexton’s poetry, that’s why I am approaching it through Peter Gabriel’s song instead. Her work is very raw, with personal symbols and full of vibrant pain. She is usually classified as a confessional poet and it’s easy to see why. She wrote about taboo subjects, which even now are sometimes startling, so I can imagine how shocking they must have been in the 60’s. As she grew older, she became more religious and that imagery became more frequent. It’s also evident that she was having a love affair with death.
The title of one her last collections was The Awful Rowing Towards God and this is what Gabriel refers to, “let’s take the boat out” is an invitation to suicide, “wait until darkness” reminds us that things can always get worse. The “corridors of pale green and grey”, “to the priest, he’s the doctor/he can handle the shocks” and “wear your inside out” are all about her stays in mental hospitals, which included electroshock therapy. The last term and the “soul/with no leak at the seam”, “papers from drawers” have double meanings, to both her medical treatments and the process of writing. Many of the phrases Gabriel uses are from Sexton’s own and he matches the tone and mystery of her work with his. If you’d like to compare, PoetryFoundation has over 30 of her poems from her various books. It’s a smattering from such a prolific writer(several more volumes were published posthumously), but it’s a good sample if you’re unfamiliar with Sexton’s work.
One of the most troubling aspects of both her poems and life was the repeated accusations of incest. Some of Sexton’s own comments cast doubt upon them. But she certainly violently abused her own daughters, especially the eldest, who wrote a memoir about growing up with such an unstable mother decades after her death. Secrets were never kept where Sexton was concerned, one of her psychiatrists published recordings of their sessions in the 1990’s in a potentially unethical move. Even for one so open about her private life, it’s questionable whether Sexton would’ve approved.
Sexton’s poetry can be overwhelming and very, very dark. The isolation and hopelessness she expressed is very vivid in her work. This review has been difficult to write because of that oppressive nature and I shied away from it. But I remind myself that as awful as it is to deal with for the limited time it takes to read and write about, it’s nothing compared to the experience of living with those feelings continually, on a daily basis, for years. Anne Sexton should be praised and remembered for taking those feelings and making art out of them. And Peter Gabriel should be commended for honoring her with such a musical tribute.

Here is Peter Gabriel singing the song in concert July 1987(when he still had hair). It blurs a lot in full screen, so it’s best seen small: In Concert 1987

There is a black and white official music video for it by Matt Mahurin, but it is so eerie and unsettling to me that I’ve only seen it once. It’s considered disturbing by souls less wimpier than I, so be forewarned. Here is the link to it: Mahurin video of “Mercy Street”

3 comments on “Anne Sexton in “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel

  1. Jojanneke
    June 15, 2013

    Thank you for writing this. I was curious about Anne Sexton’slife story, also because of Peter Gabriel’s beautiful, compelling song.

  2. Clarissa Aykroyd
    June 15, 2013

    This song makes me cry. I think I feel quite similarly about her poetry – having been semi-introduced to it through the Peter Gabriel song, and finding it hard to like the poetry, but also finding much to admire.

  3. Kate
    June 16, 2013

    Finally I understand what that lovely song is about, and where its from. Thank you.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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