The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Reading “A History of Civilization” is somewhat like opening a box within a box within a box. The poem consists of four six-line stanzas organized so that each stanza focuses on a particular place and each place suggests a particular past. Each of the first three stanzas ends on the open phrase “In back,” thus sending the reader quickly into the next stanza. For all its brevity, “A History of Civilization” does not quite fit the definition of a lyric. The reader does not “overhear” a speaker, but is treated to a complex layering of scenes.

The poem opens in the present, in a “dating bar” where everything is a bit suggestive. All the details evoke the contemporary—silk blouses, sweet brie. In back of the dating bar is the “last one-family grocer’s,” with its strings of vegetables, coffee, kidney beans. The lush details of the store—the “millet barrel” and the cash register “as intricate as a Sicilian shrine”—seem to be of another era. The woman here is proud of her clean linen apron rather than a silk blouse.

In back of the grocery is a room with a fireplace where a ring of “somber-gabardined grandpas” play dominoes: “Even their/ coughs, their phlegms, are in an older language.” This scene evokes America’s immigrant past. The final stanza takes place “in back/ of the back room” where cats are eyeing other cats, spraying the sacks and baskets with their scent. Here, in the animal world,...

(The entire section is 483 words.)