All My Pretty Ones

by Anne Gray Harvey
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

“All My Pretty Ones,” the title poem of Sexton’s second collection, expresses the grief and loss characterizing the entire volume. In this poem, Sexton uses formal, rhymed verse to reflect upon the shock and sorrow of losing both her parents within a few months. The title recalls the grief of William Shakespeare’s character Macduff, when he is told that Macbeth has had his wife and children killed. Sexton quotes the relevant passage as an epigraph to the poem.

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Sexton’s poetry closely reflects her life and appears to represent her own voice. “All My Pretty Ones” follows her efforts to go through her father’s effects after his death, which occurred shortly after her mother’s. His business fortunes had suffered a reversal. Addressing her father directly, she tells of her attempts to “disencumber/ you from the residence you could not afford” and get rid of mementos that were meaningful to him but not to her: “boxes of pictures of people I do not know./ I touch their cardboard faces. They must go.”

The father’s life is woven into the dead reminders of him that are of another time period. The daughter finds news clippings in an old album and is taken back through history and through her father’s history. The clippings describe the destruction of the Hindenburg and the election of U.S. president Herbert Hoover. The father’s personal history is chronicled in photographs of formal dances, speedboat races, and horse shows, reflecting the wealth and luxury of the life he led.

As the poem progresses, however, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary elegy. The problems in the family become evident: The daughter calls the father “my drunkard, my navigator” and tells of the diary her mother kept, in which she did not speak of the father’s alcoholism but only said that he “overslept.” The daughter wonders if the alcoholic tendency has been passed on to her with the rest of her dubious inheritance: “each Christmas Day/ with your blood, will I drink down your glass/ of wine?” At the poem’s conclusion, the daughter reflects on how brief a space love and memory endure.

The poem is often anthologized with “The Truth the Dead Know,” another poem about her parents’ deaths, written at approximately the same time. Both poems express a sense of loss complicated by resentment and feelings of isolation. “All My Pretty Ones” gives a memorable portrayal of a survivor who, not having resolved the difficulties with her father during his life, is forced to cope with his death.

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