The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

“Death’s Blue-Eyed Girl” is a short poem in accentual-syllabic meter. Its fourteen lines are divided into two stanzas. The first four-line stanza introduces the thematic question of the poem by way of two related similes; it also identifies the poem’s intended audience and establishes a meditative mood. The second stanza attempts to answer the question posed at the beginning of the poem: When does death become a real presence in life? This stanza is a meditation on death and one’s shifting perceptions of death and loss. The ideas in the poem are developed almost entirely through the use of metaphor.

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The title of the poem recalls a line from E. E. Cummings’s poem “Buffalo Bill ’s.” That poem, which was published in 1923, is about the death of the speaker’s childhood hero (Buffalo Bill). In the final lines, the speaker personifies death in order to make sense of the loss of someone who seemed immortal. He asks, “and what i want to know is/ how do you like your blueeyed boy/ Mister Death.” In Linda Pastan’s poem, the blue-eyed girl refers to Elaine, someone close to the speaker, who has died. Pastan also personifies death at the end of the poem, turning it into a magician. The debt to E. E. Cummings is clear in both the specific language and the thematic concerns of Pastan’s poem.

The speaker in the poem is not a persona distinct from the poet, and the “you” addressed is a relative, spouse, or close friend. Yet the “you” addressed in the poem also extends to include the readers, who, as they read the poem, begin to feel as if they are overhearing an intimate conversation between two people. This sense of intimacy provides an important cue for the readers; it is as if the speaker is conscious of them listening in and wants them to consider the question she is asking. In this way, the poem is both meditative and inclusive, and, consequently, more compelling.

The poem begins with two similes that suggest the complexity of the questions being asked. The first, and most obvious, is, When does death become a common, even comfortable, presence in people’s lives? The second question is, How does one move from the child’s sense of invulnerability in the natural world to the adult’s understanding that death is everywhere in nature?

The second stanza tries to answer these questions. The speaker begins by recalling her childhood response to death. Then she felt invulnerable, immortal, untouchable; death remained a distant abstraction and, ironically, a kind of last hope if she should “fall too far.” Then the memory of Elaine enters the poem. The speaker describes her as she last remembers her: alive, vital, and creative. As quickly as the memory of Elaine appears, it vanishes. The poet ends the poem by personifying death as a magician who simply whisked Elaine away. The reader has been carried deep into the poem, and suddenly it is over. In this way, the poem mimics the very event it describes: Death is often a sudden loss, a kind of sleight of hand that shocks and surprises.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

At first glance, the poem may seem formless, but closer inspection reveals that it is written in accentual-syllabic meter. Each line has nine, ten, or eleven syllables, and four or five of the syllables are accented in every line. The meter is roughly dactylic tetrameter; variations in the pattern are frequent. Two of the variations are worth noting.

The first occurs in line 9 and is repeated in line 12. These lines are the two longest in the poem, each having eleven syllables. The thematic connection between the lines is emphasized by their shared syllable count. Line 9 states that death is, to the child, “a safety net.” Line 12 mentions that although Elaine seemed anchored to this life by the child on her hip who served as a kind of “ballast,” she was also “distracted with poems.” Although the connection is subtle, perhaps the reader is encouraged to see that poems are also a kind of safety net, a way that one might begin to understand death. Yet there is irony in this connection; death is not a safety net, and it is Elaine’s death that teaches the speaker this fact.

The second variation that is thematically important occurs in the last line. This line has only seven syllables. As the shortest line in the poem, it serves two purposes: It helps end the poem cleanly and decisively, and it reflects the idea of the poem. Death is also quick, decisive, and final. It is important to note that this is one of the few lines in the poem that are not metaphors; “She was gone” is the most direct statement in the poem. By using this device, the speaker seems to be undermining her own attempt to put death into a poem. Ultimately, one realizes, death is a fact; even poetry cannot save one.

The most common poetic device used in the poem is metaphor. There are four sets of metaphors at work. The first set, found in the first four lines of the poem, introduces the theme of transition. The flowers in the garden begin to smell “like a funeral chapel” and the breeze like a “nurse’s hand” on the forehead.

The second set of metaphors, in lines 7 through 9, explains the child’s response to death. Children feel invulnerable and challenge death by “sendingkites up for the lightening” and swimming naked at night. In line 9, death, the “safety net,” is clearly the invention of the child who does not or cannot understand its finality.

In lines 11 and 12, the metaphor of the child as ballast helps the reader understand both Elaine’s fragile connection to this life and the speaker’s developing perception of life’s transience. Each person, it seems, is temporarily stabilized in this life by various kinds of ballast that may slip at any time.

Realizing this, the reader is prepared for the final metaphor in the last two lines of the poem. Death is real, no doubt, but it still retains its “magic.” The image of death as a magician who waves and bows and shows his empty sleeves belongs in the world of the child. Yet it is the adult who invents the metaphor in the poem in order to come to terms with death. In this way, Pastan is able to indulge the child’s fascination with the magic of the world despite the reality of death.

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Themes