The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

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“Brass Furnace Going Out,” subtitled “Song, After an Abortion,” is a direct address by the poet to the spirit of an aborted baby who functions as a comforting, though haunting, presence throughout the work. It consists of twelve irregular sections written in variants of open verse ranging from three to forty-three lines. In categorizing it as a “Song,” Diane di Prima is using the term in the classical sense of an ode—a song composed for performance at a public occasion. Her intention is to take a private struggle and make it accessible to a large audience. The prevailing mood of the song is elegiac as it laments the death of the baby as well as the lost possibilities of life, but there are radical shifts in mood as the poet works through stages of grief and guilt, richocheting from section to section in a pattern of abrupt emotional reversals. The first section finds the poet already part of a world both absurd and horrible:

and what of the three year old girl who poisoned her mother?that happens, it isn’t just us, as you can see—what you took with you when you leftremains to be seen.

This question introduces a pattern of reversal by juxtaposing the horror of an abortion with an equally chilling alternative: the child killing her mother. The poet acknowledges her place in the drama but does not yet know what the impact of her actions will be. The second section provides one possibility, a lurch to emotional extremity as the poet expresses resentment toward both the father (now absent) and the baby, accusing the child of “quitting/ at the first harsh treatment.” This vindictive bitterness is countered by the motherly tone of the third section, as she imagines a letter to the child, who seems to be merely away at school or on a trip. “I want to/ keep in touch” she writes, “I want to know how you/ are, to send you cookies.” This comforting dream is interrupted by a nightmare in section IV in which the poet is consumed, not by anger as in section II, but by guilt. She has a vision of a rotting fetus in a river surrounded by animals who reject the baby just as the poet has. This is the longest section of the poem, a surrealistic picture of a return to origins as the abortion itself is revisited in terms of the natural world absorbing the life-spirit of both the mother and the child.

The harrowing scene in section IV leads to a defensive burst of anger in the next part as the poet attempts to find someone or something to share the blame and then begins a kind of preparation for burial as if ordering the baby out of her mind. There is some sort of release in this action, as the end of the section introduces a feeling of partial acceptance for the first time, the baby relinquished to be reborn in another setting but carrying a message to the new mother warning her away from shared communication.

Section VI reinforces the emotional see-saw pattern by destroying any attempt to come to terms with the baby’s absence. Horrific images of the baby’s rotting corpse (“your goddamned belly rotten, a home for flies/ blown out & stinking, the maggots curling your hair”) actually reflect the poet’s disgust with herself. The depth of her feeling is emphasized by the suggestion that a child grown to be a criminal, or one doomed to be starved or shot, would still “have been frolic and triumph compared to this.” The agony implicit in her declaration represents the degree to which she has been wracked by the entire process.

Section VIII is pivotal and only three lines long. Here the poet asks for forgiveness from the child, an initial step toward some semblance of recovery. Taking on the responsibility she formerly rejected, the poet’s feelings turn in a new direction. Her realization that she may be exiled from the cosmos of reason if she cannot be absolved of the burden of guilt leads her to beg, “forgive, forgive/ that the cosmic waters do not turn from me/ that I should not die of thirst.”

Part of this absolution comes in section IX, where a mystic ritual takes place, bringing about the release and transference of the baby’s soul. This ritual permits the poet to imagine what could have been. Returning to the motherly stance of section III, the poet revels in the imagined baby’s happy infancy in a fantasy projection balancing the awful images of decay with a tender, touching portrayal of domesticity. Inevitably, another reversal occurs, but this time it is overridden by a vision of her young child living a happy, normal life. Section XII concludes with an invitation to the child to come to her again and promises to make the child comfortable, offering her body now ready to nurture again: “my breasts prepare/ to feed you: they do what they can.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The poem’s title is a symbolic representation of its subject. It suggests the extinguishing of the life of the fetus and eventually of the poet’s guilt as well, setting the course which the poem follows. The “Brass Furnace” is a controlling image for the physical and emotional being of the speaker. As a heated enclosure, it objectifies the womb, warming and generating the fetus. When the abortion removes the developing baby, the “Going Out” refers to the extinguishing of its life’s fire as well as the literal departure of the fetus from the mother. It also represents the direction of the poet’s emotional journey. As a furnace shuts down, it cools over time. The poem chronicles the cooling process that the poet goes through. She is very hot at first—her wrath ignited by her pain. As she works through her feelings, occasional sparks leap up to rekindle her passion before the body image of a fiery forge is replaced by one of a liquid carrying the promise of regeneration.

While the striking image of the brass furnace controls the progress of the poem, the range and variety of the images di Prima uses sustain the high emotional pitch at which it operates and makes each switch in mood convincing. In section II, when di Prima blames the baby for “quitting// as if the whole thing were a rent party/ & somebody stepped on your feet,” the reduction to the colloquial grounds the action in the familiar and tempers the pain with bizarre humor. The vision in section IX, in contrast, is written as a version of a transformative rite, the images of “orange & jade at the shrine” symbolizing the necessities of the reproductive process as di Prima utilizes sacred objects (the orange suggesting fruitfulness, the jade an emblem of celestial semen) from a hidden feminine subculture.

Throughout the poem, liquid images counter the fire of the furnace, continuing the pattern of reversal, first as manifestations of a polluted river, then as a healing balm, then as the water associated with birth. Similarly, animal imagery which often directly mirrors the poet’s feelings is the central motif of many sections. For instance, the dogs playing trumpets in section I reflect the distortion of reality that is part of the poet’s confusion; the giraffes “mourning cry” in section IV echoes the poem’s tone of lamentation, and the fish in section XI resemble the aquatic state of the baby prior to birth. In addition, the animal imagery enables di Prima to explore her own animal nature as a being whose physicality is always a prime concern.