Riding the Elevator into the Sky

Riding the Elevator into the Sky

Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, Oil on canvas
Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, Oil on canvas

Riding the Elevator into the Sky

by Anne Sexton

As the fireman said:
Don’t book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you’re climbing out of yourself.
If you’re going to smash into the sky.

Many times I’ve gone past
the fifth floor,
cranking upward,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
Sixtieth floor:
small plants and swans bending
into their grave.
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
Floor six thousand:
the stars,
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something—
some useful door—
up there.

“Riding the Elevator into the Sky” by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God. © Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

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  • +JMJ+

    The last book I read and the one I’m currently reading are set in New York City, and the height of the buildings have some parts to play in the plot. Both are Fantasy novels, but neither approach the dreaminess which Anne Sexton achieves in this poem.

    I was surprised to see that the painting is by Georgia O’Keeffe. Apparently, I know very little about her to think that she only painted flowers and landscapes. Radiator Building is very Art Deco–and reminds me a little of Ayn Rand.

  • Radiator Building has actually been the center of a controversy in Nashville. Georgia O’Keeffe donated it and other pieces to Fisk University as a collection. Fisk is going broke and in danger of closing and they wanted to sell the collection to raise money, but was prevented due to the nature of the donation (I think). It was in court for years. They reached some agreement where the collection spends part of the year on display in a museum in Arkansas in exchange for some amount of money for Fisk.