Sexton, Middlebrook, and defeating our biological destiny

I’ve been listening to a lecture by Diane Wood Middlebrook on the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I think it’s from 1990. She draws out, among other things, the way both poets used of breast imagery, in Sexton’s case, especially in “The Fortress,” to symbolize that which connects human beings prior to language (as in literal nursing) and also that which transmits language and culture (the stories/images and language the mother gives to her children).

47:20 “The mother dies in nature, but the mother’s imagery lives on.”

49:00 “So I am saying that this poem in fact acts as a breast. It is a poem that takes on, takes over the function of the breast as that thing which connects people to each other and in fact is the thing that is the woman’s to give, the special… the thing of her body that makes her a mother, and also is a relationship that is begun in a natural way by the child feeding at the breast and then is transferred, as the child grows up, to another space, which is the passing on of culture, of the lore of women’s work, but also the particular gift of language.”

I was sad, though, to find out that Middlebrook died recently (last December).

And while reading an obituary, I found this quote from/about her that I really like:

Middlebrook became fascinated with “how we defeat our biological destiny through a uniquely human power,” as she explained in her January address. “That is the power of transferring our inner lives into external forms: I’ll call that the power of inscription.”

“By ‘inner lives’ I mean the life of the mind, the silence in which our thoughts and feelings form and take on meanings.” She described inscription as “any of the symbolic codes we have evolved that can communicate our thoughts and feelings even when we are absent: Chemical formulas. Statistical tables. Photographs. Blueprints. Specialized languages of every kind, including, of course, song.”


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