Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

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Though written in 1978, this poem could easily be claimed by the proponents of the “voluntary simplicity” movement of the late 1990’s as their creed. The speaker of the poem has learned to see through the busy surface of life down to its rock-bottom essentials, and what she identifies as her life-shaping force is work. The numbered stanzas are not the only similarity between Hampl and William Blake: Hampl’s poetry is also comparable to Blake’s in its use of imperatives, either direct or implied. One of Blake’s imperatives is a perfect gloss for Hampl’s theme: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” The speaker in Hampl’s poem has learned that her “duty” is her work, and she meets it willingly: “Now that I understand/ who it is, I try not/ to keep a lover waiting.” She lives with the conviction that “The first task is always before me.” Its identity changes as the day progresses, and she must merely acknowledge its claim on her attention: “I call it/ groceries, laundry,/ poem, paint kitchen table.” She keeps inventory: “a precise diary,” “a set of filed cards.” She claims with pride that “The list is not tattered,/ no crossed-off thoughts.” Since she knows what her work is, she has rarely had to revise the list, and it seems to be a new list every morning (“the list is not tattered”) by having had its chores carried over to another day.

The sun and “a wizened orange” are important to this assurance. She tosses the orange up, exercising complete control, holds it in her hand, and says she thereby has “a sense of the sun,/ his heart” as though she has sucked this day’s orange dry, every chore, every piece of wakeful living noted and accomplished.

Her list contains both private and public chores; it allows her to remain a whole, integrated person. Evidently, her chores occasionally feel like mere chores to her. She is slow in waking and longs for the short nap, maybe even “the reentry of shadows,” but she remains proudly committed to her covenant with life: “the sun has been observed/ personally by me today.” Her index cards have no index; she attends to the day’s demands as they present themselves to her, not bound by any proscribed idea of order. Like the orange, the chores have been “perfectly held/ wedge by wedge.”