Peter Gabriel was inspired to write his haunting and timeless song “Mercy Street” after reading a poem called “45 Mercy Street” by American poet Anne Sexton.  I don’t think most people who love Gabriel’s hugely popular album So know much about the muse who inspired this song.  Here is a glimpse.  First,  her poem:

45 Mercy Street by Anne Sexton

In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign -
namely MERCY STREET.
Not there.

I try the Back Bay.
Not there.
Not there.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street.
I know the stained-glass window
of the foyer,
the three flights of the house
with its parquet floors.
I know the furniture and
mother, grandmother, great-grandmother,
the servants.
I know the cupboard of Spode
the boat of ice, solid silver,
where the butter sits in neat squares
like strange giant’s teeth
on the big mahogany table.
I know it well.
Not there.

Where did you go?
45 Mercy Street,
with great-grandmother
kneeling in her whale-bone corset
and praying gently but fiercely
to the wash basin,
at five A.M.
at noon
dozing in her wiggy rocker,
grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
on her forehead to cover the curl
of when she was good and when she was…
And where she was begat
and in a generation
the third she will beget,
me,
with the stranger’s seed blooming
into the flower called Horrid.

I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime.

Pull the shades down -
I don’t care!
Bolt the door, mercy,
erase the number,
rip down the street sign,
what can it matter,
what can it matter to this cheapskate
who wants to own the past
that went out on a dead ship
and left me only with paper?

Not there.

I open my pocketbook,
as women do,
and fish swim back and forth
between the dollars and the lipstick.
I pick them out,
one by one
and throw them at the street signs,
and shoot my pocketbook
into the Charles River.
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up
notebooks.

Peter Gabriel:  Mercy Street

Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made realAll of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s headShe pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seamLets take the boat out
Wait until darkness
Let’s take the boat out
Wait until darkness comesNowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
Nowhere in the suburbs
In the cold light of dayThere in the midst of it so alive and alone
Words support like boneDreaming of mercy st.
Wear your inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy(‘s arms again
Dreaming of mercy st.
‘swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms
Pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide smooth
Tugging at the darkness, word upon word
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest-he’s the doctor
He can handle the shocksDreaming of the tenderness-the tremble in the hips
Of kissing Mary’s lipsDreaming of mercy st.
Wear your insides out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of mercy st.
‘swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s armsMercy, mercy, looking for mercy
Mercy, mercy, looking for mercyAnne, with her father is out in the boat
Riding the water
Riding the waves on the seaBoth poems seethe with a boiling darkness just under the surface.  There is plenty of sexual suggestion (warm velvet box), as well as allusions to the unconscious (the sea, darkness, the unseen).  The priest in Gabriel’s song is also a father figure, and biographers know that Anne had a difficult relationship with her own father.  Another religious allusion:  kissing Mary’s lips, rhyming with “tremble in the hips”, makes it that much more powerful.  Sexton spent eight years in psychotherapy.  She was uneasy with success and winning such honors as the Pulitzer Prize;  it didn’t take the dark visions away from her powerful, confessional verse.
I found this online:  “In an interview over a year before her death, she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death (Wikipedia entry).
This posthumous title might have inspired Gabriel’s last line of his dark, haunting song.  Anne Sexton committed suicide, her 5th attempt successful, in 1974, twelve years before Gabriel’s album was released.
Here are some rare clips of Sexton reading her poetry and other illuminations about her life:
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And Anne Sexton at home.  In the first poem she muses on death.  She has a masculine way of talking, a strong voice and very matter-of-fact.  My friend Jasmin said she was a “cool broad”.  Yes she was.  She smiles when she hugs her daughter.  But the darkness was never very far away and the inner demons persisted.  A few years after these informal home movies, she threw down a glass of vodka and went into the garage, shut all the doors, started up the car, and died of carbon monoxide inhalation.

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2 Comments »

  • Miranda said:

    Could it be that Peter Gabriel is referring to Anne's mother…. Mary Gray Staples ??

    I'm thinking of these lines from 45 Mercy Street which seem to be speaking of Anne's birth….

    "45 Mercy Street,
    with great-grandmother
    kneeling in her whale-bone corset
    and praying gently but fiercely
    to the wash basin,
    at five A.M.
    at noon
    dozing in her wiggy rocker,
    grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
    grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
    and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
    on her forehead to cover the curl
    of when she was good and when she was…
    And where she was begat
    and in a generation
    the third she will beget,
    me,
    with the stranger’s seed blooming
    into the flower called Horrid."

  • tom schnabel (author) said:

    thanks Miranda….I didn't know this….you could very well be right here. Too bad they didn't know more about bipolar depression back then. Mercy Street is such a haunting song. Gabriel is so brilliant.

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