Image by Elsa Dorfman

Letter Written on a Ferry

Anne Sexton


Letter Written on a Ferry

Anne Sexton


Poem introduction

Well it is very sad because it's the end of a love affair And I actually did write this on the ferry going across Long Island Sound with just a pencil - I usually write on a typewriter which is an odd thing to do but I have very bad handwriting, I can't read it, so therefore I usually write on a typewriter, but I was on this ferry with no typewriter and I started writing and the waves were washing at the side and it was quite beautiful and I was very sad. I was so sad I was really about to go into collapse, maybe jump off the ferry or do something strange like that. Instead I wrote this poem which saved me and my lover. The title is 'Letter Written on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound'.

Letter Written on a Ferry

Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound,

I am surprised to see
that the ocean is still going on.
Now I am going back
and I have ripped my hand
from your hand as I said I would
and I have made it this far
as I said I would
and I am on the top deck now
holding my wallet, my cigarettes
and my car keys
at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday
in August of 1960.

Dearest,
although everything has happened,
nothing has happened.
The sea is very old.
The sea is the face of Mary,
without miracles or rage
or unusual hope,
grown rough and wrinkled
with incurable age.

Still,
I have eyes.
These are my eyes:
the orange letters that spell
ORIENT on the life preserver
that hangs by my knees;
the cement lifeboat that wears
its dirty canvas coat;
the faded sign that sits on its shelf
saying KEEP OFF.
Oh, all right, I say,
I'll save myself.

Over my right shoulder
I see four nuns
who sit like a bridge club,
their faces poked out
from under their habits,
as good as good babies who
have sunk into their carriages.
Without discrimination
the wind pulls the skirts
of their arms.
Almost undressed,
I see what remains:
that holy wrist,
that ankle,
that chain.

Oh God,
although I am very sad,
could you please
let these four nuns
loosen from their leather boots
and their wooden chairs
to rise out
over this greasy deck,
out over this iron rail,
nodding their pink heads to one side,
flying four abreast
in the old-fashioned side stroke;
each mouth open and round,
breathing together
as fish do,
singing without sound.

Dearest,
see how my dark girls sally forth,
over the passing lighthouse of Plum Gut,
its shell as rusty
as a camp dish,
as fragile as a pagoda
on a stone;
out over the little lighthouse
that warns me of drowning winds
that rub over its blind bottom
and its blue cover;
winds that will take the toes
and the ears of the rider
or the lover.

There go my dark girls,
their dresses puff
in the leeward air.
Oh, they are lighter than flying dogs
or the breath of dolphins;
each mouth opens gratefully,
wider than a milk cup.
My dark girls sing for this.
They are going up.
See them rise
on black wings, drinking
the sky, without smiles
or hands
or shoes.
They call back to us
from the gauzy edge of paradise,
good news, good news.


from The Complete Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), copyright © 1981 by Anne Sexton, by permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Recording used by permission of the BBC.

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