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.
Mulga Bill's Bicycle
This is a narrative poem, with significant ballad elements
in its form, though the verse lengths are irregular. It does,
however: begin abruptly; use simple language; tell a story through
dialogue and action; deal with a single episode; have a strongly
dramatic element; have an impersonal narrator; make use of incremental
repetition ("T'was Mulga Bill
of Eaglehawk..."); use simple imagery ("just
like a silver streak"; "that
two wheeled outlaw"), all characteristic of ballads.
It is written in rhyming couplets with 7 feet (14 beats) in
each line, unfailingly. This regularity of rhythm both drives
the story on and adds an air of comedy, as the outcome is, from
early in the poem, as predictable as the rhyme scheme and rhythm.
The poem employs three voices: that of the impersonal narrator,
the standard shop assistant and the characterising colloquial
voice of Mulga Bill himself. His salt-of-the-earth self confidence,
bordering on arrogance, is communicated through his boastful
use of animal imagery to describe himself -
"just ask a wild duck can it swim,
a wild cat can it fight"
- and the reference to his "air
of lordly pride".
His use of non standard English vocabulary - "narrer
shaves"- and grammar - "But
what I'll sit"& "I've
rode" add to this sense of him as a rough diamond.
Contrastingly incongruously with this colloquialism is the elevated
language used by the narrator - "sought
his own abode". The incremental repetition hints
at heroism, a suggestion later undermined by the comical and
ridiculous experience of Mulga Bill.
It could be argued that there is another character, albeit
a voiceless one; the bicycle is given a sense of determination
and identity in verses 5 & 6:
"it belted...it left...it whistled...it
shaved...it dodged... it struck...it raced...it made a leap"
All of these things seem to be wilfully done by the bicycle,
which is ultimately personified as a "two-wheeled
From the outset Mulga Bill is set up for comic failure, allowing
the poet to convey the cliched moral that pride goes before
a fall. It is, however, an affectionate satire of the stereotypically
macho "Bruce" (sorry
Mr Sheehan!) It may also be a rejection of the modern and an
affirmation of traditional ways: Mulga Bill is punished for
his rejection of "the good old
horse that served him many days" in favour of "the
cycling craze". The word "craze"
is suggestive of transience and triviality in contrast to the
solidity and reliability of what he has rejected. Ultimately
Mulga Bill has to recognise and repent of his folly, re-affirming
the old ways: "a horse's back
is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill."
Mr Sheehan's theory is that this poem is part of an attempt
to create a literary background and history for a country that
was too new to actually have one - I think that's the idea anyway.
I'm sure he'll elucidate for you if you ask him!
This free verse poem divides into 3 sections: the memory emerging;
the memory experienced and the memory analysed.
Plot wise, the poet remembers waking up as a 3 year old and
wanting a drink. Her father goes to fetch it but does not return
so she investigates and finds that the reason for his non appearance
is a snake in the kitchen, which he kills and puts in a jar
before cleaning up. In the morning he smuggles it out of the
house. His wife sleeps throughout.
The first section is presented in a somewhat fractured form,
with irregular stanza lengths growing in bulk as the memory
emerges and solidifies. Each segment seems like a building block
for the developing memory. The repeated phrases "This
memory" and "There
was" suggest a searching for certainty of memory
and a growing confidence in its accuracy. At this opening stage
the memory seems removed from her, almost to have a life of
its own. The girl, who turns out to be the poet, is described
in the 3rd person as " a three
year old girl".
In section 2 we have the actual memory relayed to us from the
viewpoint of the child. The language becomes more prose like
in structure, as if the memory has finally surfaced, though
there is a simile in this verse: the snake is described as
almost like moonlight
through the trees."
This might indicate that some of the romance and mystery of
the emerging memory remains.
Using dashes to punctuate, rather than full stops, gives a
continuity to the verse; the memory is whole now, no longer
fractured. The girl is now identified as "I".
Section 3 moves forward into adult analysis of the childhood
experience "Years later".
It is presented almost as a trauma -
After all these years
for the first time
we are talking about it"
and certainly as a secret to be kept from her mother
"I remember his face in the morning
and his gestures
while my mother was still asleep."
By this stage there is no mystery or lyricism left; the memory
has been recalled and dissected and the poem ends up in her
father's lab. with the snake.
Condition of Sale
This free verse poem has tremendous dignity and creates the
impression from the outset that this transaction, if it happens,
is unlikely to be successful. The word "condition"
appears in the very title and the first word of the poem is
"if". Both of these
word appear elsewhere in the poem. Repetition is extensively
to highlight key concepts such as the fact that the land is
"sacred"; the personified
rivers are "brothers";
the "white man" and
"red man" stand in
contrast and opposition one to another, especially since the
"white man" is a
This last issue is reinforced by frequent use of the contrasting
personal pronouns "we"
and "you", "our"
and "your". The vocabulary
of violence used of the "white
man" - "takes";
"devour" and the
response of pain in the "red
man" to the cities of the "white
man" contrasts markedly with the natural and beautiful
vocabulary used to define the "red
of the leaves in spring
or the rustle
of an insect's wings."
Indeed, the whole structure of the poem presents this opposition:
Verse 1 deals with the "red man"s
approach to life; verse 2 presents the attitude of the "white
man"; verse 3 brings the two together and verse
4 concludes rather inconclusively (!) using the words "consider"
There is a sense of the poem presenting a train of thought,
each verse reflecting different stages in the process.
The dignity and simplicity of the language reflects onto the
"red man", leaving
the reader definitely having taken sides.
The Great Goddess
The title sets up heroic expectations which fail to be fulfilled,
The extended metaphor of this free verse poem is of the world
as an old sock and god(ess) eternally trying to hold it all
together, mending the new ladders and holes. Her labour is eternal
- "day and night"-
arduous and ultimately futile as there are "ever
new holes, new ladders." Time is immaterial to her,
as we are shown in the lines
"Sometimes she nods off
just for a moment
or for a century"
To her, these are one and the same.
At first I liked the idea of god as female, but it soon becomes
apparent that this isn't girl power but the epitome of female
servitude; in the service of the world the "great
goddess" has become "tiny,
wrinkled and blind!"
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.
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.
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.