Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Confinement is one of Shapiro’s major themes, and the great central image of the glowing vault in “Girls Working in Banks” is a perfect vehicle of confinement with its “polished steel elbows/ Of the great machine of the door.” Doors are devices that can keep people in or out, and the image works well for both banking and religion; money creates class and sets up barriers between people, just as religion often does. The irony is, however, that nothing is to be seen in this vault: There is a terrible void at the center of the bank or church. Yet in another kind of metaphor, a simile, Shapiro compares the vault to “the best room in the gallery/Awaiting the picture which is still in a crate.” The poet seems to be saying that both institutions are empty at the core, yet there is still hope that each will find its own center, just as the picture will be hung one day. A picture is an image, which refers back to the poem itself, a series of images.

The theme of confinement echoes throughout the poem with the armed guards who watch the people doing business, and with the final escape of these people into the “glorious anonymous streets.” Within the walls of finance the individuals are known, they have names and numbers, and within the walls of religion they are watched by an omniscient god. Yet once the clients escape these institutions the streets are glorious and anonymous, suggesting that the ordinary people might find glory and fulfillment...

(The entire section is 485 words.)