Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

On the surface, this poem is about a woman with serious eating disorders who has a breakdown and ultimately commits suicide. There is a story here with drama, suspense, and a strong point of view. In its examination of Ellen’s relationship to the world, though, the poem raises deeper questions about identity. The poem begins simply and prosaically: “I love sweets.” Within four lines, however, the speaker asserts: “But my true self/ is thin, all profile/ and effortless gestures, the sort of blond/ elegant girl whose/ body is the image of her soul.” For the rest of the poem, the speaker is pulled in opposite directions to follow her impulses to eat or to try to become her “ideal” self. “Art,” she is quoted as saying in her diary, “is the ‘mutual permeation’ of the ‘world of the body’ and the ‘world of the spirit.’ ” Her obsession to control her body, to control “Nature,” is an effort to embody her spirit. It is a struggle to gain control of herself. She has “the ideal/ not to have a body,” but “without a body, who can/ know himself at all?”

Ellen confounds her doctors by asking questions of being such as “Why am I a girl?” Ultimately, they discharge her because “no definitely reliable therapy is possible.” The doctors in the poem are easy to criticize for missing the true issues that were battling inside the speaker, but the doctors are less important for their understanding than for providing an outside, pseudoscientific perspective on her “case.” The doctor’s voice, in prose, is a musical counterpoint to the highly charged, highly emotional, and introverted voice of Ellen. The multiple perspectives, reinforced by the varied diction and style of the poem, create a persona who is always separating herself from the world and observing her own behavior. She is “both in the book/ and out of it.” Her vision is always questioning, never stable. In the final letter to her friend before her death, she is clearly aware of the kindness of others and of her own inability to combine body and spirit in a healthy way.