Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1565
The first three lines of “Address to the Angels” set the scene in which the speaker envisions the events of the poem. As with many poems, the real action takes place within the mind of the narrator while he or she is physically somewhere else. Here, the speaker describes being in an airplane, “Taking off at sunset,” when the ascension of the plane makes the sun appear to be pulled up with it and “pin[ned] . . . over the rim” of the earth.
In these lines, Kumin offers a contradiction to the metaphor proposed in the first three lines. This time, the speaker questions whether the airplane, instead of pulling up the sun, seems more to “push down” the horizon as one may use a nail file to edge down a “loose cuticle.”
At the beginning of these lines, the speaker reveals her state of mind while she is traveling by plane. She is “up here grieving, tallying / [her] losses,” and, although she is not specific at this point, later in the poem she discloses the identities of those “losses.” For now, her mind wanders to a creation myth, possibly a take-off on a Native- American legend that contends the world rests on the back of a giant sea turtle, though here Kumin’s creature is a “giant fish” that is curled into a ring shape—with its tail in its mouth—making a suitable surface to hold a “flat” earth. In this myth, “sinners” meet their fate on Judgment Day when they all fall “overboard into the black gulf.” At first, it seems odd for the speaker’s thoughts to take such an abrupt turn from the loss of loved ones to creation lore, but she offers a reason in the next three lines.
Here, the speaker still considers the ways of the past, lamenting the times before airplanes and automobiles when humans “walked distances / or went by horse.” Perhaps the most critical suggestion she makes here is that “we . . . knew our places / on the planet,” implying that in the modern world people are less secure in their relationship with nature, possibly even less sure of the purpose of life.
In these lines, Kumin introduces her dubious subjects, “angels,” whom she calls “God’s secret agents.” Whether she intends this as irreverent sarcasm or innocent humor is not clear, but the quirky nod to world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham suggests a wry—though not bitter—wit. What Graham has “assured” the speaker of is that God has sent angels to “circulate among” humans, letting them know that their lives on earth are not all there is, that there are celestial beings watching out for them. If the speaker is indeed “assured,” it is not clear at this point in the poem.
Throughout the remainder of the second stanza, Kumin paints a less-than-admirable picture of angels going about their daily “twenty-four-hour duty,” portraying them more as clumsy, unhelpful onlookers than heaven-sent protectors of humanity. They “flutter” about the speaker and the “house and barn / blundering into the cobwebs” like characters in a slapstick comedy. But Kumin also suggests a less humorous side to angels, as they only look on while “pots boil over” and “the cat torture[s] / a chipmunk.”
The scenario that rounds out this stanza poses a conundrum of sorts regarding the speaker’s real opinion on the role of angels in her life—or, at least, on her property. Like the over-boiling pot and the forsaken chipmunk, the pony’s situation is a dire, possibly deadly one as he is forced to hang by his caught halter from a tree branch all afternoon. Once again, the angels are seen as useless bystanders unwilling to intervene in the horse’s miserable predicament. Then, the speaker calls into question not their willingness to be of help but their ability to do so. Perhaps their purpose is not to prevent bad things from happening but to be of comfort when they do. Here, the speaker hopes that “six equine angels” were at least present to “fan / the strangling beast” until he was either released or escaped his pain through death.
The third stanza of “Address to the Angels” is more contemplative and philosophical than the second. In these opening lines, the speaker asks a rhetorical question about how much anyone can really understand the suffering of another. She uses the point as a springboard to the main contention—that animals are “honest” creatures because they do not have the intellectual capacity “to lie.” This, of course, is a backhanded gibe at human beings who do indeed have the capacity, which she considers next.
As the last part of line 36 notes, “Man,” when he is about to die, “has a compulsion to come clean.” It is a common assumption that even the most “sinful” of human beings, when facing death, will admit their wrongful acts and become repentant in hopes of gaining God’s forgiveness before it is too late. Whether that is true in all cases, it is a familiar enough notion to call death the “sacred criterion,” that is, the definer of the right time to tell the truth. Even so, Kumin allows for a distraction in the process of coming clean, and it is yet another human one: “Always it is passion that / confuses the issue.” In the speaker’s case, the emotion that gets in the way is sadness, recalling the grief over personal losses that she expresses in the first stanza.
To further explain her position, the speaker ends the third stanza with a reference to being in the airplane flying over Boston with the sun now set. This time, the speaker provides a clearer view of the cause of her grief, and she admits her own role in it. Not only does the speaker long to have back the loved ones now gone, but she also wants a chance to re-live part of her own life so that she “can do it better.”
In the fourth stanza, the speaker identifies the people she alludes to in line 8 as “my losses.” These first five lines refer presumably to Anne Sexton, Kumin’s “best friend” who “did herself in” not long after the two had shared lunch on Sexton’s last day. The questions posed to the angels throughout this stanza are both rhetorical and accusatory, as the speaker essentially demands to know where they were—and, ultimately, what they did to help—when all these bad things were taking place. In her friend’s case, the speaker wants to know if the angels caught “some nuance” in their conversation that day, some little hint at what the friend was about to do that the speaker herself did not detect.
The second person identified is the speaker’s father who apparently died of heart failure with the speaker at his side. Here, the speaker accuses the angels of doing nothing to “ease [him] out / of his cardiac arrest” while she sat by the hospital bed “holding his hand.”
Finally, the speaker identifies the last loss as one of her daughters—not a child who has died, but one who has run “off with her European lover” and is now an “unbelonger” to her mother’s world. The speaker’s sarcasm is more caustic here, as she wants to know if the angels were merrily fluttering about, or “whirligiging,” over the luggage of the runaway lovers and whether these secret agents of God gave their official approval (“imprimatur”) of the escape. The speaker stresses the painfulness of losing her daughter this way by comparing it to losing her friend and father through death. But with her child, it is “death-by-separation.”
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker stops asking questions and simply addresses the angels regarding her own thoughts on their existence, her own opinion on whether their presence bears any significance. These first four lines imply that they are not significant at all. Even if they do exist, she finds “no consolation” in it because they spend their time “helplessly observing” instead of intervening to make things better. Calling them members of a “sacred CIA” is parallel to her initial descriptor of “God’s secret agents.”
These three lines reiterate the speaker’s physical environment while all the thoughts of grief and losses and angels are going through her mind. They also serve to lighten the mood with ironic humor in describing invisible angels as “flattened / against the Fasten Your Seatbelt sign” or “hugging” the toilet bowl in the plane’s restroom, obviously not keen on this kind of flying. But, in spite of the brief levity, Kumin ends the poem with a more somber observance.
The final three lines reflect the speaker’s resolve for the human condition, with or without angels. “[E]ach one of us,” she claims, is a “prisoner” of our own lives, “locked up” within the events of “our own story” and, apparently, helpless in preventing the tragedies that occur. While this conclusion may seem to express only pessimism and hopelessness, one who knows much about Kumin and her work understands that there is more than human doom reflected here. This poem is about survival. Even locked inside it, the speaker determines to overcome whatever the outside world throws her way.
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