The Blue Rim of Memory

by Denise Levertov
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019

Lines 1–2
The first line of “The Blue Rim of Memory” sets up the premise for all the images and events that follow throughout the poem. Everything from this point on will be a description of “the way sorrow enters the bone,” and the poet will rely on metaphors to get her point across. Line 2 generalizes the specific images that are about to come, suggesting that sorrow is sometimes felt quickly and can be as painful as the “stabs” of a knife. At other times, it seems to linger on the sidelines of a person’s thoughts and emotions, an ever-present grief that permeates the memory.

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Lines 3–5
These lines open the first of four central metaphors in the poem, and the most extended one as well. “From a torn page” implies that this image is like one taken from a book, a moment alienated from the rest of the story. The scene described is reminiscent of eighteenth-century transportation. A “cabriolet” is a two-wheeled, one-horse carriage with room for two people and a top that folds down. Today, they are popular for sporting newlyweds around city streets as part of the wedding celebration, but in “The Blue Rim of Memory” the cabriolet is a strange, even haunting figure from long ago. Perhaps representing sorrow, it “approaches over the crest of a hill,” more like a suspended, hovering entity than a quick, sharp stab.

Lines 6–7
These two lines simply embellish the image of the cabriolet. Anyone who has seen a horse pulling a carriage can picture the animal’s “nodding, straining head,” and anyone who has seen a movie set in the eighteenth century or earlier, recognizes the “blind lamps, peering” from the darkness, apparently held out by the riders.

Lines 8–9
The fact that there are “ladies” riding in the carriage (a cabriolet here resembles a humpy “insect” with long feelers up front) may be inconsequential, and the poem would work the same if the inhabitants were two men or a man and a woman. The only significant reason for placing two women here instead may fall in line with some critics’ belief that this poem is Levertov’s reflection on her relationship with her mother and her sorrow over the older woman’s death, which occurred a year prior to the release of Life in the Forest. Line 9 suggests that the ladies are anxious about their surroundings and apparently unaware of what lies ahead, for they are “awaiting the vista,” or distant view.

Lines 10–11
These two lines close out the first metaphor and include an allusion to the general description in line 2 regarding the way sorrow “stabs” its victims. Here, the ladies, the horse, and the cabriolet all disappear “quick as a knife,” much like some painful memories that creep into the mind and then evaporate when some other thought or action interrupts. The questions “Who were they? Where is the hill?” echo the elusiveness of memories that, like “torn pages,” seem incomplete, having little purpose other than instigating grief as a person contemplates why they come and where they go.

Lines 12–13
Line 12 is the beginning of the second central metaphor in “The Blue Rim of Memory.” Notice that it begins with the word “Or,” expanding on the dynamics of memory and sorrow set forth in lines 1–2. In other words, line 12 picks up where line 3 left off: “From a torn page . . . / Or from stoked fires of nevermore.” But this time, instead of a horse and carriage approaching, it is “a warmth constant as breathing” that “hovers out.” Note the correlation between “hoverings” in line 2 and “hovers” in line 13. The gist of these lines 12–13, then, is that the human mind is often like a land of “nevermore,” of things forgotten or dormant until its “fires” are “stoked” and memory rushes back like a warm breath suddenly exhaled.

Lines 14–15
These two lines finish the second metaphor and describe how the “warmth” in line 13, which represents sorrow or memory or both, surrounds the individual like a “cloud of mist.” But the mist turns heavy and suffocating as it “becomes rain, becomes cloak, then skin.” Sorrowful memories, it seems, may begin lightly and innocently enough, but they can gradually become so consuming that they feel as tight as one’s own flesh, as though sorrow is a physical part of the human being.

Lines 16–20
These five lines make up the third central metaphor in the poem. Line 16 is simply a repetition of line 1, but this time the way sorrow gets into the bone is compared to “the way fish sink through dense lakes.” The “smoke” in line 18 is probably the cloud of sand or mud that rises when one touches the bottom of a body of water, and the image makes a nice tie-in with the smoky imagery of stoked fires and clouds of mist in the previous stanza. Like sorrow, fish do not often move in a direct line but shift back and forth in “beveled / syncopations,” just as painful memories shift about in one’s mind, never quite uniform or predictable.

Lines 21–24
Line 21 is the beginning of the fourth and final central metaphor in “The Blue Rim of Memory.” The idea of grief’s heaviness and suffocating power comes up again here, as sorrow is now compared to snow that can turn daylight suddenly dim with thick clouds and blinding precipitation. Once the ground is covered in a blanket of white, one can no longer distinguish the “boundaries of road and sidewalk,” or anything else for that matter.

Lines 25–26
The final two lines of the poem complete the fourth metaphor and offer at least a glimmer of hope from beneath the smothering snow. Since boundaries have disappeared, once narrow streets now seem wider, and the sky that went dark during the daytime now appears bright in the nighttime because of the reflecting snow. Anyone who has witnessed a heavy snowfall knows how the outdoors appears “to glow at midnight,” and, in keeping with the metaphorical allusion, perhaps this image suggests that the sorrow that has entered the bone is not necessarily as dark and debilitating as what may at first have been presumed.

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