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The Lost Ingredient

Anne Sexton

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What's been lost?
2003-01-02
Added by: Melissa
That is the question, and not even the speaker knows. Yet she continues to pursue it, even her idea is half-baked and her attempts fruitless.

Stanza 1

The speaker first says "lost" as if she's talking about some precious ancient tradition that has disappeared. But by the end of the stanza, it sounds like the "ladies" are experiencing just some vague confusion -- so much

time has passed, they don't even know what they're trying to recover.

The loss doesn't sound so sacred anymore. Now it just sounds as if the

ladies lost something carelessly ("Wait, did I forget my coat at

the hotel?"). Notice that they are "gentle" ladies, hinting at the dual meanings of reputable upbringing as well as "gentle" in the sense they

are fragile or spoiled.

One must admit that these ladies' attempt is likely a far cry

from the original "rites" they're trying to resume. They can't even go

to the actual sea. The closest they get is seeking comfort in some

fancy bathtub ("briny" as it is). and what are they praying for? food

for the harvest? long life? No, they want new skin. Note the

connotation of "praying"... their shallow longing may be in earnest, but even so (or perhaps because of this), it seems a wry commentary in comparison to the ancestral

praying. These ladies and their hotel towels in Atlantic City!...

The choice of Atlantic City is significant, too. It's not only a well-known resort, but the "Atlantic" in the name reinforces the "sea" theme. In

fact, "Atlantic" comes FROM the word for "sea."

Look at all the alliteration. "first sea" and "first salt"; "have heard"; "sweetly" "skin" "smelling the stale" (all in one

line)... and pay attention to how the she describes the water as "running." Not flowing, or pouring, or coming out. Running. It hearkens back to the

way the ladies "steal" away to their baths, and the urgency with which

they perform this ritual. But the most important sounds seem to be,

again, tied to the "lost" in the title. The last word of every single

line includes the "l s t" sounds, or at least (in one case) the "s" and

"t" sounds. "Lost" just keeps coming back to haunt you -- much as it does to the subjects of this poem.

Stanzas 2, 3

"L" "s" and "t" sounds continue at the end of every line. The new backdrop

for the main words "steal" and "lost" is significant. This is such a good contrast to

that pampered setting in stanza 1. So many things are lost --

forget age-old rites, now it's the modern rites of gambling and being a

tourist. "Steal" is a good word because they're not just stealing

in the sense of escape, but stealing in that they're trying to get back

some coveted solace, although obviously it's not working. Look at

her attempt... she's finally reached the Salt Lake, but she's just as

bad as the froofroo women of stanza 1, because her attempt doesn't fly,

either. In fact, she finds it foreign and uncomfortable and ends up

rinsing off the "funny salt." (Speaking of which, the salt continuation

in this stanza is nice, too.) Rich women in luxury-town, average woman in Reno... they're all trying to fulfill that intangible instinctive

yearning, but it's never quite right, and all they can do is keep

making their awkward strivings.

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