Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
- We're back with another "I" – this time one which addresses itself directly to a man who's choosing to help drive her to…well, we can't tell you that yet. That would be cheating. But here's a hint: it's not that pretty. Remember what they did to witches in the Olden Days? Think about Joan of Arc. Or the Salem witch trials. And most of those "trials" ended with a witch being carted to the stake.
- Instead of hiding herself, however, our speaker seems almost ostentatious: unafraid, she waves her "nude arms" to the watching crowds.
- There's something simultaneously fragile and fierce about this gesture. Sure, naked arms could be a sign of human frailty. But our speaker also seems to be thumbing her nose at the "villages going by." She's not afraid. In fact, she's greeting the very world that's about to condemn her.
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
- Line seventeen offers an oh-so-beautiful example of enjambment. Want to know more about it? Check out what we have to say in "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay" for our thoughts on the matter.
- For now, though, let's just say that her declaration is about as forceful as the Destiny's Child song of the same name. Like the song (or, er, the poem) says, she's a survivor. She's gonna make it. And it doesn't matter so much whether she's burned at the stake or tortured in the inquisition. Death won't take away her sense of self.
- …but maybe we should talk about the dangers she seems to be facing. Believe us, they aren't pretty.
- Witches, you see, have never been well-liked by the rest of the world. In fact, there's a long and well-established tradition known as the "witch hunt." You guessed it – that's when folks band together, decide some woman has done things that just aren't quite acceptable, and then find some way to publicly kill her. Maybe they burned her at the stake. Maybe they tortured her until she declared that she was a witch. And then they burned her at the stake. Maybe they just dumped her in a big pond and waited to see if she'd survive. (After all, as we all know, only witches can swim. At least, that's what the folks in Salem, Massachusetts thought.)
- If you ever learned anything about witch trials in middle school, though, you probably learned that the trials were usually about social regulation. Don't like how someone talks? She's a witch. Don't like what someone's wearing? She's a witch. Don't like that she's hanging out with a boy you like? You get the picture.
- Here's the strange thing about these lines: they suddenly shift into the present tense. Our speaker is still feeling the crack of her bones, the heat of the fire. It's almost as if she's suggesting that there might just be other forms of social interaction which are, well, tortuous. Or at least very painful. And they seem to be ongoing.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
- Once again, our speaker returns to her refrain, expressing her sense of identification with a misaligned woman. She's outright defiant here: sure, she may be put to the death. But she's not about to back down from her beliefs or her sense of self.
- Here's where we return to Sexton's own biography, as well. Frequently mentally ill and occasionally suicidal, Sexton is straight-up honest about the reasons why death might not be such a bad option, given the state of the society she lived in.
- We're not saying that suicide is a good thing – or even that Sexton was happy that she tried it. In this poem, however, she's trying to explain why a woman might feel so persecuted that she'd find it easy to identify with women who died because of society's screwed up conventions.
- (After all, a woman's life in the '50s and '60s wasn't exactly a walk in the park. If you've ever watched Mad Men, you know that even Betty Draper goes crazy. The life of a '50s housewife wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.)
- Expressing solidarity with women who buck that conventional lifestyle can be an act of daring. At least, that's what our speaker seems to think.