The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

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“Afterword” is a poem of forty lines divided into five numbered sections of eight lines each (two quatrains, in the English translation). As the title suggests, it is a look backward, but, in this case, over a life still in progress rather than a finished work. It is written in the first person. The speaker, at first, seems to be talking to himself or to no one in particular. By the end, he seems to be talking to a single interlocutor, but the “you” could be the distant reader just as easily as the person across the table. This move from singular experience to common fate is at the heart of much lyric poetry, but here the change takes on material form: The self, with time and age, becomes not merely something else, but everything else.

The first section begins with the most general of lyrical-elegiac observations: “The years are passing.” The speaker observes their passage around him almost as if he is sitting at a café table. A palace facade is cracking and the Holy Family, whether on a relief, a painting, or a calendar, moves ever-so-slightly closer to Egypt. The world is crowded with the living, the city is full of lights, and the astronomer counts up his “sparkling tips.”

The next section shifts from the general to the particular. The pronoun “I” appears for the first time and notes rather dispassionately, seemingly without complaint, that it can no longer remember exactly when or where events took place. The speaker also observes that the events themselves cannot remember anything, so that whoever was involved (“saved or fled”) is away and clear.

The next step is both logical and crucial to the poem. The speaker defines what all this means—he, the individual, is, with time, becoming part of the whole. Life, in general, is a “rustlingfabric,” and now his individual skin is taking on the look of what enwraps it. His profile could be a wrinkle, a patch, or a leaf, all visible things that could be wholes or parts in themselves. Whether whole or part, however, they have always been something apart from him, and anything outside of himself can be “ignored, coveted, stood in fear of.”

If the previous stanzas are addressed to the reader—or someone—in general, the next two stanzas narrow the focus. “Touch me—and you’ll touch dry burdock stems” might be figuratively addressed to the reader in general but, by virtue of that imperative, sounds more immediate. By touching the speaker, one also touches whatever and whomever one has seen or known.

The final section moves from sight to sound, or rather speech. “I am speaking to you, and it’s not my fault/ if you don’t hear.” However, the listener is not at fault either. Rather, like the cracked wall or the gaunt Holy Family, the vocal cords wear out. The voice is muffled and hard to distinguish from other sounds around it. The speaker, however, does not complain about losing his voice on top of all the other losses; that loss makes it easier for the listener to hear those other sounds, which are part of life’s rhythm—the rooster’s crow, the ticking sound made by a needle on a record. The poem ends with a twist on the story of Red Riding Hood: “The better to hear you with, my dear,” says the wolf when the girl tells him what big ears he has. Here, the line is, “the better for you not to notice when my talk stops,” and it is anyone’s guess who is the wolf and who is not.