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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of “Lamentations” encapsulates a central concern that is developed throughout the poem. The instant of creation in the poem occurs at the beginning, the genesis, of separation and loss. “Birth, not death, is the hard loss,” Glück wrote in “Cottonmouth Country” from her first book, Firstborn (1969). Helen Vendler writes in Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980) that Glück’s “parable” passes from creation “through splitting and panic to birth and authority[to] language and estrangement.” The lament is a moan of mourning, “a slow moan,” for a time when man, woman, and child were not dissolved into distinct, separate beings whose only source of communication hinges on “words,” the language which the poem compares to “wounds” on “white flesh.”

The woman faces a double alienation: She is divided from the man, and the angels see that the division also includes “the woman, and the woman’s body.” It is from this “woman’s body” that “a child grew between” her and the man. There is isolation from the nuclear family, but also from her own flesh. The child’s beseeching as it “reached its hands” toward the man and woman makes them realize that they must take responsibility for their creation, as they are now the highest authority. All is built upon this premise. From the realization of authority, humanity is fully realized, and the figures try to understand and imagine the god who created them.

The attempt to conceive God’s view of the earth shines a ray of hope into the landscape of the poem. It portrays the capacities of humankind’s imagination and leaves a...

(The entire section is 416 words.)