Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of “The Rescued Year” is human memory and the role it plays in preserving knowledge and experience. This theme, or some aspect of it, recurs quite often in Stafford’s work, often in poems about members of his family. The most powerful of these, such as “My Father: October 1942” and “Listening,” focus on Stafford’s father, and it is he who figures most prominently in “The Rescued Year,” who models for the poet an openness— of eye, ear, and heart—to whatever is at hand.

The poem’s diction and imagery clearly emphasize the visual, the sort of seeing that leads one to understand; this is shown in such a passage as “Around any corner my sight is a river,/ and I let it arrive.” In the fourth verse paragraph the poet says that, more readily than to the preacher’s doctrines, he can assent to what he calls his father’s “creed”: “the greatest ownership/ of all is to glance around and understand.”

The poet mentions another figure who is similarly open to experience and who has an intuitive understanding of the world, the old man who “spent his life knowing,/ unable to tell how he knew.” This anonymous old man provides a model of self-sufficiency in his happy, almost innocent wisdom and his closeness to the natural world.

What finally sets “The Rescued Year” apart is not incandescent language or scintillating argument but rather the quiet conviction with which it sets out its vignettes of remembered experience. At the end, the poem harks back to its beginning in the image of the returning train, but it is important to note that the poet is not actually remembering here. The train’s return is something he merely posits, something that will happen in the future. The poet’s imagining of the train is no more substantial than the companion image of “the name carved on the platform” (presumably his own), which he feels will “unfill with rain” as the train pulls in.

Yet in these concluding lines the poem achieves its vision, however brief or tentative. In expressing the idea that the train’s being coupled makes a movement both backwards and forwards, the poet suggests that this movement is like memory itself: looking back, then carrying experience forward, producing the ripple of understanding that “hold[s] the train” for those who come after.