The date, the date: Anne Sexton, JFK, and the shockwave of history

Anne Sexton, being beautiful.

Anne Sexton, being beautiful.

I meant to post this Anne Sexton poem on November 22, which was the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but obviously I missed that particular deadline. People who were alive then often speak vividly about where they were and how they heard about JFK’s death; Sexton’s poem captures that sense of living through history beautifully. But I’m also drawn to the other side of that experience — the sense that living through history doesn’t just make you a witness to something huge, but it changes your life, too. It temporarily suspends the rules of morality; it makes you open to revising your own personal history as well. This poem is a part of the gorgeous sequence “Eighteen Days Without You,” the final section of Sexton’s Love Poems (my personal favorite collection of hers). The book as a whole deals quite frankly with adultery, desire, and the body — but at the end, we find out that the central affair started when two people were caught in the shockwave of history. RIP JFK, RIP Anne Sexton, RIP 20th-century America.

December 4th

And where did we meet?
Was it in London on Carnaby Street?
Was it in Paris on the Left Bank?
That there that I can thank?

No. It was Harvard Square
at the kiosk with both of us crying.
I can thank that there —
the day Jack Kennedy was dying.

JFK, also being beautiful.

JFK, also being beautiful.

And one hour later he was dead.
The brains fell out of his dazzling head.
And we cried and drank our whiskey straight
and the world remembers the date, the date.

And we both wrote poems we couldn’t write
and cried together the whole long night
and fell in love with a delicate breath
on the eve that great men call for death.

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