Subscribe to Canada Free Press for FREE

Will USA Cast Off its Secular Demons and Rise Again?

America’s Awful Rowing Toward God

By —— Bio and Archives--December 18, 2011

Comments | Print Friendly | Subscribe | Email Us

A recent perusal of Pulitzer-Prize winning American poet Anne Sexton‘s work reveals an interesting obsession with failure, God and redemption strangely reminiscent of America’s current struggles. Given the religious nature of the season it seems timely to reflect on the past year and our times. The title of this article is gleaned from Sexton’s last work before she committed suicide—while ironically grappling with the idea of a higher power. Who can argue that America seems caught in malaise of intellectual and spiritual derivation? We’ve almost forgotten our glorious past with its divine sanction. We now stagger from failure to failure in a fog, stumbling over secular fables, whilst hand wringing and moaning, full of self-pity.

Anne Sexton appeared to grasp the outline of a divine presence even as her life came apart, literally at the seams. Did she feel God was reeling her towards Him through all her disastrous and self-destructive acts? Likewise, has the USA also been allowed to fall away and then suffer judgments—for our lusts of the flesh, technological idols and worship of golden calves? Are we at endgame? Will the just be spared before annihilation? Or will the sweet land of liberty be saved in the nick of time when we experience revival and repentance? This question is the topic of this essay within the context of Anne Sexton’s poetry and other prophetic voices.

I. Sexton’s Evocative Vision of Personal Damnation Applied to America

America is blessed. Given all the remarkable coincidences helping form and sustain America these centuries, one could be forgiven for believing a divine sanction protected us. And if it is true that America was blessed for piety, as a result of God’s favor—does it not also follow that we should and will be judged for falling away into idolatry after our enormous, divinely-delivered success? Has God judged America? Late American poet Sexton writes evocative poetry of the personally damned, from “The Sickness Unto Death”....



God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse…

I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them

Such imagery is not so different than how biblical writers expressed God’s angst at times of national impiety and idolatry. In Micah 3, Yahweh gives vent to His frustration, saying why nations are judged—being immoral leaders and prophets leading the people astray. Or, as Billy Graham once noted—“If God doesn’t judge America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

A. Isaiah’s Warning

Consider Isaiah’s agonizing warning (Isaiah 3:8-12):

For Jerusalem has stumbled,
and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD,
defying his glorious presence.

For the look on their faces bears witness against them;
they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil on themselves.
Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,
for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.
Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him,
for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him.

My people—infants are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your guides mislead you
and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.

II. Anne Sexton’s Religious Influences

Diane Wood Middlebrook in Anne Sexton, A Biography admits that the religious influence in Sexton’s works is somewhat inscrutable. And yet we cannot be surprised as one of the true hallmarks of genuine Art is the picking up and examining of great themes—such as religion, God and death, etc. The nominally Catholic poet at times claimed a kind of agnosticism on God’s identity, yet among close friends confided a fascination with Christ. Middlebrook quotes a Sexton friend who said, “Anne really tried to trust the connections she felt with that Jesus, the ordinary man.”

We do know Sexton was unduly influenced by the 18th century Latin scholar and poet Christopher Smart, who led a deeply troubled life. Smart was institutionalized for periods of his life in London’s St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, for his inability to stop kneeling in public places to offer prayer. (In fact, the great lexicographer and wit Dr. Johnson commented on the oddness of the irreligious judging one accused of extreme piety) In particular, Sexton was drawn to Smart’s Jubilate Agno, Smart’s goal was to discover the “one true, eternal poem” of God.

III. Sexton’s Awful Rowing to God: Mercy Street & American Repentance

A. Rowing

Is there a God who creates and who judges? Or a deity that drives-off, or draws-in, persons to Him? Sexton expresses this idea, In The Awful Rowing to God. Here the writer grapples coming to grips with God on His terms, and seeking to remove the gnawing sense of death from her spirit:

Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched-
though touch is all-
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew,
and then there were many strange apparitions,
the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison
and all of that, saws working through my heart,
but I grew, I grew,
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms, and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I’d say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.

B. Mercy Street

One of Sexton’s greatest works is 45 Mercy Street, developed as both a poem and a play. Avant-garde musician Peter Gabriel wrote a song based upon these works, as well as Sexton’s general canon of poems. Sexton writes of sin, God and personal judgment in her confessional style.

More from the poem The Sickness Unto Death, where Sexton furthers these themes:

I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.

IV. Jeremiah & Yahweh’s Judgment

The Old Testament too speaks of sin which then leads society-wide to judgment of the nation. So writes Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet.” (Jer. 2: 7-13)

I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.

The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.

“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the LORD.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this:
Has a nation ever changed its gods?
Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.

Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the LORD.
My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.


The God of the Bible—whom 80% or more of Americans claim to believe in—judges the acts of men and society, as stated by Jeremiah:

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away.

Her filthiness clung to her skirts;
she did not consider her future.
Her fall was astounding;
there was none to comfort her.
“Look, LORD, on my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed.”

“My sins have been bound into a yoke;
by his hands they were woven together.
They have been hung on my neck,
and the Lord has sapped my strength.
He has given me into the hands
of those I cannot withstand.

According the prophet Daniel, the ultimate decider of the destiny of nations is God. One theme As Daniel was taught by the Spirit in his visions, in Daniel 2:19-21—only God raises up or brings down rulers, and only He sustains kingdoms, or causes them to fall:

During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.

He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.

It is hoped that America will read the tea-leaves and see it is time to repent and return to our old successful habits borne of biblical roots. We must set aside the false idols of indolence, or socialism, which bring no bounty. Also we must dispense with superficial physical titillation, which is a kind of slavery, and return to the church. Then, perhaps our land will be healed and our people freed from the hands of heartless and morally blind demagogues.

Kelly OConnell -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico.

Commenting Policy

Please adhere to our commenting policy to avoid being banned. As a privately owned website, we reserve the right to remove any comment and ban any user at any time.

Comments that contain spam, advertising, vulgarity, threats of violence, racism, anti-Semitism, or personal or abusive attacks on other users may be removed and result in a ban.
-- Follow these instructions on registering: