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  • Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance
  • Jo Gill (bio)
Paula M. Salvio. Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance. Foreword by Madeleine R. Grumet. Albany: SUNY P, 2007. 151 pp. ISBN 978-07914-7098-5, $22.95.

Paula M. Salvio's Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance is the final book in the longstanding "Feminist Theory in Education" series, published by SUNY Press. As series editor Madeleine R. Grumet notes in her Foreword, this book's blending of gender studies, history, politics, and pedagogical theory makes it exemplary of the concerns of the series, and thus provides an appropriate note on which to bring it to a close.

Grumet might also have added that in addition to considering gender, history, politics, and educational theory, Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance is primarily a psychoanalytic study. This is an approach which often proves fruitful, for example, in Salvio's reading of the relationship between poet, text, and readers, and of Linda Gray Sexton's, the poet's daughter's, memoir of her experiences with her mother. Occasionally, though, it proves to be a weakness, as for example in the rather over-determined reading, and pathologization, of poet John Holmes's position. Salvio reads his and Sexton's relationship as almost entirely combative, and as evidence of the damaged identities of both, and although she offers a brief reading of Sexton's poem-cum-manifesto, "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further," she does not address Sexton's powerful and compassionate elegy for Holmes, "Somewhere in Africa." Thus the contradictions and ambivalences of their friendship—something that psychoanalysis ought to be able to address—remain hidden from view.

Salvio's book develops from her earlier and fascinating essay, "Teacher of Weird Abundance: Portraits of the Pedagogical Tactics of Anne Sexton," in Cultural Studies 13.4 (1999). In that essay, Salvio offered a reading of Sexton's pedagogical practice (the term "tactics," used in the title of the initial essay, implies rather more purpose than is apparent in the combination of panic, impulse, and avoidance which seems to have characterized Sexton's classroom work) which was attuned to Sexton's broaching of barriers of decorum and taste. It also developed in useful ways into a reading of space and of spatial awareness, using the work of Michel De Certeau as the lens through which to view Sexton's life and writing. De Certeau has a minor role in this book, and is supplemented by a range of other thinkers, from Barthes and Bhabha through Kristeva, Lacan, and Morrison, to Torok and Winnicott, to name just a few.

The reading of Sexton's pedagogical practice in the light of D. W. Winnicott's notion of the "good enough mother" is particularly effective. It allows Salvio to speak at one and the same time to Sexton's biographical experience [End Page 557] as daughter and mother, and to her attempts to be a "good enough teacher," and therefore to contextualize her experience in light of contemporary mores. Throughout the book, the author's willingness to situate her critique in the context of mid-century American life is a strength, and something that perhaps only the passing of time since Sexton's immediate moment has begun to enable. Salvio closes by reminding us that Sexton wrote in "a conscious awareness of her complicity in living out and suffering through the plot of the post-World War II American dream" (119).

This having been said, there are moments in the otherwise fine chapter "Picturing the Racial Innocence of Anne Sexton's Pedagogy" where this historical frame risks being effaced by a more determinedly twenty-first century position. Here, Salvio indicts Sexton for "fall[ing] short," for "not carry[ing] her project far enough," and for "failure" (113–14). This chapter is, nevertheless, valuable for a number of reasons. First, like Renée Curry's 2000 book White Women Writing White: H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness, Salvio brings questions about race (which are also, although Salvio does not pursue this point, questions about whiteness) into debates about modern American women's poetry. Second, the discussion in this chapter has the potential to...


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