Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The title of this poem has a double meaning: the fantasy that a funeral can provide closure to grief plus the fantasy of moving backward to a time before the death of a loved one.
To set a tone to demystify death and destroy the illusion of mortality, the speaker begins the poem in a straightforward manner: “I’ll tell you something: every day people are dying. And that’s just the beginning.” The “new widows” and “new orphans” who are born “sit with their hands folded,” as if trying to stay calm in the midst of chaos, “trying to decide about this new life.”
This state of disorientation and indecision continues as the mourners are described as “frightened of crying, sometimes of not crying.” Someone has to “lean over” and tell them “what to do next.” At the reception, the house is ironically described as “suddenly full of visitors,” with the widow receiving the respects that the other mourners pay to her and bravely finding “something to say to everybody.” She “thanks them, thanks them for coming,” while secretly wanting them to leave so that she can go back to a previous time and place, to the cemetery, the “sickroom,” and the hospital, traveling back in time “just a little, not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.” This implies that the widow does not necessarily long for the marriage but a time when she did not have to decide what to do next with her life.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Diehl, Joanne Feit, ed. On Louise Glück: Change What You See. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Dodd, Elizabeth. “Louise Glück: The Ardent Understatement of Postconfessional Classicism.” In The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Harrison, DeSales. The End of the Mind: The Edge of the Intelligible in Hardy, Stevens, Larkin, Plath, and Glück. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Upton, Lee. Defensive Measures: The Poetry of Niedecker, Bishop, Glück, and Carson. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2005.
Upton, Lee. “Fleshless Voices: Louise Glück’s Rituals of Abjection and Oblivion.” In The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.