Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
Like almost all of Richard Brautigan’s poems, “I Lie Here in a Strange Girl’s Apartment” is short (three stanzas, fourteen lines) and written in free verse. The title, which is also the first line, not only provides the setting of the poem but also suggests the dynamic that is the subject of the narrator’s meditation: the narrator as he sees himself in uncomfortable relation to this “strange” woman. The language of the poem, characteristic of Brautigan’s style, is colloquial and deceptively direct—though the final stanza makes it clear that the author’s appreciation of the abstract and surreal should not be underestimated, as it tends to vastly complicate otherwise simple images.
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The structure of the poem appeals to a kind of minimalism that introduces only what is necessary in order for the payload of the poet’s meaning to be delivered to the reader in the most direct, significant, and unburdened fashion. In the first stanza, the narrator presents himself as a man lying (presumably in bed) in the apartment of a woman who is “unhappy.” As he watches her move “about the place,” he reveals that she has both a sunburn and a poison oak rash. The curious similarity between these two ailments makes it unclear whether she is unhappy because she is afflicted with this double irritation or whether her unhappiness is being characterized by Brautigan’s use of the metaphor of the skin conditions. She is clearly uncomfortable. Her unease, Brautigan seems to be suggesting, is akin to the itching experienced with a sunburn or poison oak. She is, as the saying goes, uncomfortable in her own skin. This unease is given greater specificity by the final, more explicit metaphor that closes the first stanza and points to the emotional and psychological breach between the narrator and the woman, who appears to him “distant” and “solemn.”
The second stanza implicates the very language of the poem in the ambiguity that characterizes the relationship between the narrator and the woman. The woman’s actions are described in both ambiguous terms (“She opens and closes things”) and specific terms (“She turns the water on”). But these rather quotidian images give way to the broad and almost overwhelming metaphor of the final stanza, wherein the sounds the woman is making as she moves around the apartment are likened to a distant city populated with people of its own. The enormity of the metaphor for what are the relatively minor sounds of movement in a small apartment suggests that the narrator is at once fixated on the movements of the woman (thus their seeming huge) yet inevitably alienated from them (thus their seeming distant). Indeed, the final metaphor seems to take on a life of its own, dominating the reader’s memory of the poem by the vastness of its scope. Readers are left, finally, with not simply the narrator’s fixation with this woman but with the image of an entire city of people whose “eyes are filled with the sounds/ of what she is doing.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
As with many of his contemporaries, Brautigan playfully explores the disparity between poetic devices (such as metaphor) and minimalist description (which eschews such poetic devices) by abutting the two in the same poem. The colorless second stanza avoids poetic imagery altogether, refusing to make the woman’s actions any more vivid to the reader. Brautigan resists poeticizing his subject, employing a dull repetition to reinforce the quotidian aspect of the scene: “She turns the water on,/ and she turns the water off.” The metaphor of the third stanza, however, achieves an almost absurd extreme of poetic artifice—especially in comparison to the previous stanza. Here Brautigan employs a metaphor that is so broad, so indulgent in its poetic license, that the reader is apt to forget what, exactly, the metaphor refers to by the end of the stanza. Indeed, the final line has the air of a reminder, returning readers to the woman whom they may have let slip from their focus: “Their eyes are filled with the sounds/ of what she is doing.” By presenting the reader with two distinct reading experiences—one completely unqualified by metaphor, and the other overwhelmed by it—Brautigan calls into question the uses of the poetic device itself.
Even if the final stanza were to stand on its own, one could not help but notice that Brautigan exerts an extreme degree of pressure on the final metaphorical device. Whereas a metaphor is meant to qualify or elucidate the less obvious layers of significance behind any given object, Brautigan’s metaphor goes beyond its object. The metaphor of the city, by employing much more specific and vivid imagery than any found elsewhere in the poem, usurps and dwarfs the significance of the woman’s movements by drawing all poetic attention to itself. At first, readers are told simply that the sounds are so far away that they could be in a different city—a simple enough statement, mildly evoking the unprepossessing image of a city. Many poets would end the metaphor here. However, Brautigan goes on to populate and describe the city, telling readers that it is dusk and that people are staring out of their windows in the city. This image removes readers from the initial image of the woman moving around the apartment because they are hard-pressed to understand just exactly how her sounds are similar to a city filled with people at dusk. Furthermore, when the connection between the metaphor and its subject is so abstract as to be lost, then the metaphor breaks free of its subject and becomes a subject of its own.
This self-conscious use of poetic devices is characteristic of Brautigan’s literary era, the eve of postmodernism, in which writers were less interested in using literary devices invisibly to draw in a reader than they were in focusing the reader’s attention on the process of the writing itself. A poem that is seemingly “about” a woman in a room turns out, at the end, to be “about” the poetic device of metaphor, its uses, and its abuses.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168
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