Throughout Isabella Gardner’s career, beginning with Birthdays from the Ocean, an underlying theme is types and depths of relationships. The prefatory poem (“That ’Craning of the Neck’”) deals with the ideal situation in which the individual consciousness (represented by the poem’s speaker) should merge with other people and especially objects in nature. Often, however, separateness remains. The poet-speaker seeks unsuccessfully to develop empathy with a great blue heron, but nature remains merely a series of objects. The same failure is seen in “Southwest of True North,” as the poet-speaker cannot identify with actual birds or their myths.
Similar failure to connect with other individuals or objects is seen in “To Thoreau on Rereading Walden.” Gardner explains that Henry David Thoreau lost his hound, bay horse, and turtledove because he simply failed to listen and thus did not establish the kind of relationship that will transcend death. Individual self-absorption also leads to the loss of the exotic (“At the Zoo”), but unlike Thoreau and “The Sloth,” extinct and legendary animals show some possibility of rebirth. Likewise, the negative and isolated sides of human nature are seen in the pseudo-freakishness of the sideshow clown in “Three Rings or Five Rings.”
Gardner’s theory of relationships extends to poetry (“Reveille for a Rockinghorse Poet”), as the poet-narrator advises younger poets to choose the original and exotic, rejecting the safe course. Nevertheless, in “When in Rome . . . ,” the poet, who is the main character, again fails to establish empathy with the unicorn and the birds.
Allusions to history and literature abound. “Abraham and Isaac” raises the relationship between Bible stories and modern sacrifices. “Homo Gratia Artis” similarly alludes to the Bible, the writings of William Shakespeare, and classical mythology, demonstrating their fundamental unity. Likewise, “In the Museum” deals with the poet’s recognition of a relationship with the museum’s female mummy, whose life probably parallels hers. A similar identification exists in “Cock-a-Hoop,” in which the poet’s soldier lover is represented as cavalier and chanticleer, both dead. Another elegy is “When a Warlock Dies,” Gardner’s tribute to the late poet Dylan Thomas.
Death is an important theme in “Of Flesh and Bone,” in which the poet describes her changing attitudes toward death, the word she will not pronounce; she and her lover wonder if their separation might not be worse than a literal death. “The Only Relic” suggests that the poet-narrator’s quest for artifacts yields only a tiny skull, displayed although it is likely to be destroyed.
The failure of love is the underlying theme in several poems. “Compleat Anglers” describes lovers as hooking each other, birds, and fish, but in doing so, they merely exact pain from these objects. “Lines to a Seagreen Lover” catalogs the poet-narrator’s regrets at the limited activities they shared. In contrast, infatuation/seduction is the subject of “The Milkman.”
Several other poems deal with the relationship between childhood and adulthood. “It Rained Last Night” describes the restorative effect of rain. “West of Childhood,” dedicated to Gardner’s brother George, reflects on the parallels between their memories of childhood and the experiences of their children. In “Children Are Gone,” the deceased narrator contrasts her stillness with the shouts of children skating on the pond.
(The entire section is 1473 words.)