Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christianson

Courage

By Anne Sexton

 

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1928. Her father was a successful businessman. After graduating from a boarding school, she enrolled in Garland Junior College for one year. She married when she was twenty and had two daughters. Sexton suffered from severe bipolar disorder for much of her life. Her therapist encouraged her to write and in 1957 Sexton joined writing groups in Boston. Her first volume of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960, and included the poem “Her Kind“, which uses the persecution of witches as an analogy for the oppression of women. Sexton was considered a Confessional poet and her work was enormously popular during her lifetime. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Sexton made several suicide attempts and was hospitalized many times. Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974 at age 46.

We associate courage with heroes. People who make the headlines, people who have books written about them, movies made of them. When we think of courage we think of people who do extraordinary feats— save a life, risk their careers to expose some corporation’s illegal operation, risk their own life to conquer Mount Everest, etc., etc. But the idea of courage as a characteristic of the common man is pretty much ignored. We don’t think of our neighbor as having heroic qualities. Yet, in the face of adversity or some extraordinary circumstance, this ordinary man may be quietly facing loss or pain or any manner of misery with stoicism and humility. (I am not even thinking here of those in whose country war and genocide, floods, fires and volcanoes test the everyman to the limit.) Life may not be a battle for everyone, but at the least, it’s a skirmish. We are constantly being thrust into situations which require courage, and we somehow mostly rise to the occasion.

Long ago, at a very dark point in my life, I said to my mother, “I have no more courage. I cannot cope. I am not coping. All I’m doing is putting one foot in front of the other.” And my mother said, “That IS coping!”

Simply coping requires courage. Anne Sexton, in her poem “Courage,” states that you see courage in the small things in your life—like getting on a bike for the first time, or dealing with being called names. You are judged and bullied, but you conceal your hurt. Later on in life, when you are faced with “bombs and bullets” (these can be metaphors for the battles everyone fights in life), you did not caress or nourish your weak fear (though it was there). You kept swallowing, to keep your small coal of courage down, inside you. You kept the pilot light of your spirit from going out.

In the third stanza, Sexton talks of the devastated heart as if it were a corporeal thing that you picked the scabs off.  You powdered your sorrow and wrapped it in a blanket to calm it down, as if it were a baby—your baby. You let it sleep. And after some time, when your sorrow-baby woke, it was transformed into something else, perhaps something beautiful. (Sorrow can give us the beautiful gift of empathy.) You did it alone. And you endured.

Later still, in old age, you again show your courage in little ways—you’ll sharpen the cutting edge of your life, you’ll love your loved ones even stronger. And when the time comes, and death is there at your doorstep, you’ll not weep and carry on, you’ll not make a scene, but you will stride out to meet death with grace and acceptance because your courage still will be with you, in you, like a burning coal.

Hemingway said, “Courage is grace under pressure.” Courage for the everyman is not leaping tall buildings in a single bound.  It’s not being on the firing line without any fear. It’s not waving your banner on the top of Everest. It’s moving through our ordinary lives one foot in front of the other, quietly facing our demons, our challenges, our sorrows with grace and courage.

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