In a meditative tone, “Descending Figure” chronicles the grief process of the speaker, who longs for her dead sister.
The first of three sections, “The Wanderer” describes the persona going into the street at twilight. The contrast of the sun which “hung low” and “the iron sky, tinged with cold plumage” underscores the speaker’s sense of dislocation, her longing to fill “this emptiness.” She describes playing with her “other sister, whom death had made so lonely.” The speaker’s question, “Why was she never called?” emphasizes the idea of this sister being left out.
In the second section, “The Sick Child,” the images of stars shining above a wooden chest and the child relaxing in her mother’s arms are at first soothing, but the next line describing how “the mother does not sleep” but “stares fixedly into the bright museum” introduces a disturbing note, which is then confirmed by the statement, “By spring the child will die.” The speaker decides that it is “wrong, wrong to hold her” and pleads with the mother, “Let her be alone, without memory.”
The third section, “For My Sister,” also begins on a hopeful note, with the speaker describing how her sister is “moving in her crib” but then adds a note of troubling surrealism with the next line: “The dead ones are like that.” The speaker speculates that if her sister “had a voice, the cries of hunger would be beginning,” and she concludes that she should go to her sister. The ending image of her sister with “skin so white, her head covered with black feathers” echoes the image of the sun’s plumage against the iron sky in the first section of the poem.