Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)