I stole a few of Anne Sexton’s love letters.
Three letters. To be exact.
If I had only kept one, I could have convinced myself it was an accident.
But it wasn’t one. It was three. That’s more than an accident. It’s theft.
This is how it happened: I was starting a new teaching job. The most revered professor invited my husband and me to his house for dinner. Afterwards, he showed me his office. There were some letters rubber-banded together.
“You’re the new poet,” he said. “You should borrow these. They could teach you more than any poem ever could.”
He explained to me that the letters were love letters. There was a campus reading series that brought in the most respected writers. (It still thankfully exists.) One of them had been Sexton. A faculty member and Sexton had a torrid love affair.
It lasted three weeks. Most of it occurred in the letters.
The faculty member died and somehow the letters ended up in this professor’s hands.
They weren’t copies. They were the actual ones.
He did not want me to read the letters in front of him. “They’re personal letters,” he said. “You should read them in the privacy of your own home. Alone. Nowhere near your husband.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by that last statement. Did he think that if my husband read them, he would be upset that he would never receive as well-written articulations of love?
And it would be affirmed I was a hack and my husband would then leave me.
Or would my husband think they were poorly written and then mock them and as a result I would lose interest in Sexton and perhaps everything about poetry and not publish and not get tenure and then we would be destitute, living in his mother’s basement?
“I’m not going to tell you about the very specific content of the letters,” the professor said, “but I will tell you this. You can tell by her handwriting she was in love.”
He held one of the letters far enough from me, I couldn’t read the words. But I could see the faint lines of her cursive.
“What do you think?”
“Love,” I said. “It screams love.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said.
The professor retired to another state. Before he left, he asked me for the letters. I said I had put them in his mailbox a long time ago. He said, “Sorry. My brain’s going.” He was on the verge of senility. Everyone gossiped about it.
The letters were sitting in the bottom drawer of my office desk.
I never read the letters.
They were personal after all. They were not mine. They were someone else’s business. They were Anne Sexton’s business. It was not my affair. This was the bottom line. It had to be.
The professor should have burned the letters. He had no right to give them to a stranger.
But he didn’t mean to do anything wrong. He gave them to me as a gift. A temporary one.
Is it a sin to not open a gift someone gave you?
Was it his gift to give?
Did Anne Sexton expect and hope that someone other than her beloved would read the letters?
Was I betraying Anne Sexton by not reading them?
Would she have minded if a gay man read her letters?
A gay man would be examining them for the aesthetics. A straight man to determine what he needed to have written in order to screw her.
She seemed like she would have been the type of woman to have a gay following. I surely would have been a sycophant.
The paper was yellowing. I debated asking a friend who knew nothing about poetry to type them up so none of the words would be lost.
But I didn’t.
This is what else I feared: I would fall in love with the letters more than I had her poems.
I was obsessed with the self-loathing in her poems which was often so inflated, it felt like and often was camp.
I knew there was a book published which contained a lot of her letters. They didn’t contain my letters. And my letters were better. They had to be. They were my letters. They were all mine.
In graduate school, I found there to be more poetry in Keats’ letters than his actual poems.
Or maybe I just enjoyed them more. Am I a bad critic because I believe whatever I love the most is the most poetic?
Was Anne Sexton always self-conscious when she wrote the letters so that each was never to her a simple missive, but a poetic exercise?
Did she not send some letters because she knew they were too good for a lover?
Did she ever use actual lines from the letters in her poems? Did the ones I have contain any?
For special occasions, I go to the grocery store and buy a Hallmark card for my husband. Then I take it home and underline the meaningful, key phrases. The words seem perfect to me.
My husband and I once got into a fight and he screamed at me: “YOU HAVE NEVER WRITTEN ME A SINGLE LOVE POEM!”
For my second book of poetry, I wrote him a love poem called, “A Love Poem for Phil.” He never said anything about it. “What did you think of it?” I asked once. “It’s twelve lines,” he said. “Not much.”
I decided that I would give Sexton’s letters to an archivist.
But then thought no. I know more about love than they do. I’m a poet. I study love. An archivist studies authenticity. Which has nothing to do with love.
Or does it? Perhaps archivists are more suited to examine the nature of love. They can do it objectively. They place the letters where they belong. In the stacks. Hidden. Organized. Away. I wanted to tack the letters on a random bulletin board for all to see.
If I read the letters, I could subconsciously be duplicating someone else’s idea of love if I ever decided to write a poem for my beloved again.
I couldn’t risk it.
Or maybe it was impossible. She handwrote her letters. I type everything directly onto the computer. I need that sense of officiality.
Maybe I should have become an archivist.
Is being an archivist a more honorable profession than being a poet? An archivist spends their life keeping words safe. A poet risks making them mean something, knowing that most often they will fail.
Once I mentioned Anne Sexton to someone and they said that she was a real poet, not because she was the most talented, but because she felt the need to keep writing. That’s what a poet was: someone who needed to keep writing.
I got tenure, secured my salary, and then I stopped writing poems. Maybe after all I am nor a poet or an archivist. I am nothing more than a businessman. You pay a teacher to teach you the hidden meaning of poems. They do their best to explain the inexplicable. Somehow a student and a teacher trick each other into thinking there is a fixed meaning, something that has value, something that is worth the price of a college degree.
This is going to be hard to believe: I eventually forgot I had the letters.
This is how I remembered: I was cleaning my office. Naturally, I threw out lots and lots of papers. My husband was helping me. I wasn’t paying any attention to him (as usual). And he said, “Are these your Anne Sexton love letters?”
And I said, “Sure.”
“What do you mean, ‘Sure’?” he said.
“They’re whatever.” It took me a beat before I realized I was on automatic pilot.
I turned and he glared at me and before he could say anything, I yelled: “THEY ARE NOT MY LOVE LETTERS SO DON’T EVEN START.”
“But you kept them,” he said.
“So then they are your love letters.”
“Nothing is mine. Nothing. Not even you,” I said. “Love is stupid.”
I said dumb things like that for a few minutes and then I stopped. I was tired.
He looked at me like I was pitiful. Which felt good. It was the closest thing to love I could handle.
A year or two later I was walking through the library. It happened to be National Poetry Month. I saw a glass case and walked up to it. Inside were the letters. There was a little sign inside that said so. It was sloppily written. It was not worshipful cursive. Her name was spelled Ann. But still. Her love letters were there.
But this was what mattered the most: there were all these hand prints on the glass. Smudges. I wished I had had a handkerchief. People didn’t deserve to be so close to Anne Sexton, her letters, and love.
They wanted to touch her letters.
They wanted to touch her.
Was this a violation? A crime in and of itself? Was I complicit in allowing this to happen?
All I know: I stole something.
Was my attempt at redemption a crime?
I debated whether I should finally read the letters. It was time. I couldn’t see the words. I pressed my face against the glass. The words were blurry. Surely if they were blurry to me they were blurry to everyone else.
Eventually, I did make them out. The words. I wondered if other people struggled until they succeeded.
What did the words say?
Should I tell you? If I tell you, is it an expression of love? And if I don’t, am I a mere tease?
So: is this essay dishonorable?
I’m afraid that a personal essay can be a crime.
Even if you just state the facts.
Even if all you want to do is to tell someone what love is.
That’s a little bit easy, I suppose. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to convict someone simply for the drama of it. After all, an essay is a collaborative act: the writer and the reader, the voyeur and the exhibitionist. We’re all handcuffed together, trying to find out what the crimes are, mistaking the key for the lock, the lock for the key, and somehow, moving slowly, inching forward, always confused if we’re inside a jail of words or just stepped out.
Steve Fellner has written two books of poetry, Blind Date with Cavafy and The Weary World Rejoices; a memoir, All Screwed Up; and co-edited an anthology of social justice poetry, Love Rise Up. He teaches at SUNY Brockport.