Patricia Hampl Essay - Critical Essays


Memory and truth are the prevailing themes in Patricia Hampl’s poetry. Her poems express autobiographical elements, frequently referring to her family, events, objects, or places that represent significant aspects of her life. She presents her observations from her perspective and realizes that memories differ because time can alter a person’s recollections and individuals may comprehend stimuli differently, resulting in numerous versions that all retain elements of authenticity. When she creates poems, Hampl shapes words and structure to interpret her unique experiences and perceptions of her surroundings, both the landscape and people, and the broader significance of moments. She often uses flowers as symbols.

History is the foundation for Hampl’s poetry; she recognizes that past events are connected to the present. Some critics have described Hampl as an elegist, and she notes that her birth soon after World War II resulted in her maturing at a time when her family and community were mourning the impact of that conflict. Loss, grief, regret, and accountability are often underlying themes in her works. She believes people’s lack of historical and cultural awareness prevents them from comprehending how those factors shape their identities and roles. Hampl creates poetry to examine her life and identity, seeking to find missing elements, and to contemplate her spirituality, with some of her poetry structure resembling Catholic traditions.

Woman Before an Aquarium

Vision and metamorphosis are the themes connecting the poems in Hampl’s first collection, Woman Before an Aquarium. In 1972 at the Chicago Art Institute, Hampl saw Matisse’s oil painting Woman Before an Aquarium. Her creative reactions to that image inspired her to write a poem with the same title. Intrigued by Matisse’s painted woman, Hampl contemplated what the woman represented. The brunette woman in the painting, who physically resembles Hampl, offers the poet a metaphorical mirror in which to examine herself and an opportunity to develop her voice as a poet by improving her skills as an observer. Only the woman’s head and arms appear in the painting, emphasizing her role as a witness and thinker. Hampl does not perceive the woman peering at the fishbowl as being passive but instead as being in charge of her life and actively involved in her setting.

Hampl’s poem about the woman uses mermaid imagery to indicate females’ often dual identity as restricted sensual beings, like the odalisques Matisse frequently painted, and free spirits who elude men’s physical and emotional...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)