Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gallagher’s main focus in this poem is on expanding the borders of love. Instead of shunning the stranger, who “looks homeless because of how/ he needs,” both she and her lover let him into their world. The speaker of this poem grows beyond notions of a love “that nabs you with ‘for me/ only’ and holds on.” Love so constructed might as well wear manacles.

There are dangers, however, in developing a different perception or experience of love. In hugging the stranger, the speaker enters the unknown. The experience, for both her and the stranger, has positive effects: They hug “So truly, so tenderly/ [they] stop having arms.” They become as one and lose sense of the physical. This is the spiritual center of the poem, where the temporal becomes the eternal. On the negative side, the speaker suffers a loss of awareness: “I don’t know if/ my lover has walked away or what, or/ if the woman is still reading the poem.” Up to this point, the poem has been addressed to the lover. Mirroring her distance from him, the woman refers to him (“My lover”) rather than addressing him. She gains the transcendence of the hug but loses contact with her beloved. This is why she states in her last stanza, “Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.” The lover permitted the stranger to hug the woman, and the woman permitted herself to follow through on the hug. The stranger “give[s] it back so well I know he’s/ getting it.” The woman...

(The entire section is 458 words.)