Anne Sexton’s Poem “The Truth the Dead Know” as a Relational Narrative

In his multiple award-winning novel, The Fault in Our Stars, John Green says “You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect.” Nonetheless, people write about death, not for the dead, but to release their own sad feelings.

Anne Sexton, after the death of her both parents, has written an elegy “The Truth the Dead Know.” Being a confessional poem, it reveals a daughter’s confession that she could not make it to the funeral pyre of her own parents. She had to attend the church for formal ceremonies, but she walks away. Here, my attempt is to substantiate how this poem is a form of life narrative and to explain the poem in terms of relational strategy of reading life narratives. The self-knowing of many autobiographical acts is relational, for example, Sexton has written about her late parents in order to know who she really is. Hence, since the story of her parents is deeply implicated in the narrator’s, we may name them significant others.

In the opening two lines, Sexton has brought the allusion of the real date of her parents’ birth and death.

For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959 and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959

These are said to be the exact dates of their birth and death. Though she is talking about her parents, she is exploring herself at the same time. Hence, the remaining part of the poem is an elegy to her parents and her own self-inquiry. We may call Sexton’s parents’ significant others because they are posited in the text about whom the life narrative is written. However, she does not mention her living parents because their death had inspired her to write this poem. She says her parents are dead and they were taken to the graveyard, but she does not know their further story. They are significant others in the sense that because of their death Sexton goes on to create such a widely-acclaimed work.

Likewise, there is another other, Sexton’s ‘darling’. We may call him a contingent other owing to the fact that he merely plays a supplementary role. Instead of attending the cremation, she drives straight to the cape and stays there throughout the day with her darling. She confesses their erotic relationship nearby the sea. From the gap between her both parents’ death, she learns that two lovers cannot live without each other. She further says “when we touch we enter touch entirely.” This sentence gives a sexual connotation. They might be fully immersed in lovemaking. Nevertheless, this incident sounds very trivial in front of the death of both parents.

Sexton’s relation with her parents and her lover are explicitly mentioned so readers do not need any effort to ponder it. In the beginning two lines, the poet has mentioned both her mother and father with the detailed date of their birth and death. Actually, her poem starts after that with the word “Gone” which metaphorically means “dead.” After their demise, Sexton seems not to follow the ceremonies strictly. She rather sticks to her boyfriend. She has straightforwardly mentioned her “darling” with whom she supposedly keeps erotic relations. At times, we can hear to the others from the fact that after their death,

“they lie without shoes

in the stone boats. They are more like stone

than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse

to be blessed, throat, eye, and knucklebone.

These lines show the dead ones’ inactivity or the inability to go against nature. Once they are dead, they cannot be resurrected. ‘Throat’, ‘eye’, and ‘knucklebone’ are important organs of the body, but once one is dead these organs no longer work or vice versa. When their throat does not function, they cannot speak, without eyes, they cannot see, and without knucklebone, they are unable to move. So, death makes them inanimate and they are ignored.

The narrator has put more investment in the death than in herself. She could have written a poem revealing her lonely condition, but instead of doing so, she has explained the death and ritual ceremonies of her parents. Their death solely allows readers to think that the narrator is going to suffer a big deal. Her investment seems to have paid her off, for the poem turned out to be one of the most loved in the literary world. Since this is a life writing course, we are bound to deal with a life-related issue. In “The Truth the Dead Knows” death of a couple has ironically, but not abnormally, taught what life really is. Most probably, their death was glorious because both of them died almost together. Relationality invites us to think about the different kinds of textual others through which an “I” narrates the formation or modification of self-consciousness. We found two: ‘significant’ and ‘contingent’ types of others in the given poem. Since the two significant others are dead their consciousness seems to be inactive, passive, etc. whereas the consciousness of the “darling” is active since he has got to enjoy with his beloved.

Having done a close and critical reading of this poem, I have come to the conclusion that a narrator’s subjectivity is something that cannot be avoided in any autobiographical writing or life narrative. Different narrators have different ways of interpreting their narratives. In terms of “The Truth the Dead Knows”, the narrator has suffered a lot due to the death of her parents. So, in order to regain the happiness, she has involved herself in love affair with an unspecific boy. If it had been for some different narrators, they would have mourned their parents’ death and followed the rituals completely. Hence, hereby, I conclude that the rhetorical or the narrator’s subjectivity is a thing that can make drastic changes in the same story.

1 Comment

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