Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
The following opening lines set the context for the poem. The female speaker has moved into a studio apartment with the one she loves. She had once harbored romantic illusions of what it would be like to live with her beloved. However, these opening lines, establishing what her thoughts had been and are no more, show her dawning disillusionment:
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
The dust, as we will find, is both literal and metaphoric. Literal, physical dust does accumulate on the furniture, and someone—she herself—has to clean it. This physical dust also dulls the romantic love she once felt, and her present relationship with the beloved is compared to a dusty piece of furniture, not as bright and shining as it was when new.
Rich shows her ability to capture both the apartment and a sense of unease with the following imagery. In these lines, Rich uses visual imagery so that a reader can see what she describes:
A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
The pears are a simple domestic image, while the Persian shawl on the piano conjures an artistic, creative environment. The picture of a doomed mouse forced to defend itself because of the cat ready to attack raises unease. That the mouse, ready to be killed by a predator, is seen as "picturesque"and "amusing" suggests a lack of sensitivity to the sufferings of others and creates anxiety about the speaker's fate. Perhaps this apartment is not so loving after all.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles . . .
Now the imagery becomes even more ominous. At one level, Rich describes a simple domestic scene that would have been common in the 1950s, when milkmen still went from house to house delivering milk in glass bottles. The speaker hears the tramp of the milkman bringing the milk in early morning. She then gets up and sees in the early morning light some cheese and empty bottles that were left out the night before. The words "writhe," "coldly," and "sepulchral" hint that the woman is trapped in a cold and morbid environment. The domesticity, perhaps, is killing her; perhaps she wants to escape.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.
After juxtaposing and contrasting how the speaker performs domestic tasks like making the bed and dusting the tabletop with the man briefly playing a few notes on the piano, looking in a mirror, and going out for cigarettes (while he does nothing but take care of himself, we wonder if he is he being bored and stifled too), the poem ends with the lines above. They are not despairing, exactly, but suggest that a dull monotony is oppressing the speaker's spirit. Love is not what she thought it would be when she has to do all the physical work to keep the household running.