‘After Auschwitz’ by Anne Sexton

Anger,
as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.

Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.

I don’t think many readers will fail to be shocked by this poem. Its grotesque images and daring treatment of subject matter that seems untouchable for a poet certainly shocked me when I first read it.

But I think the subject matter is carefully chosen specifically to that end – to shock and hold our attention. The words “Auschwitz” and “Nazi” can never fail to do that. Spell-like, these words are capable of instilling horror even in those who were born decades after the events, because they conjure visions of man’s worst atrocities; a vision of pure evil; the Devil inside us. I think Sexton is using the imagery of the Holocaust to amplify (and in some strange sense that I can’t quite qualify, to validate) her own personal trauma. Plath does the same thing in her poetry (Daddy is the perfect example). Of course, this poem (as the title suggests) is a response to Auschwitz. However, I think it is also a more general reaction to Man’s inhumanity, and perhaps also the inhumanity of men. Sexton was surely influenced by the Vietnam War, which was going on at the time of writing, and by events in her own life, such as her divorce, and her struggle with depression.

The first emotion in the poem – and the first word – is “Anger”. “Anger,/ as black as a hook,/ overtakes me”. We begin with an intensely personal moment, where the speaker feels completely overwhelmed and surpassed by her anger. Then, as though moving the camera lens away from herself, the poet states, almost incongruently, that “Each day,/ each Nazi” sautéed a baby “for breakfast,/ in his frying pan”. This image is painfully, disgustingly, unbearably visual. For me, this first stanza is as if Sexton starts out trying to express her own anger, and then (perhaps to avoid discussing what has made her angry) thrusts this horrifying image in our faces as if to say – ‘look: Man is evil, and this proves it’.

“And death looks on with a casual eye”, writes Sexton. This phrase is repeated twice in the poem, and each time death is performing a banal, repulsive action such as “pick[ing] the dirt under his fingernails” and “scratch[ing] his anus”. I think these images of death are repeated to deliver a sense of the banality of death and senseless inhumanity, but also to convey that evil is not only in action, but in the inaction of bystanders who witness evil and do nothing to stop it. In this case, those bystanders, looking on with a casual eye, are also “death” – also murderers.

Notice that the images of Man in this piece are all of a corrupted creature that once had the potential to be something beautiful. For example, he is described as a “flower/ that should be burnt”, a “bird full of mud” and “not a temple/ but an outhouse”. I can’t help but think of Sexton’s own relationship here, and consider that these lines might just as well be accusing the betrayer in a broken relationship. The repetition of the word “Man” in this piece is hard to ignore. Clearly, Sexton is using it in the universal sense of ‘mankind’, but for me that insistent repetition also delivers a strong anti-male vibe – as though this were the voice of a betrayed, disillusioned, heartbroken woman – and I think again of Sexton’s personal life.

In the final verse we are given some biblical sounding commandments for the new world after Auschwitz. The first is, “Let man never again raise his teacup.” I think this commandment refers to civilities; let us never again pretend to be sophisticated or civilised after what has happened. The second is, “Let man never again write a book.” Philosophy, poetry, science, acting educated… all these things seem ridiculous to the traumatised speaker; Man is not an intellectual being but a brute and a monster. The poet goes on to forbid Man from ever “put[ting] on his shoe” – from dressing himself up as anything other than an animal – and from “rais[ing] his eyes,/ on a soft July night”. Perhaps this final commandment forbids Man from looking for God, marvelling at the stars, or finding beauty in nature. After all – after Auschwitz – it is evident that Man is an abomination of nature, and does not deserve God’s forgiveness.

“I say those things aloud”, writes Sexton. I find this phrase intriguing because she does not say ‘these things are true’. She is simply saying them aloud. She is just daring to voice her anger, air her thoughts. The final line, “I beg the Lord not to hear”, is vital and telling, and sort of saves the whole poem from being utterly depressing. The whole poem has been expressing the notion that Man is a monster that deserves to die, and then at the end she admits that she begs God not hear her prayer. Despite everything, she does not wish to visit the same inhumanity that has sparked this poem, on the perpetrators – on Man. She begs God not to hear. She is desperately hoping that there might be some possibility of salvation.

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton