Summary

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Stanzas 1 and 2

“Omen” begins with a speaker lying on his side in the “moist grass,” drifting into a “fitful,” or restless, “half-sleep.” It is nighttime. Given that Hirsch’s first two poetry collections tended to focus on insomniacs, a reader familiar with the poet might assume that the speaker of “Omen” is regularly unable to sleep at night. During his half-sleep, the speaker listens to the wind in the trees and, in stanza 2, notices the moon coming out.

Describing the moon as “one-eyed,” Hirsch uses a poetic technique called “personification,” or the attribution of human qualities to something that is not human. The speaker says the moon “turns away from the ground, smudged,” as though looking at the ground has marked its “glassy” eye. Getting ready to describe the October sky and how it relates to his thoughts, the speaker then notes, “the nights are getting cold.”

Stanzas 3 and 4

In the night sky, which is “tinged with purple” and “speckled red,” the speaker watches clouds gather above the house “like an omen”—a phenomenon that portends a future event. The speaker cannot stop thinking about his closest friend, which suggests that the omen of the gathering clouds is somehow related to this friend, who the reader learns in stanza 4 is suffering from cancer. The speaker goes on to describe the “small, airless ward” of the downtown hospital, where his friend, who is thirty-seven years old, is suffering.

The fact that the speaker says the hospital is downtown implies that the speaker is in the suburbs, perhaps the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where Hirsch grew up. The speaker says his friend is “fingered by illness,” which implies some greater fate has chosen the friend as a victim and increases the sense of foreboding that the friend is marked for death. Describing his friend as “boyish,” “hunted,” and “scared,” the speaker makes his friend seem like an innocent child about to encounter something horrible, which sets the speaker thinking about his own childhood.

Stanzas 5 and 6

It is significant that the speaker first thinks back to the “immense” summer nights of his childhood, as opposed to the cold October nights he experiences in the present. The speaker compares these “clear . . . pure, bottomless” nights to a “country lake,” and he compares the stars to “giant kites, casting loose.” This language emphasizes the great freedom and possibility of childhood nights, and the four-dot ellipsis at the end of stanza 5 reinforces the image of the kites casting loose, off the edge of the line.

Stanza 6 provides a sharp contrast to the summer nights, describing the autumn nights of the speaker’s childhood as “schoolbound, close,” and full of “stormy clouds” like those that have appeared as a bad omen. The speaker associates the fall nights of childhood with “rules” and the indoors, which reminds the reader of the small ward of the hospital. With the rain banging against his house like a “hammer,” the speaker’s fall childhood nights close him in and confine him, seeming to take away the possibilities promised by the summer nights.

Stanzas 7 and 8

Stanza 7 continues the thought at the end of stanza 6. This technique of running one line of a sentence or phrase onto the next line is called “enjambment.” The speaker says that the rain beat against his head during these autumn nights, and he recalls waking up from a “cruel dream” to find that he is coughing and unable to breathe. Again, this description reminds the reader of the speaker’s friend in his “airless” ward, as...

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does the speaker’s feeling that he was “lost” after these dreams.

Stanza 8, which describes the pain the speaker’s friend feels, is a smooth transition, since the autumn night and the hospital are similar in a number of ways. The friend’s pain, for example, which is “like a mule” repeatedly “kicking him in the chest,” is like the rain “banging” and “beating” against the speaker. With the phrase “Until nothing else but the pain seems real,” the friend seems more distant from the speaker’s childhood remembrances, as though nothing can be as important or pressing than the friend’s current situation. In effect, this phrase brings the speaker out of his wandering thoughts and reminds him of the present autumn night.

Stanzas 9 and 10

In the present, lying in the grass, the speaker says that the wind is whispering “a secret to the trees,” which he describes as “stark and unsettling, something terrible.” The reader expects this secret to have something to do with the speaker’s friend, and it seems likely it is related to the omen of the clouds gathering above the house. Like the friend, the yard is trembling, which causes the trees to shed leaves. Unlike the giant kites from the summer nights of the speaker’s childhood, which were cast loose into the sky, the leaves are falling to the ground.

In the first line of stanza 10, the speaker realizes his “closest friend is going to die.” This realization is likely a result of the omen in stanza 3, the significance of which has dawned on the speaker, and it is followed by dark and foreboding imagery. First, the entire night sky tilts “on one wing.” Second, the clouds that brought the omen seem to break, “Shuddering with rain” and descending on the speaker. It seems the speaker will again feel, as he did in his childhood, the rain pounding on his house, trapping him inside and banging against his head like a hammer. Like his friend in the hospital who is in constant pain, the speaker himself is associated with a fearful, powerless, and suffering child.

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Themes