The Double Image by Anne Sexton


I am thirty this November.

You are still small, in your fourth year.

We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,

flapping in the winter rain,

falling flat and washed. And I remember

mostly the three autumns you did not live here.

They said I’d never get you back again.

I tell you what you’ll never really know:

all the medical hypothesis

that explained my brain will never be as true as these

struck leaves letting go.

I, who chose two times

to kill myself, had said your nickname

the mewling months when you first came;

until a fever rattled

in your throat and I moved like a pantomime

above your head. Ugly angels spoke to me. The blame,

I heard them say, was mine. They tattled

like green witches in my head, letting doom

leak like a broken faucet;

as if doom had flooded my belly and filled your bassinet,

an old debt I must assume.

Death was simpler than I’d thought.

The day life made you well and whole

I let the witches take away my guilty soul.

I pretended I was dead

until the white men pumped the poison out,

putting me armless and washed through the rigamarole

of talking boxes and the electric bed.

I laughed to see the private iron in that hotel.

Today the yellow leaves

go queer. You ask me where they go. I say today believed

in itself, or else it fell.

Today, my small child, Joyce,

love your self’s self where it lives.

There is no special God to refer to; or if there is,

why did I let you grow

in another place. You did not know my voice

when I came back to call. All the superlatives

of tomorrow’s white tree and mistletoe

will not help you know the holidays you had to miss.

The time I did not love

myself, I visited your shoveled walks; you held my glove.

There was new snow after this.


They sent me letters with news

of you and I made moccasins that I would never use.

When I grew well enough to tolerate

myself, I lived with my mother. Too late,

too late, to live with your mother, the witches said.

But I didn’t leave. I had my portrait

done instead.

Part way back from Bedlam

I came to my mother’s house in Gloucester,

Massachusetts. And this is how I came

to catch at her; and this is how I lost her.

I cannot forgive your suicide, my mother said.

And she never could. She had my portrait

done instead.

I lived like an angry guest,

like a partly mended thing, an outgrown child.

I remember my mother did her best.

She took me to Boston and had my hair restyled.

Your smile is like your mother’s, the artist said.

I didn’t seem to care. I had my portrait

done instead.

There was a church where I grew up

with its white cupboards where they locked us up,

row by row, like puritans or shipmates

singing together. My father passed the plate.

Too late to be forgiven now, the witches said.

I wasn’t exactly forgiven. They had my portrait

done instead.


All that summer sprinklers arched

over the seaside grass.

We talked of drought

while the salt-parched

field grew sweet again. To help time pass

I tried to mow the lawn

and in the morning I had my portrait done,

holding my smile in place, till it grew formal.

Once I mailed you a picture of a rabbit

and a postcard of Motif number one,

as if it were normal

to be a mother and be gone.

They hung my portrait in the chill

north light, matching

me to keep me well.

Only my mother grew ill.

She turned from me, as if death were catching,

as if death transferred,

as if my dying had eaten inside of her.

That August you were two, but I timed my days with doubt.

On the first of September she looked at me

and said I gave her cancer.

They carved her sweet hills out

and still I couldn’t answer.


That winter she came

part way back

from her sterile suite

of doctors, the seasick

cruise of the X-ray,

the cells’ arithmetic

gone wild. Surgery incomplete,

the fat arm, the prognosis poor, I heard

them say.

During the sea blizzards

she had here

own portrait painted.

A cave of mirror

placed on the south wall;

matching smile, matching contour.

And you resembled me; unacquainted

with my face, you wore it. But you were mine

after all.

I wintered in Boston,

childless bride,

nothing sweet to spare

with witches at my side.

I missed your babyhood,

tried a second suicide,

tried the sealed hotel a second year.

On April Fool you fooled me. We laughed and this

was good.


I checked out for the last time

on the first of May;

graduate of the mental cases,

with my analyst’s okay,

my complete book of rhymes,

my typewriter and my suitcases.

All that summer I learned life

back into my own

seven rooms, visited the swan boats,

the market, answered the phone,

served cocktails as a wife

should, made love among my petticoats

and August tan. And you came each

weekend. But I lie.

You seldom came. I just pretended

you, small piglet, butterfly

girl with jelly bean cheeks,

disobedient three, my splendid

stranger. And I had to learn

why I would rather

die than love, how your innocence

would hurt and how I gather

guilt like a young intern

his symptons, his certain evidence.

That October day we went

to Gloucester the red hills

reminded me of the dry red fur fox

coat I played in as a child; stock-still

like a bear or a tent,

like a great cave laughing or a red fur fox.

We drove past the hatchery,

the hut that sells bait,

past Pigeon Cove, past the Yacht Club, past Squall’s

Hill, to the house that waits

still, on the top of the sea,

and two portraits hung on the opposite walls.


In north light, my smile is held in place,

the shadow marks my bone.

What could I have been dreaming as I sat there,

all of me waiting in the eyes, the zone

of the smile, the young face,

the foxes’ snare.

In south light, her smile is held in place,

her cheeks wilting like a dry

orchid; my mocking mirror, my overthrown

love, my first image. She eyes me from that face,

that stony head of death

I had outgrown.

The artist caught us at the turning;

we smiled in our canvas home

before we chose our foreknown separate ways.

The dry red fur fox coat was made for burning.

I rot on the wall, my own

Dorian Gray.

And this was the cave of the mirror,

that double woman who stares

at herself, as if she were petrified

in time — two ladies sitting in umber chairs.

You kissed your grandmother

and she cried.


I could not get you back

except for weekends. You came

each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit

that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack

your things. We touch from habit.

The first visit you asked my name.

Now you stay for good. I will forget

how we bumped away from each other like marionettes

on strings. It wasn’t the same

as love, letting weekends contain

us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,

wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.

You call me mother and I remember my mother again,

somewhere in greater Boston, dying.

I remember we named you Joyce

so we could call you Joy.

You came like an awkward guest

that first time, all wrapped and moist

and strange at my heavy breast.

I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,

only a girl, a small milky mouse

of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house

of herself. We named you Joy.

I, who was never quite sure

about being a girl, needed another

life, another image to remind me.

And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure

nor soothe it. I made you to find me.

Anne Sexton, “The Double Image” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

Source: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)


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