On the Highway
This free verse poem is very factual in its tone in the opening
verse. This, and the colours described, give the feel of an
old fashioned photograph - black and white or sepia tone - suggesting
something old fashioned or caught in the past. Indeed, the whole
poem has a photographic quality.
Verse 2 introduces the use of metaphor, with the references
to "crescent moons",
"shaved heads" and
The shaved heads image is somewhat macabre coming from within
the Vietnamese context of a history of conflict; it is not impossible
to imagine that actual heads have been carried in this way.
Adding to this macabre sense is the rather sinister image of
shadows like "black puddles".
When allied to the verb "spill", the puddles of shadow
can be transformed into puddles of blood. It is as if the history
of the traumatised country is reaching into the present.
Similes are introduced in verse 3, and these all have military
connotations - "like defeated
empty rifles"; "like
medals". In each case the conflict is over: the
soldiers are defeated; the rifles are empty; medals are only
awarded after the event. It is suggested that the war is still
very much in the nation's consciousness; it may be over but
it has never gone away.
The final verse begins with a very vivid and visual image.
The women look "Like clouds floating
heavy before a storm". This is both visually accurate
and, maybe, symbolic; given this still existent army of women,
albeit defeated, and the image of storm clouds, is there more
trouble on the horizon for Vietnam?
A sense of poverty and despondency pervades and overwhelms
this poem, from the dingy colours to the torn clothes. Hope
seems to be absent - "They expect
no welcome, await no acclamation."- and the poem
culminates in a question suggesting futility, aimlessness and
"Where do they come from and where will
Spreading the smell of crabs and snails about them?"
This lack of resolution in the punctuation of the poem may
reflect a lack of resolution in the nation's life.
Wedding in the Flood
This free verse poem tells the story of a wedding in the flood
season, focussing on the small visual details as seen through
the eyes of the people involved although, as the pre release
intro suggests, "it is the monsoon
rain which is the real protagonist of this story".
The present tense is used throughout, giving a sense of immediacy.
The first voice we hear is that of the girls' mother, grieving
over the loss of her daughter and worrying about her prospects.
The reference to the "whine"
of the clarinet, playing what should be celebratory wedding
music, reflects the mother's "sobs".
The narratorial voice then takes over, filling in with exposition.
We see the specific cultural identity of the poem coming through
in the, at this stage, quaint reference to the Pakistani proverb
about rain being caused by girls who lick pots in the kitchen.
The nature of the dowry - "a
cot, a looking glass, a tin trunk"- is described,
at this stage in positive terms - "beautifully
painted in grey and blue".
Verse 2 is given over mainly to the voice of the bridegroom,
who is presented negatively through the use of the word "gloats"
and through his appearance based, mercenary, blaming attitude;
"If only her face matches her hands,
and she gives me no mother-in-law problems,
I'll forgive her the cot and the trunk
and looking glass. Will the rain never stop?
It was my luck to get a pot licking wench."
It is interesting to see that the references to the proverb
and the dowry are less positive in this verse; plainly this
is not the dowry the bridegroom wanted, and he takes the proverb
seriously rather that seeing it as quaint.
It is not until verse 3 that we hear from the bride. The main
sense used here is that of touch; she is in the dark, with wet
feet, feeling cold and scared. Her fear and insecurity is revealed
by her anxiety about the now choric reference to the cot, trunk
and looking glass, though her submerged but more major concern
is "What sort of a man is my
husband?" Because the structure of the poem has
already introduced us to him, in no complimentary fashion, we
are unable to anticipate a happy answer for her.
At this point the danger presented by the "swollen
river" is reintroduced via the slipping feet of
the palankeen bearers. A link seems to be being made between
the risks offered by the river and by the marriage.
In verse 4 we meet the bridegroom's father, and are immediately
able to see the source of the son's undesirable attitudes; the
father's mercenary and condemning approach is brought into focus
by reference, again, to the proverb and the dowry, which is
deemed of low value because the items are "all the things
that she will use!"
It is made clear that he had been expecting more personal
advantage, in the form of cattle. Once again we are reminded
of the danger of the journey, because "The
light is poor, and the paths treacherous," and of
the overwhelming river, which is associated with "fear".
The final verse belongs exclusively to the narratorial voice.
The mercenary element persists with the reference to the fact
that "a wedding party always
pays extra" and the dowry makes its final, by this
time devalued and trivialised appearance.
Metaphor, arguably personification, is used to describe both
the "angry" river and the ferry which "disgorges"
its load; I feel that the image of the ferry, at least, is more
that of a monster spewing out its victims, Charybdis like, than
of a person. Either way, both river and ferry cease to be inanimate
and gain definite identities. The ferryman is reminiscent of
Charon, who carried the dead over the river Styx to Hades.
The final 6 1/2 lines, if I am reading them correctly, seem
squalidly comic, in a "Carry On" film kind of way;
The reference to the clarinet filling with water can be seen
as a sexual image, particularly when juxtaposed with the line
"Oh what a consumation is here"
and the information that
"in an eddy, among the willows downstream,
The coy bride is truly wedded at last."
OK. Further discussion with Mr Sheehan and Mrs Partridge (who
are ganging up against me!) leads me to review my position on
this. I have been convinced that this is about death, the ultimate
consumation; Hamlet described death as "a
consumation / Devoutly to be wish'd" so there are
very respectable literary precedents. Further, the palankeen
can be seen as a coffin, carried as it is by "bearers".
In this reading, then, the whole wedding party dies as a result
of the flood. The sexual imagery is still there - sex and death
have always been linked in literature - but it is representative
of death rather than being an end in itself.
Mr Sheehan argues that Taufiq Rafat sees the flood as sweeping
away the old way of doing things, such as the arranged marriage
described here, to make way for the new.
Maybe I'm responding to this poem in too much of a European
feminist way, but I feel that the poet is presenting the attitudes
expressed by the male characters in it as patriarchal and chauvinist.
The sequence of events described is comic but the overall feel
of the poem, especially in terms of the potential of happiness
for the bride, strikes me as negative and hopeless.
This free verse poem describes the poet's two encounters with
a beggar, on the way to and from town, and the emotions provoked
in him by those encounters. The vocabulary used to describe
the beggar on the first encounter projects a curious mixture
of aggression and vulnerability; his hand is "thrust"
out in a way which is "demanding"
and yet he is also "small",
his eyes are "receding into bone",
he is "shivering"
and "too thin". The
simile "small and crumpled as
a towel" powerfully evokes a sense of his powerlessness
and disposability. The simile "black
as biltong", with its reference to dried meat, suggests
the physical dessication and weakness of the beggar. The poet
notes that all of this combines, "denying
the truculence of the hand." It is as if these parts
of his body have different identities, as if the hand is acting
out of desperation, against its will or better judgement.
The poet refuses to give and is immediately assailed by a sense
of guilt which he would rather not feel and which he tries to
annoyed that I was annoyed,
and swatting off shame"
The metaphor of his shame as a persistent and irritating insect
On the way back from town the weather changes and so does the
attitude and behaviour of the poet. The vocabulary becomes positive
"a suddenly clear
of summer round the bend,
white sails in the Bay,
birds grown garrulous again."
in contrast with the earlier negativity of "grime",
The alliterative "s" words build towards the climactic
"sang of summer",
demanding the triumphant stressing of these words.
The poet is moved to look for the beggar who now is presented
as being like a piece of rubbish
from any of the other
drifts of debris in the lane."
Despite his belief that the beggar is "Drunk
again", the poet nevertheless gives him money. The
use of the word "penance"
suggests that this is as much to assuage his own conscience
as to benefit the beggar. The alliterative p sounds of
"paused, then pressed
my penance into his palm"
drive home the pressing action.
The simile "Quick as a trap",
with its snappy consonants, creates a sense of the speed of
the beggar's response. It becomes clear that the poet had misjudged
the beggar who is, in fact, "sober"
and now holds on tightly to the gift.
The poet, however, seems to feel no better about himself having
given; there is irony in the words "blessed
me for my kindness", as the poet is well aware that
this is not what motivated him. The words "the
bribe my guilt refused" show that his conscience
will not be bought off; he is trying to assuage his guilt for
passing by at first by giving the second time, but his inner
morality will not let him off the hook.
The final image of the beggar is as, again, a piece of debris,
something abandoned, "as though
a car had flung him there". The reference to the
"healing of the sun"
might be seen as suggesting that the free gifts of nature are
more gracious and valuable than the reluctant sops to conscience
given by such as the poet.
I don’t much like this but I shall try to be positive
This poem is about women washing clothes in the river and how
much this activity has become a part of the fabric of their
In the first stanza the river is personified and given a sense
“the river beats itself
against the stones
And washes them”
It is as though the river chooses this behaviour, identifying
itself with the washerwomen. The picture painted uses both aural
and visual detail: “clouds of
frothy spray” and “the
thousand tones / Of an orchestra”, bringing a sense
of immediacy to the writing. The alliterative f sounds in “Or
foaming fumbles” intensify the stress on those
words, enhancing the rhythmic pattern being created in these
early lines. Try reading it out loud to see if you can hear
what I mean; I think the rhythm being created is of the stones
being washed by the water, as the clothes are washed by the
Like the river, the women are also washing. Their humming equates
to the orchestral sounds of the river; we can see a strong sense
of identification between the river and the women. As the women
wash, “families of bubbles”
are created and destroyed. These are a metaphor for the community
of which the women are a part; their transience reflects the
ephemeral nature of life:
“To be destroyed
Like all the baffled hopes that had their little suns
Tossed on the furious drifts of disappointments.”
Yet their tenacity in the face of the powerful waters represents
the indomitability of the human spirit:
“But all the tide
Cradles these clinging bubbles ever still, alike
The friendly little hopes that never leave the heart.”
Stanza two, a much shorter stanza, makes much use of assonance
and onomatopoeia. All of those “s” and “sh”
sound echo the whooshing of the river, again creating a sense
of immediacy and presence. The washing rhythm is re-established,
so that though the “slender
shoulders” of the women contrast with the “big
hall of rushing waters”, we nevertheless have the
sense that they are part of a whole. The rhyming of “shoulders”
adds to this impression, as women and nature are connected.
The women seem powerless, with their “slender”
shoulders and their “rags”,
but still they are “stubborn”
and their heaving is “steady”.
I feel that the poet admires their determination and persistence.
The women seem to be plugging themselves in to the power of
nature (I may be going a bit nuts at this point) as
“They keep a sort of time/With
their thoughts.” These thoughts are described as
being in tune with the river:
“These were unchanging
Like the persistent music here
Of swirling waters.”
Furthermore, the activity of washing is linked to the activity
“The crash of wet clothes beaten on the
The sound of wind in leaves,
Or frog croaks after dusk, and the low moan
Of the big sea fighting to the river’s mouth.”
In the final stanza this sense of unity becomes rather oppressive
and despairing; we read that the women have “resigned
themselves to day long swishing”. Even the natural
world seems oppressed: “wet
cloth chafing the very stone”; the foliage is isolated:
“clumps of tall stems standing
alone,/Apart, like band leaders or sentinels”.
In this final stanza the imagery of music changes to that of
war; “band leaders”
are transformed into “sentinels”;
the “hum” of the
women becomes the hum of insects, likened in a simile to the
sound of war planes - “bombers
on a plotted course”.
Look at the repetition of the word “must”
in the phrase “They must
hear”. It suggests that the women have no options
in their lives, that the continuance of the status quo is inevitable.
The poem ends in negativity
“As dead ones flutter down like living things
Until the shadows come.”
Cheery little piece, isn’t it? But this is my personal
response. Maybe you like it; Convert me, please! I have a funny
feeling about this one, that it might show up on the higher
After the Deluge
The title refers to a saying by Louis XV of France “Apres
moi le deluge”, intimating that he was all that
was holding back chaos. He enjoyed an extravagant and decadent
life style and it was in the reign of the Louis after him, Louis
XVl, that the French Revolution brought the chaos earlier predicted.
In this poem an un-named dictator, perhaps un-named because
he is representative of a type, is shown living a similarly
extravagant lifestyle which provokes a political “deluge”.
In this poem, however, we see what happens to the dictator in
consequence of the catastrophe he precipitated – “after
the deluge”. This deluge is a flood, but not of
water; this flood is of the disorder that washed away money
Whoever this dictator is, he enjoyed a lifestyle of obscenely
conspicuous consumption, as described in the first stanza. The
careless, defiant waste of resources here described should be
set against what is known of the poverty of Nigeria and the
Nigerian people. Despite the straightforward narration of the
facts, the poet communicates a sense of disgust at this excess.
Stanza two introduces us to the financial and political corruption
of this dictator and there is a certain ambivalence here; whilst
admiring the skill with which he manipulates money, conveying
this admiration through an acrobatic metaphor –
“Leap from Tokyo to Buenos
Turn somersaults through Brussels”
- the poet can clearly see the damaging global political consequences
of theses actions:
“It cracked the bullion market open wide.
Governments fell, coalitions cracked
Insurrection raised its bloody flag
From North to South.”
Note the emphatic alliteration in “coalitions
cracked” and the personification of insurrection.
Despite all of his wealth, even in his glory days there is
a sense that he is a prisoner in a cage of his own making; Stanza
three suggests that he is trapped, isolated, held at a distance
from his native land with which he does not engage firsthand
but through technology:
“He knew his native land through iron
His sight was radar bowls, his hearing
Electronic beams. For flesh and blood,
Kept company with a brace of Dobermans.”
There is almost a sense of pity here for the man who has sacrificed
real human contact for money and power. Almost.
The reference to the widow’s mite is biblical; Jesus
watched rich people coming to the temple and making a huge show
of giving their alms. Then he saw a poor widow come and furtively
give a tiny coin, as if she were ashamed of how small the amount
was. Jesus said that, because she had virtually nothing, what
she had given was far more valuable than the larger amounts
the rich had given out of their excess. You’ll find the
story in Luke 21: 1-4. (It might remind you of that bit in Pygmalion
when Higgins and Pickering discuss what Eliza’s suggested
fee is really worth.).
Anyhow, the reference is a bit problematic; he’s hardly
giving his all, as she did. I think the suggestion is that he
only gives a small amount, a mite, like she did, despite the
huge resources he has available to him. He certainly makes a
big deal of what he gives. Note the oxymoronic nature of “discreetly
In stanza four we find out what happens to him “after
the deluge” and learn that “He
escaped the lynch days. He survives.”
The contrast between the extravagance of stanza 1 and the
bare survival of stanza four is telling. In the poet’s
dream the dictator is forced to engage with the reality he had
previously kept at bay-
“I dreamt I saw him on a village
Water line, a parched land where
Water is a god
That doles its favours by the drop
And waiting is a way of life.”
Even so, maybe believing that there is a way back to his affluence,
the dictator refuses to give up-
“Rebellion gleamed yet faintly in his
Traversing chrome-and-platinum retreats”
-despite his obvious irrelevance-
“Hubs of commerce smoothly turn without
His bidding, and cities where he lately roosted
Have forgotten him, the preying bird
The metaphor here is of a bird of prey. The point being made
is that, despite his earlier pretensions, he is ephemeral, of
no lasting significance. It’s a bit like Ozymandias
by Shelley. Look it up. Really, do!
The closing stanza, stanza five, suggests that his continued
existence is more of a punishment than a mercy:
“They let him live, but not from pity
Or human sufferance. He scratches life
From earth, no worse a mortal than the rest.”
That phrase, “no worse…”
is interesting; is the poet suggesting that everyone would behave
as the dictator did, given the opportunity?
Back in the dictator’s past life, of which he can only
now dream, his luxurious home is colonised by the forces of
nature and decay. This is SO much like Ozymandias,
and you’re not going to look it up, are you, so…
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works. Ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I, too, sing America
This poem is a dramatic monologue in response to Walt Whitman’s
poem “I Hear America Singing”
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics--each one singing his, as it should be, blithe
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat--the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench--the hatter singing
as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song--the ploughboy's, on his way in the morning,
or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother--or of the young wife at
work--or of the girl sewing or washing--Each singing what belongs
to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day--At night, the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly, Singing, with open mouths, their
strong melodious songs.
What Hughes is doing is to assert that the black community
– “the darker brother”-
is also a part of America and has something to contribute to
the song: “I too sing America.”
The word “brother”
is an assertion of equality of status, despite the inequality
of treatment described in stanza 1:
“They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,”
This is symbolic of the repression experienced by the coloured
As the stanza continues, Hughes demonstrates a refusal to be
put down and the confident preparation for and expectation of
a better future-
“But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.”
This confidence carries through into the second stanza, evidenced
both by the use of the future tense with no conditionality and
by the phrase “Nobody’ll
and “Then” sit
alone on the line, emphasising them.
This is not aggressiveness, though; stanza three reveals Hughes’
belief that the society in which he lives has the capacity to
undergo moral and attitudinal change:
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-“
In the final line “I, too,
am America” the poet substitutes “am”
for “sing”. This
is a clear assertion of identity and belonging.
To Another Housewife
This poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue. It is written
in strict octameter makes use of rhyme but the enjambment (suspensive
pause) obscures and dilutes this rigidity of form and creates
a colloquial tone.
The title identifies the speaker as a housewife, by the fact
that she is addressing another housewife. Obviously
the real audience of the poem is wider than this, but the title
establishes a context.
Furthermore, it is a specific other housewife who is being
addressed, one with whom the speaker shares specific memories.
Of course, on another level the addressee is generic; any aboriginal
woman of a certain generation would be likely to have had similar
experiences and be able to identify with this memory. The use
of alliteration – “Lean
and loud”- and the use of visual
detail – “how they leapt/against
their chains”- crystallises the memory and makes
it appear real and credible. The last line of the first verse
is odd; I wonder if it is a political comment on the behaviour
of the aboriginal people themselves and their response to “civilisation”
In the next verse the specific event upon which this poem focuses
is described in more detail, with use being made of the senses
to heighten the realism and the reader’s response. We
are meant to feel “greensick”,
like these girls. Am I wrong in thinking that the “green”
has connotations of naivete as well as nausea? I’m thinking
of “My salad days, when I was
green in judgement” (Cleopatra, speaking of her
renounced love for Caesar) The speaker is aware now, as she
was not then, that her response to the feeding of the dogs and
her vow “to touch no meat forever
more” was idealistic and could not be maintained
in the real world. If we are looking for cultural references,
this kind of dog feeding activity is not something which would
be expected of English children like you, so the poem is clearly
located in another culture.
The next verse moves us out of the past tense of the memory
and into the present tense of the real world. It immediately
becomes obvious that the idealistic vow has long ago fallen
by the wayside:
“How many cuts of choice and prime
our housewife hands have dressed since then.”
Now the speaker realises that dealing with this kind of reality
is a necessary expression of love – “these
hands with love and blood imbrued”. There is a
sense that love and blood go together. The last four lines of
this verse are, on one level, talking about the breeding and
butchering of cattle for food. I wonder if, on another level,
are the aborigines themselves, raised for the “feast
of death-in-life” which is oppression and conflict.
The poem seems to open out here; it no longer relies on the
specific memory mentioned earlier. Now it is addressing any
other housewife, all other housewives; the specific has become
generic. The picture painted in the opening four lines of this
verse could be European, but the final image is of the housewives
armed, as it were, with their cutlery; it is as if the news
has thrown them back to the “savagery”
of their childhoods, ready to stand up against the “murder,
famine, pious wars…”
is an interesting oxymoron, suggesting the irreconcilability
of ideals with politics. I wonder if these wars are the equivalent
of the angry dogs in the first verse; do these wars happen because
the oppressed aboriginal peoples are leaping angrily against
their chains, making themselves the food of warfare?
Just a thought!
Ballad of the Totems
This ballad (look at the characteristics of a ballad as listed
under "Mulga Bill's Bicycle") is written in a strict
metrical and rhyming scheme which bounces along jauntily and
matches the lack of seriousness in tone of the poem; both content
and form are comic. Some, however, might argue for an element
of serious content, as this poem portrays conflict within a
marriage and between cultures.
Plot wise, in a marriage between partners of different clans
and with different totems (symbolic and sacred animals), a conflict
arises because the totem of the husband is killing the wife's
chickens, but is beyond punishment because of tradition.
In verse 1 we see the two parties introduced, father with a
formal dignity suggested in the archaic form "whom
none must ever slay" which is undermined by the
colloquial nature of mother's assertion that "carpet
snakes/ were nothing but a pest."
Alliteration -"Steady slithering
sound" and onomatopoeia "yelp"
and "squawk" are
used to enhance the jolly nature of the poem, along with the
cartoon like simile
"she looked as innocent as the cat
that ate the pet canary."
In the final verse we see the ultimate debunking of superstition,
as the dead father's tribal totem is eaten-
"I think we all had snake for tea
one day about that time."
This, and the fact that the whole poem is a piece of shameless
doggerel, may suggest that Walker is ridiculing the superstitions
and traditions held dear by her father.