HOW WE DANCED
By Anne Sexton
I wore blue.
I was nineteen
and we danced, Father, we orbited.
We moved like angels washing themselves.
We moved like two birds on fire.
Then we moved like the sea in a jar,
slower and slower.
The orchestra played
‘Oh how we danced on the night we were wed.’
And you waltzed me like a lazy Susan
and we were dear,
Now that you are laid out,
useless as a blind dog,
now that you no longer lurk,
the song rings in my head.
Pure oxygen was the champagne we drank
and clicked our glasses, one to one.
The champagne breathed like a skin diver
and the glasses were crystal and the bride
and groom gripped each other in sleep
like nineteen-thirty marathon dancers.
Mother was a belle and danced with twenty men.
You danced with me never saying a word.
Instead the serpent spoke as you held me close.
The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me
like a great god and we bent together
like two lonely swans.
When I first read this poem, I did not know it was Anne Sexton. I read through the first half and thought it was a lovely portrait of a beautiful moment between a father and a daughter. I thought the speaker, a young woman, saw her father as the stereotypical patriarchal archetype and that was all. Daddy’s little girl. Then “the serpent” woke up.
I felt sick. I was shocked. I was convinced I had read it wrong and that I must have missed something or maybe I just have a dirty mind. I felt so disturbed by it that I literally was uncomfortable reading it. Unfortunately for me (and for the speaker), I didn’t read it wrong. The girl’s father “loves” her. Horrible.
When I read things like this I am again reminded how naive and how sheltered I’ve been in my life. I just didn’t want to believe this poem. I remember seeing 8mm, a Nicholas Cage movie from 1999, which caused me a similar reaction. The main character is a private investigator who is hired to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. After following her trail all over the country, he finds himself searching through the darkest areas of human existence: child pornography and snuff films. Suffice to say, the outcome of the film was so incredibly disturbing that I still, nearly 10 years later, think about it very regularly. I have a feeling this poem has affected me in the same manner.