by Elaine Sexton
New Issues 2008
Reviewed by Diane Shenker


Salted Ground

causewayElaine Sexton probably grew up around water—particularly coastal waters, salt water. There is much swimming and sailing in her second book, Causeway, and even “A Psalm Sung by a Fish.” Her familiarity with the element lets her refract her feelings through it, shining fresh light on the usual suspects: family history, relationships, loves, break-ups, death.

There are no new themes under the sun, but an artist’s particular angle of view can be more or less effective in shaking up our own perceptions. Causeway is full of strong, tactile values — there is light glaring off water, stiff salt breezes, smells of brine and rot, shivers that come from thinking you see something in the dark. Perhaps Sexton’s strongest suit is a refreshing understatement that lets the reader come away quietly moved, never hammered at.

The book is smartly structured. As in any good journey, there is variety—no ride through endless fields of corn or wheat. Although the sea imagery feels dominant, there is a healthy balance of city grit that enlivens the flow from poem to poem. Sexton anchors the beginning of her “causeway” in the heart of New York City with a couple of pointedly urban pieces. By the third poem, “Masonry,” bricks begins to yield the emotional geography of her sense of place:

Brick of my mother’s
Pittsburgh, . . .
of my father’s Boston . . .

the Federal brick
of Portsmouth, New Hampshire,
where I pined for a boy
at a brick ferry landing
and flirted
with sailors and prayer

but gave up
every brick
of every seaside city
I lived in,
so nearly the same:
Newport, New-

buryport. The whole
Eastern Seaboard’s
worn bricks
crumbled alike
in the sun.

Second in number to the sea poems are the “relationship” poems. All poets deal with love, but Sexton’s varied explorations are fresh and intelligent. Even when head over heels, the realist in the background remembers the gritchy bits. The title poem is a beautiful exploration of love’s scratchy ambiguity:

Walking the causeway,
I’m invisible, stirred
under the radar
of your thinking,
where I snag and catch myself
wanting to be
somewhere else,
not here, where
the marsh and bay
divide at our sides.

. . .
Below, scratching the sand,
even the tiniest crustacean
finds a place other than her skin
to retreat to. The hermit crab,
squeezed in a shell,

contorts her own body
to carry the weight
of a hard-won
scholarship on her back.

Amidst the weight of relationships and seascape are poems about the poet’s mother, which serve as an emotional anchor for the book. The link to parent feels deeper than the link to lover, or maybe it’s that the second can only happen in the shadow of the first. “A Bird in the House” deftly tells two simple stories about the poet and the poet’s mother, who is alive and still living alone. We feel the heartache as child begins to switch roles with parent. This has wide resonance for all of us dealing with parents getting older, yet the poem sidesteps cliché and delivers its message with mystery and surprise (hence no quote—the poem needs to be experienced whole).

Again, Sexton is expert at understatement; she lets us slide through the text and come out hands full of our own emotions and responses. Here is “Taken”:

This is the boat that took me
out of my marriage,
the painter said, then clicked

to the next slide. Here is the chair,
the spare table I pulled my grief
up to. Here is where the gash

of oil paint put me: behind
a door closed, thick green
strokes refusing to leave.

Sexton’s delicacy also pays off in a 9/11 poem; the tragedy is never mentioned, yet the reader is able to intuit a survivor’s tale. The poem packs a wallop it wouldn’t have if it had slid into more overt emotion. In most ways, Causeway is a quiet book, an astute book. It doesn’t rant, throw things at the wall or try to upstage or bamboozle. Its poems are elegant lessons in attention, quietly letting us know that even when things aren’t going so well (which may be most of the time), there is a great gift in just paying attention.