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Anne Stevenson

Born in Cambridge, England, on January 3, 1933, Anne Stevenson spent most of her early life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut. She is the daughter of the American philosopher C.L. Stevenson. She studied at the University of Michigan where she received a B.A. and an M.A. in literature.

Her first book of poems Living in America (Generation, 1965) was followed shortly thereafter by her first critical collection, Elizabeth Bishop (Twayne, 1966). Stevenson is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including It Looks So Simple from a Distance (Poems on the Underground, 2010), Selected Poems (The Library of America, 2008), Stone Milk (Bloodaxe, 2007) Poems 1955–2005 (Bloodaxe, 2006) and A Report from the Border: New & Rescued Poems (2003).

Bitter Fame, her biography of Sylvia Plath, was published by Viking/Penguin in 1989. Other critical books include Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop (Bloodaxe, 2006) and Between the Iceberg and the Ship: Selected Essays (University of Michigan Press, 1998).

About her writing, she says:

I suspect there isn't really such a thing as free verse. Or if there is, I don't think I've written any. Readers may not always realize how formally constructed my poems are—but I assure you, not a single line has ever been passed over as accidental or unconsidered.

The poet X. J. Kennedy describes her poems as "achievements in which the angle of vision is particularly distinct. It is very much her own. Reading her, one is seldom if ever reminded of any other poets."

Stevenson is the recipient of The Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation and The Lannan Prize for lifetime achievement. She lives with her husband, Peter Lucas, in Durham City, England.

By This Poet

3

Drench

You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain—roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass  
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.     
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.  
It's the Celtic temperament—wind, then torrents, then remorse.
Glory rising like a curtain over distant water.
Old stonehouse, having steered us through the dark,
docks in a pool of shadow all its own.
That widening crack in the gloom is like good luck.
Luck, which neither you nor tomorrow can depend on.

On Reflection

That fire in the garden's an illusion—
the double of the fire that cheers this room.
Now standing at the window in between them,
I watch the spiked montbretia suddenly bloom
and guess the glass is telling me a lie. 
But no, the flames are there. I can't deny
the evidence presented to my eye. 
Only to my doubt can I appeal 
for news of what is false and what is real.

All those Attempts in the Changing Room!

          An Interrupted Monologue by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630

Look for me
where I learned to look for myself, 
in my ring of attempts
in the light of a sinking candle.

A candle?

       My soul, if you will.
My paintings bear witness to its
long affair with the real.
My flesh preferred games and counterfeits.

Counterfeits?

       My portraits!
The diary I kept in pigments.
This youthful 'me'—one instance—
in a beret and swaggering chain.
The sneer on my lips?
       That's Envy spurring Ambition.
The gold of my cheek and chin?
       There's the cost of pretence. 

So I played to the glass,
desiring the sweets of applause,
every morning delivered my face
to a rasher cause:
       van Rijn, the actor, the lover,
       the courtier, the beggar,
       the burgher, the sinner, 
       the saint, the seducer…

The more lies I told under cover
the truer they were. 
God save me! My pictures, whatever my will,
told the truth to my eyes!

And that was your genius.

My ingenium? Christ's punishing muscle!
God was always at war with my skill. 

With your skill?

More likely the Devil.
Oh, my struggles with God
rivalled Jacob's with the angel.
Even as a young man, I knew where I stood:
Here was God.  Here was Lucifer.
I prayed to them both, damned both, 
took from both when I could.

From Lucifer, his light—ochre bronze and lead-white.
A fine brush for elegance—linen and gold—
His greed to paint glory and splendour in firelight—

But from the Lord God, eyes.

And when He handed me eyes,
I knew I'd never escape them.
I shrunk them, I botched them again and again
in the shade of my hair or my hat.
I surrounded my forehead with shadows,
wore black and more black.
 
But my eyes still insist that I judge
myself through them—
myself in the changing room of myself,
myself in Act One on the world's stage,
my root nose—lecherous, cruel, pocked, thick,
my smooth skin bared for the plague,
myself who would see myself mocked in old age,
poor, unrepentant, penniless...sick, sick! 

Self-portrait as a young man?
Ignorant, egotistical, clever young man.
Who could know then
what I'd be in years to come?
Or what eventually did or must happen?