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In this debut collection, Sexton catalogues everyday life with a photographer's energy and Whitman's precision. Her speaker intercuts childhood memories of the New Hampshire coast with snapshots of adult life in small city apartments and, for many readers, her simple subject matter will disguise a complex purpose. Sleuth explores how the "stuff" of ordinary life hard-wires the brain with memory.
Throughout the book, the speaker excavates the Catholicism of her childhood, mining the images and landscape of the faith that haunts her. For example, the speaker's family owns a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary whose inert presence Sexton describes pithily as "the Mother of God in the front yard" (35). However, the statue's literal and symbolic meanings change each time the speaker mentions it. Sometimes an oblique mention does the work, refracting what the reader has already absorbed. In the poem "Contrition," the speaker does not reference the statue, grappling instead with the meaning of the "Hail Mary" prayer she recited as a child. As an ingenious meta-commentary, the poem's rhythm resembles the "pulse" of the prayer, revealing the persistence of the prayer's syntax and sound but the hollowness of its language: "When the words fled,/their shape stayed like a womb, full of grace" (13). This semiotic hollowness mirrors the emptiness of the statue's religious iconography. As a result, the speaker freely grafts new meanings onto the statue. She senses the statue's fraudulent omnipresence, describing the Virgin body as "a monument caught in headlights at night as my dates turned their cars in our drive" (29). In the title poem, the statue "sways in the trunk of the car" [End Page 192] (28) as an emblem to childhood Catholic guilt and, more practically, a means for conjuring up the memory of her deceased parents.
Sexton complicates autobiographical readings of her poetry by creating a patchwork of voices and moods, speaking across a spectrum of times and places. The book opens in a schoolhouse bathroom with a first person narrative. In "Crime Scene," a little girl contemplates punishment and penance, seeking to reconcile sin and innocence: "I sat on the rim/of a white tub and tried to make the connection/between evil and not remembering how to spell" (9). The bathroom scene illustrates how the speaker, from an early age, tangles with everyday "contradictions" – Sexton's word for the uneasy knowledge that daily acts of tragedy and heroism coexist. Likewise, an adult speaker in "A Place to Live" copes with mutability by embracing the urbanized "rudiments of home":
Oh perfect cracked ceilings on Carmine, oh crumbling brick walls. Dance me through the history of housing, of losing, of building new bookshelves, the price of sunlight and soot that falls on this carpet("A Place to Live," 58)
In Sleuth, Sexton argues that human beings overcome death when we memorialize beloved ones, tracing their connections to material objects. As an adult, the speaker celebrates the capacity of everyday artifact to sculpt memory, to honor the dead: "This is a dirge encrypted in things,/porcelain thimbles, seams sewn over/myths, facts resting with fiction,/exposed with their fine contradictions" (49). Sexton's army blankets, sewing machines, prickly bushes, and hanging flower pots acquire meanings beyond materiality. Her poems offer nuanced meditations on the need to compensate for human loss with the beauty of ordinary things.
James Walkowiak’s work has appeared in Pleiades, Rain Taxi, and The New Review of Literatures.