Jennifer Rouse invokes a brilliant and troubled poet in her new collection, “Riding with Anne Sexton.” These poems are much concerned with mental illness — Sexton’s and Rouse’s.
Rouse enters into a dialogue of sorts with Sexton, a Pulitzer Prize winner who took her own life in 1974. She imagines them together in a variety of settings in which Sexton cracks wise and rails against injustices real and perceived. The collection is filled with dark humor — witness a poem entitled “If You Give Anne Sexton a Cookie” — but that humor highlights rather than leavening the pervasive dread.
Drawing from Sexton’s work and her biography (the title of the collection calls to mind the poet’s method of suicide), Rouse grapples with the efficacy of therapy, the insidious ways mental illness can affect family relationship, and the overwhelming weight of despair.
The book ends with a powerful response to Sexton’s “Rowing” from her posthumously published collection “The Awful Rowing Toward God.” Rouse imagines an end to Sexton’s struggles, but not before once again linking the two poets together:
“We had long been moving between/these worlds. Her death, my life,/the garage and the gas, the line by line,/the therapists and dramatic moments/of collapse. After awhile, it was impossible/to separate the rats from the stars,/the id from the ego from the starving need,/for father, from mother. We ate every amen.”
This collection is soaked in Sexton’s ethos, but Rouse’s individual voice is never subsumed. She may be riding with Anne Sexton, but she’s also got a firm grip on wheel as she drives through this shifting terrain.