Image by Elsa Dorfman

With Mercy for the Greedy

Anne Sexton


With Mercy for the Greedy

Anne Sexton


Poem introduction

It is dedicated for my friend Ruth who urges me to make an appointment with the sacrament of confession and the title is 'With Mercy for the Greedy'.

With Mercy for the Greedy

With Mercy for the Greedy

Concerning your letter in which you ask
me to call a priest and in which you ask
me to wear The Cross that you enclose;
your own cross,
your dog-bitten cross,
no larger than a thumb,
small and wooden, no thorns, this rose -

I pray to its shadow,
that gray place
where it lies on your letter ... deep, deep.
I detest my sins and I try to believe
in The Cross. I touch its tender hips, its dark jawed face,
its solid neck, its brown sleep.

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can't. Need is not quite belief.

All morning long
I have worn
your cross, hung with package string around my throat.
It tapped me lightly as a child's heart might,
tapping secondhand, softly waiting to be born.
Ruth, I cherish the letter you wrote.

My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
with mercy
for the greedy,
they are the tongue's wrangle,
the world's pottage, the rat's star.

Interviewer: One of the things that's particularly interesting about this is the dedication I think, and the poem's preoccupation with religion - were you brought up in any particular religion realistically?

Sexton: Yes, a protestant one.

Interviewer: A protestant one?

Sexton: Yes

Interviewer: In your poems there sometimes seems to be a special sort of preoccupation with ritual of a sort that I suppose is not very common to Protestantism.

Sexton: No, I think I'm rather attracted to Catholicism and everyone thinks that I was a Catholic and that I left the church and now I tell everyone I'm an atheist. No one knows what I am, but I think I have a great preoccupation with Catholicism. All on my own, with no influence whatsoever.

Interviewer: It's interesting that you can say, well I'm an atheist, quite surely, and at the same time have this preoccupation because...

Sexton: This is an obsession though, you see, and I'm not sure where it leads to. I even answer it in this poem by saying it is poems that have done it for me, poems are my religion. That's my answer in the poem.

Interviewer: You do come back, not only in this poem but in some others, though to very realistic details about certain features of Christianity like the crucifixion - you say "There is a beautiful Jesus, he is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef." Well this reminds one of certain sorts of very moving religious paintings in which the actual physical suffering of Christ on the cross is very present.

Sexton: Well I'm very aware of this all the time, I am very influenced by Christ and the physical suffering, perhaps more attracted to the suffering than the rising.

Interviewer: The human side of it in fact.

Sexton: Yes the human being there on the cross.

Interviewer: But yet you've never felt moved to become...to convert to Catholicism or to any other religion.

Sexton: I've thought of it and even tried it but it hasn't worked. I'm still a sceptic.

Interviewer: Indeed this poem is about...

Sexton:...about that, being a sceptic, but saying all I have to give to Christ is my poem.


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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