The Alchemy of Day Themes
by Anne Hebert

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The Alchemy of Day Themes

(Poetry for Students)

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The poem’s main theme is transformation. In the beginning, the poem talks about “that day,” picking one day out of the multitude of days in the natural, daily cycle. This day, as the poem increasingly makes clear, is the day that precedes a new type of day, a day that explodes into being. This is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the poem, where Nature is depicted as a wounded beast, who submits to binding itself to a tree. The concept of binding is significant, because it implies that somebody is a prisoner, or at least does not have freedom of movement. This idea works well with the other concepts that Hébert develops in the poem, such as the use of sounds. In the beginning, all is silent. The Grecian urns placed on top of the sisters’ heads are “quiet,” as is their processional frieze, during which “They’ll slide along the thread of their mauve shadows.” At this early point in the poem, all is still silent, still hidden. In stanza five, however, there is a reference to the “cry’s stark / space,” and in stanza six, the “excessive passion of the sea” which causes it to break out into song. As the poem reaches its close, it has transformed from a silent work to one where Nature utters “wild things in the sun,” naming “everything.” From a lack of speech to an overabundance, the transformation is complete.

As noted above, the transformation, while on the surface framed in natural terms, is really one of language. In the beginning, the language, like the symbolism, is sorrowful. Nature is wounded, the seven sisters do not have definite movements, merely appearing or sliding, and everything is described in dismal terms that underscore this idea of sorrow. This use of nonspecific language mimics the nonspecific language of Hébert’s Quebec when she was writing the poem. The girls cannot move in any definite ways until the poet gives them the language to do so. Until that time, they will only be able to “slide along the thread of their” shadows. But in stanza seven, the language does begin to change, when the first girl is “alerted,” a word that implies awareness. She springs into action, gathering “her sisters one by one.” She will “tell / them softly about the wounded love moored in the leaves of your / open veins.” The wounded love is the current, nonspecific Quebec language, which is moored in “open veins.” Until the sisters begin to bring the “balsam,” which has “just / blossomed out of bitter hearts” and “old desecrated cellars,” which are themselves negative signs, Quebec residents are doomed to go on through the normal daily cycle. In these days, the poet is saying, the day is filled with negative images and silence, because Quebec culture is trapped within a language that is nonspecific. Yet, the end of the poem gives hope for a new Quebec language and culture: “Called for a second time, day rises in words like huge poppies / exploding on their stems.”