David Palatinus: On "Anthropomorphism and Spectrality in Plath"

The box is locked, it is dangerous.[1]

I have to live with it overnight

And I can’t keep away from it.

There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.

There is only a little grid, no exit.


Chase, Cynthia. “Giving a Face to a Name: de Man’s Figures.” In Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in The Romantic Tradition, 82-112. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe.” In The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 149-171. London: Routledge, 1992.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as Defacement.” In The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 67-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Louise Glück: On "Dream Song 1"

Implicit in the idea of the lyric is the single voice. Berryman’s primary disruption of the lyric is the fracturing of voice. From poem to poem the paradigm varies: minstrel shows, schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, But always one persona taking over for another, taking the stage: these are noisy poems – shattered, voluble, fragmented, desperate, dramatic, futile. The intense purpose characteristic of the lyric becomes, in Berryman, intense cross-purposes. …

… The poem begins with two lines of report: our speaker is someone who knows Henry from the outside ("huffy" being descriptive of behavior) and from the inside ("Unappeasable"). Reasonable, then, to presume that the central figure – with a curious detachment that contains the internalized perpetual reproach of a parent – here describes himself. … If Henry, in lines one and two, is the speaker, the guiding or prevailing intelligence, then who is the "I" of line three? Friendly to the cause, adult, capable of entertaining several ideas at once ("his point" suggests the many other angles already considered). A reader encountering the first person tends to identify that pronoun with a poem’s central intelligence. But the problem in The Dream Songs, the drama of the poems, is the absence of a firm self. …

… [T]he ruminative tone of the third line suggests that its commentary may go on. In fact, it doesn’t: the "I" is immediately absorbed into the intimate childish rancors of lines four and five. "Do it" means do to: it is all things done to Henry against Henry’s unknown, unknowable best interests. The very idea, which is actually Henry’s, that others have such power is enough to send Henry into violent hiding. The power is vague because its agents are hazy. What exists is a sense of victimization, of jeopardy, but it is never particularly explicit. In fact, so well does Henry hide himself that, ultimately, he can’t find where he is either.

….The last line of the first stanza is the line of fate: he should have. He didn’t. Spoken by the mother, her head shaking sadly.

… But there’s a surprising turn in stanza three, surprising and heartbreaking. Who says "Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang"? This is an "I" different from the "I" of stanza one, who sees. Or the "I" of stanza two, who doesn’t see. This is engagement, not commentary. This is a whole being, in behavior spontaneous, Henry-like, but in tone, calm. The Dream Songs search for such wholeness.


From Louise Glück, "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence" in Proofs & Theories (New York: Ecco, 1994), 77-78. Copyright 1994 by Louis Gluck

C.K. Doreski: On "The Filling Station"

"Filling Station" [QT] offers a place to begin to delineate the problems of integrating unfamiliar or unavailable social and cultural milieus. A fussy feminine voice plots the scene. The poem moves from critique—"Oh, but it is dirty!"—to affirmation— "Somebody loves us all" without losing tone, as if to assert, despite its prissiness, its emotional range. Both assertions depend on the exaggeratedly finical persona-voice for recognition and clarification of the relationship between language-subject and object. The clarity of revelation requires the acceptance of the authority of this somewhat flighty voice. The first stanza encounters this diminutive, dirty filling station with a tone of amused disgust. This unctuous station offers no clean surface on which to step, sit, or lean. The caretaker-narrator worries about the public welfare in this place of discarded lubricants. The place seems deserted, vaguely disturbing, alien, provincial. The second stanza, however, introduces, or at least recognizes, the filling station family. Bishop had to delineate the oily surroundings before she could populate the station with presences that derive their identity in part from the obscuring power of the dirt and grease. Father in a "dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit" and his "several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" compose the tribe. To underscore the masculine disarray, Bishop compresses judgment with depiction: "it's a family filling station, / all quite thoroughly dirty." The work environment begs for the tidying presence of a woman, a wife, or a mother. The station itself appears to be a resting place for men and dogs: the wicker furniture ("crushed and grease- / impregnated" and with a "dirty dog") offers that residential look. Bishop allows "grease-" to teeter at the end of the line, isolating and heightening the vaguely sexual connotations of "impregnated." The descriptively self-contained stanzas of "Filling Station" cause it to resemble "Sestina" more than any other Bishop poem. The theatrical positioning of props and people echoes the dominant image patterns of the piece. At one step removed, we glimpse the touches of those present: "Some comic books provide / the only note of color"—and perhaps someone absent: "They [the comic books] lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret / (part of the set), beside / a big hirsute begonia." Surely there can be no sense of intellectual presence, or for that matter, even craft. Bishop sees neither mind nor hand at work in the debris. Upon what then does the poem turn? Perhaps because of the orchestrating falsetto voice, the poem depends upon noting the absence of an actual feminine presence. It asks us to sense the former presence, then to miss, the decorator of the filling station. This note of nostalgia exploits conventional expectations: Domestic scenes—it is now clear that domesticity is the standard to which the narrator has held this scene—require a woman, a wife, a mother here, even as "Sestina" does. A rhetorical cascade of questions suggests the extent of the narrator's tentatively withheld knowledge: Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? (Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.) The selective questioning and insider's conjectures (further emphasized by the parachesis of "gray crochet") link factual and speculative registers of awareness. The poem challenges the reader to offer any explanation other than a woman's sometimes presence. No longer the harsh ds of the beginning stanzas, the calming, lullaby-like ws and ss of the oil cans sound a peaceful and reconciling note as the poem drifts to a vaguely humorous and reassuring conclusion: [lines 34-41] There is an understood presence, a nurturing and artistic overseer to this otherwise casual business. It is on the care and the arrangement of objects that survival depends. The soft utterances of the oil cans (pouring oil on the world's troubled waters) gently mock and soothe the high-strung automobiles that so cruelly embody the idea of cultural and social progress, a progress that has soiled this microcosm without entirely civilizing it.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP