The Operation

Sexton, Anne

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: Oct-22-2002
  • Last revised: Sep-05-2006


The speaker of this poem undergoes surgery for some kind of abdominal cancer--the important detail being that her mother had recently gone through the same experience and died several months later. A number of images convey the strangeness and alienation of serious illness. The mother’s cancer is an "embryo of evil" that curiously grew inside her like her own daughter (the speaker). The hospital room is the place "where the snoring mouth gapes / and is not dear."

And at her mother’s bedside the speaker finds that she must "lie / as all who love have lied." Her body hair shaved for her own operation, the speaker finds important values have been stripped away: "All that was special, all that was rare / is common here. /. . . Fact: the body is dumb, the body is meat." Coming out from under anesthesia, the speaker calls for her mother.

Later she realizes that, unlike her mother, she will probably survive. The last lines are comic in a self-deflating way, as the speaker gives herself get-back-to-life marching orders partly in the voice of her mother, concluding: "and run along, Anne, run along now / my stomach laced up like a football / for the game." (About 120 lines, in 6- and 9-line stanzas)


This is a rich poem with more themes and provocative images than can be described briefly. It is particularly good on patient experience, which varies from fear to shame to pride (her initial resistance to anesthesia leaves her "boss of my own body still"), and on the interwoven themes of life and death and mother-daughter relationship.


Originally published in All My Pretty Ones, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962)

Primary Source

Selected Poems


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

Oxford, England