The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

“The Day’s Chores: A List” is in twelve numbered sections. In section 1 (one stanza of eight lines), the speaker sleepily encounters a cup of tea, noting the cup’s color and contemplating its ingredients. She opens one eye at a time, perhaps reluctant to come fully awake. Section 2 identifies the first actual chore and issues the first command: Water the plants. The plants are seen as a substitute for a pet; they will at least respond (“purr with pleasure”) to being tended. Section 3, the briefest section with only two lines, issues the second command: Observe the sun. This will be remembered in the final stanza, where it will have become a metaphor for living fully awake.

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Section 4 expresses the importance of having work to do. Although work is seen as a stand-in for something more dramatic or romantic (“The back of my dreams has been broken”), the speaker announces that since she now understands the importance of her work, it is like a lover to her. Section 5 includes more advice about being awake and attentive, in this case just sitting and listening to the chair creaking and to the person who sat in it before her. This is clearly a spiritual cue to be open to all manner of awareness: Someone who was much older, spoke another language, and was not even present can still offer spiritual company. Section 6 speaks of listening to people now present or to other writers, as long as these writers are truthful about their inner selves.

Section 7, the longest so far with twenty lines, finds the speaker of the poem riding the city bus, “once in daylight/ and again at night.” There, she is confided in by an old woman, and again she listens attentively. This section stresses the need for getting out, mingling, and connecting with others. In section 8, she goes to the grocery store and attends to the quality of the food she eats and the nutrients her body needs. She pretends each item is written on one of her fingertips, again stressing the conscious physical involvement in life that she demands of herself. Section 9 involves housework—cleaning, laundering, responding to the mail, all before dark. In this section and in section 8, there are new mentions of the world of sleep and shadow and a sense that the speaker is aware of the dangers of not keeping her eyes wide open to life.

In section 10, the speaker yields to temptation and allows herself a brief nap, justifying it as a way to have a “second morning” or new energy for the balance of the day. Section 11 lets the day begin to die—a late dinner with someone she loves, candlelight, taking inventory in a diary. The speaker celebrates a sense of having met the day’s demands and takes pride in the thought that the list of chores is not “tattered” and has no “crossed-off” items; she has attended to the chores single-mindedly and efficiently, leaving virtually nothing undone and having adhered to an original plan.

Section 12, the last and longest section (two stanzas and twenty-nine lines) steps back, reconsiders and reaffirms the speaker’s definition of what her chores or tasks have encompassed with a “list within the list,” and again celebrates her success in having lived the day as fully awake as possible. She has been careful to observe the sun (section 3) as a hero worthy of honor and now has a sense of “his heart.” The reader imagines that her sleep will be both peaceful and deep.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345

The poem has 123 lines and twelve sections that vary in length from 2 to 29 lines. There is no observable meter or rhyme scheme; pattern and stress are inherent in line length and line break. Stress is sometimes pounded out by several successive spondees: “the night not one star sang out.” The twelve stanzas are numbered in a manner similar to some of William Blake’s work, and they constitute, very ostensibly, a list to be checked off as the day progresses. Yet not all of them are like items taken from a “to-do” memo pad: Some do not involve an imperative at all and clearly have nothing to do with any work or physical action. Often, an object is merely named, and the implication is that this object deserves attention and contemplation: “A pale blue cup/ with tea in it.” Only three give a directive (water plants, shop, keep house); the rest are habits to be cultivated and have to do with being, listening, mingling, seeing, and reflecting.

The first stanza sets up the “list” or sets the precedent for its nature: a simple object, a precise image, and a sharp contrast between night and day:

A pale blue cupwith tea in it,melted-down flowersfirst thing in the morningafter one brown eye opens,and then the other,shininglike the night they came from.

Sharp as the images are, Hampl requires little in the way of simile and metaphor. Eyes shine “like the night they came from”; she has redefined her life’s direction, claiming that “The back of my dreams has been broken”; grocery items are “decisions”; there is a “slump in the afternoon”; waking from a nap is “a second morning”; her diary is either “fat” or “slivered,” depending on the rigor of the day’s demands; and the day’s chores, when completed, make up “a set of filed cards.” More important is the painting created by the poem and the delicate colors that wash over and through its lines: pale blue, purple, orange, brown, and white, the colors of a cottage still life.

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Themes