Jack’s Naughty Bits: Anne Sexton

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Jack's Naughty Bits

The literature of masturbation consists, predominately, of stories of boys wanking away, killing time during that phase when there’s little else they are able to do with any competency. Having dutifully perused our Roth and Bellow, contemporary readers are if anything a bit over-informed about the superhuman feats pimply males may achieve and the range of vessels they find appropriate for their seed. Having aged considerably from those days of delirium, however, I’m more interested now in what masturbation means for adults. For self-loving doesn’t necessarily become easier as we amass experience. What starts as an activity not unmixed with shame becomes shameful for different reasons. I think that by the time we become adults we make peace with the fact that we are sexual beings who need outlets. But, in my case at least, that youthful shame has been replaced by the feeling that I should have found my life partner by now, should have traipsed over the threshold and into connubial bliss and not still be waking up alone and needy. As I get older, masturbation advertises itself as a kind of booby prize, not a natural element of the human sexual make-up, but evidence of just how sad and unfinished my still-single life is.

I am sure it needn’t feel this way. Masturbation is healthy, we all know that, and it no doubt remains healthy from the exploratory tickles of infancy to the a-teleological touches of age. Masturbation as adults should be, as Woody Allen put it, sex with someone we love. And yet, the very act frames us in such intense solitude that, feeling ourselves that much alone, we can’t always access the love we have for the self. While masturbation at its best reminds us of our self-sufficiency, our libido, our ability to create joy for ourselves, at its worst it underscores whatever alienation, loneliness, incompleteness and self-hatred we retain from our less formed years. To borrow some words from Eliot, desire in this case might be rather over-mixed with memory.

Which brings us to the poem below by Anne Sexton. I first came to know her work through her diverse, sexy, heavy-hitting love poems which I’ll feature another time. For now, I want to put forth this more-bitter-than-sweet take on adult self-pleasuring. Sexton’s poem reveals that no matter how much Betty Dodson has done to teach us all to please ourselves, the demons continue to haunt, the past doesn’t vanish and we enter our summer years still unshielded from the pains of echoing solitude.


The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator by Anne Sexton

The end of the affair is always death.

She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,

out of the tribe of myself my breath

finds you gone. I horrify

those who stand by. I am fed.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Finger to finger, now she’s mine.

She’s not too far. She’s my encounter.

I beat her like a bell. I recline

in the bower where you used to mount her.

You borrowed me on the flowered spread.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Take for instance this night, my love,

that every single couple puts together

with a joint overturning, beneath, above,

the abundant two on sponge and feather,

kneeling and pushing, head to head.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

I break out of my body this way,

an annoying miracle. Could I

put the dream market on display?

I am spread out. I crucify.

My little plum is what you said.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Then my black-eyed rival came.

The lady of water, rising on the beach,

a piano at her fingertips, shame

on her lips and a flute’s speech.

And I was the knock-kneed broom instead.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

She took you the way a woman takes

a bargain dress off the rack

and I broke the way a stone breaks.

I give back your books and fishing tack.

Today’s paper says that you are wed.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.

The boys and girls are one tonight.

They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.

They take off shoes. They turn off the light.

The glimmering creatures are full of lies.

They are eating each other. They are overfed.

At night, alone, I marry the bed.