Anne Sexton’s ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward‘ is a deeply moving confessional poem about motherhood, gender, and mental illness. The narrator appears to be a woman that is institutionalized on account of her mental health, thus ensuring her newborn child will be taken away from her.
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‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward‘ gradually ensures the reader loses their innocence of the narrator’s heart-wrenching position, yet remains powerless to change it.
Written over five stanzas, the poem depicts the narrator’s attempts to come to terms with the fact their child is soon to be taken away from them on account of their mental illness. The poem is addressed directly to the child, which only adds to the sense of despair as the child will, naturally, not remember their mother’s reasons for not being able to look after it.
As the poem continues, it becomes clear that the child’s father was unwilling to accept any responsibility for the pregnancy, and the narrator also refuses to name him. The poem concludes with the child being taken away and the narrator contemplating the depths of her misery.
Born in Massachusetts in 1928, Anne Sexton went on to become one of the most prominent poets in the Confessional movement, alongside Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Sexton suffered from bipolar disorder throughout her adult life and was committed to psychiatric care on several occasions. Her work is marked by its intensity and willingness to engage with topics that were considered taboo during her life, such as suicide, abortion, and drug addiction. She committed suicide in 1974, and ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward‘ was published posthumously in 1981.
Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.
The use of the direct address in this stanza creates a degree of intimacy between the narrator and her child, which heightens the tension once it becomes clear that the child will be taken away. The use of the simile when describing the child “like a snail” captures the fragility that newborn babies experience. However, it also serves to juxtapose the child with the narrator by emphasizing the differences between them, perhaps foreshadowing the later separation which will occur.
The metaphorical claim that the child is “fed with love” captures the tenderness one would expect between a mother and child but also the absence of any other means by which the narrator can provide security and sustenance, given her mental health. The finality of the final two lines reinforces the impossibility of the narrator’s situation, which seemingly is unavoidable.
The doctors are enamel. They want to know
the facts. They guess about the man who left me,
and I turn my head away. I do not know.
This stanza begins with the metaphorical description of the doctors as enamel, the hard outer surface of teeth. This captures the cold, clinical environment the narrator finds themselves in by both evoking the color white and also the atmosphere of visiting the dentist. The repeated use of the pronoun “they” juxtaposes the staff with the narrator as well as emphasizing their number. This creates a sense of unease and vulnerability to reflect the narrator’s state of mind, especially her paranoia.
The lack of specificity with regard to the location and the absence of the father’s name reminds the reader of the universality of the woman’s experience and the countless men who have abandoned women with whom they have conceived children. The passivity of the narrator, as demonstrated through the hyperbolic claim that “all I did was let you grow”, reinforces her powerlessness and inability to escape her circumstances.
Yours is the only face I recognize.
Bone at my bone, you drink my answers in.
Six times a day I prize
Should I learn to speak again, or hopeless in
such sanity will I touch some face I recognize?
The third stanza brilliantly conjures the simultaneous sense of attachment and separation between a mother and child. On the one hand, they appear to be almost inseparable, as shown in the description “bone at my bone” in the second line. However, the strangeness of the child is demonstrated through the metaphorical descriptions of its animalistic nature, which serves to showcase its otherness, perhaps foreshadowing the fact it will be taken from its mother.
This is reinforced through the metaphor when the narrator claims they are a “shelter of lies” because it captures the incongruity of the experience. On the one hand, the narrator is the child’s protector, yet they are also uncertain and perhaps even unfit to fulfill that role. Finally, the stanza ends with a rhetorical question, possibly indicating the narrator is losing touch with reality and thus demonstrating the need for the baby to be taken away.
Down the hall the baskets start back. My arms
my throat. “Name of father—none.” I hold
you and name you bastard in my arms.
This stanza focuses on the mother’s anguish as she contemplates how natural the child feels in her arms. This is shown through the use of a simile when describing how “my arms fit you like a sleeve,” which seemingly shows the ease with which the mother and child coexist. However, given sleeves and the clothes they represent can be changed or discarded, it also reminds the reader of the fragility of their union and foreshadows its end.
The colloquial use of the term “old man’s” to refer to the child’s father briefly hints at normality that is ultimately never realized. It also evokes a sense of injustice as the man is not there to answer any of the questions, which are instead put to the vulnerable and unstable mother. The final line functions as a final act of defiance when the narrator refers to their child as a bastard, subverting the word’s negative associations by implying that the child has no need of an absent father anyway.
And now that’s that. There is nothing more
and hand you off, trembling the selves we lose.
Go child, who is my sin and nothing more.
The final stanza begins with an acknowledgment of the finality of the narrator’s situation and an abdication of her free will. The hyperbolic claim that “there is nothing more [she] can say or lose” captures her sense of heartbreak now that her child has been taken from her. Likewise, the simile uses to describe the child’s cheeks “like flowers” creates a sense of beauty but also transience, just as flowers briefly come into bloom but then eventually fade and die.
The use of metaphors related to separation punctuates the end of the poem, as though the narrator was attempting to picture every plausible way to describe their goodbye. The penultimate line figuratively suggests that more than just her child, the mother has surrendered a piece of herself that she can never recover. The poem’s final line conflates the child with the mother’s sin, which both suggests the mother will always harbor regret and guilt about giving the child away and also captures the unfair, gendered expectations society has placed on women throughout history.
The Confessionalist poets were a group of poets in the 1950s and 60s who sought to write more personal, taboo-breaking poems. Their members included Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell, and many of their poems have become well-known. They are remembered for their controversial themes and subject matter.
The poem features an alternating ABAB rhyme scheme throughout its five stanzas. This evokes an unwavering sense of permanence to perhaps mirror the narrator’s gradual acceptance of her situation. Likewise, it also establishes a contrast between the two distinct rhyming sounds. This contrast could represent the mother and child, who are seemingly destined to part, or it could represent the mother and the rest of society, who seem in opposition to her will.
The ambiguity of the title is what makes it so powerful. The absence of the girl’s name ensures it could refer to anyone, thus emphasizing the universality of this experience. Likewise, it could refer to either the mother or the child, reminding the reader that they are both vulnerable in this situation.
The tone varies throughout the stanzas, at times bordering on rage and defiance before settling on a kind of reluctant acceptance. The variable tone accurately captures the nuances that one would expect from such an emotionally charged separation.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward‘ might want to explore other Anne Sexton poems. For example:
- ‘Rowing‘ – Written just two years before her suicide in 1974, this poem is a moving exploration of depression and other mental health issues.
- ‘In Celebration of my Uterus‘ – A much more uplifting poem that explores motherhood, womanhood, and the poet’s sense of self.
Some other poems that may be of interest include: