Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

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The title of the poem gives the reader a hint that the poem deals with death and associated thoughts about an afterlife. It would be difficult to determine more about what gave her the ideas for the poem, but McPherson herself has explained that the poem was in part the result of her childhood experience of attending the “open casket” funeral of her grandfather. In an essay, McPherson says, “I was twelve; it was my first and only open casket funeral. Seeing down into death, I thought, was like being in the glass-bottomed boat I took also as a child in Monterey Bay.”

Yet, she does not make the funeral the focus of the poem. Rather, the poem deals with other examples of seeing into some other dimension. With the aid of the glass-bottomed boat, which the reader is advised to take, one sees into an orderly and harmonious world, akin to heaven, were the reader actually able to see it.

From this harmonious vision, however, the reader is forced to return to the world of poverty and labor, heat and dust. Wanting something more, “we read the depot literature/ of miraculous healing.” Only the jeweler’s window, containing expensive and unattainable objects, precious bluish violet stones, reminds the reader of that vision of heaven in the sea.

The fact that San Jose and Santa Barbara are named for saints and that Sacramento means sacred or having to do with the sacraments reinforces the idea that the poem concerns itself with religion, particularly questions about death and resurrection and the mysteries of an afterlife.

Water is typically a symbol of life and the sacrament of baptism. Water appears here as the medium through which one looks into another world, the underwater world. Where people struggle to make a living in the bean fields, the surrounding hills are “hard dust.” The riverbeds of the landscape are dry with “White salts and rusts and mires/ where the rivers used to be. . . .” This dry world lacks the perfection of the underwater world, which exists in “water-oiled harmony,” that is, in a state of grace.

It is difficult to tell why McPherson evokes the image of colored pencils except as one more version of the image of looking down into something where colors and forms attract the eye. Perhaps the scene is part of the lesson on the state flower and the mountains, perhaps it is some other time when she tried to capture the beauty she saw in nature by sketching wildflowers.

In any case, whatever the shortcomings of the world, there is always Monterey Bay and the glass-bottomed boat to provide a vision of eternal life and beauty. McPherson has said that the word “vacation” in the last line made her think of the body vacated by the living person. The soul or spirit of the person whose body is being viewed is literally on vacation, that is, gone. Yet, the word “vacation” also suggests something happy and entertaining, a welcome relief from the everyday world of work. Looking into the underwater world and at the life there is like looking into a paradise where it is always “summer and/ vacation.” The poem ends with a sense of hopefulness, as if the trip in the glass-bottomed boat has provided insight and spiritual relief.