How does Clarke convey her thoughts about the woman's skeleton in "Lunchtime Lecture"?

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"Lunchtime Lecture" conveys a narrator's thoughts about seeing a skeleton presented during a lecture in a museum. To convey her thoughts about this scene, she uses imagery, metaphors, and personification as poetic devices.

The poem is written in free verse and begins with the word "And." Both of these contribute to the effect that the narrator has stumbled into this lecture without planning to and is captivated enough to stay and listen to the information. Thoughts flow freely, naturally.

This skeleton is a woman with "a white, fine skull" and has lain buried since likely the Neolithic Period. The imagery of this skull is vivid:

A white, fine skill, full up with darkness
As a shell with sea, drowned in the centuries.
Small, perfect. The cranium would fit the palm
Of a man's hand.

Notice the metaphor here as well. The skull has been buried in the dirt much like a shell is buried in the sea—totally filling it up. The word choice of "drowned" here also not only conveys death but a totality of absence of breathing and light. Yet, it is small and perfect.

A feminist interpretation would also note that this woman's skeleton was resting in its most natural state of "silence, undisturbed, unrained on . . ." until a man unearthed her. The word choice of "whiteness" in this stanza conveys a sense of purity that has been destroyed by man's interference.

Another interpretation would be that mechanization has destroyed her peace. Since she represents a woman from another time and long before machines, it is worth noting that she was disturbed by means unnatural to her time period. The personification of "biting" tractors lends itself to the idea that machinery has consumed her natural state.

The skeleton is noted both in the first stanza and then in the final stanza as "staring back." This sharp imagery is also personification that conveys a sense of oneness with this skeleton. The narrator (and the rest of the audience at the lecture) share her fate.

We stare at each other, dark into sightless
Dark, seeing only ourselves in the black ponds.

This provides a visual representation of the great circle of life. Each woman has a past and a future in the other.

The narrator also approaches this skeleton with a matter-of-fact tone. There is no shock or disgust at seeing the skeleton, because the museum is like a hospital (simile used here), making her clean and sanitary. Unfortunately, this also removes all semblance of her actual life—the way she lived and even the way she died, represented in "The smell of death is done." Now, all that remains is a perfect skeleton, "the perfect edge of the place/Where the pieces join, with no mistakes."

In the end, the author sees the skeleton much like a tree in winter, "stripped white on a black sky." Much like leaves often represent life in the spring, here the absence of them in winter represents that all that is left is the literal core of who this woman once was. The narrator envisions her alive again, "fleshed, with womans hair and colours and the rustling/Blood."

And, of course, she realizes that she is, at the end, looking at her own eventual fate.

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“Lunchtime Lecture” plays with the relationship between object and subject by contrasting the skeleton of a woman displayed in a museum against the narrator and the poem’s audience. In my reading, one of the most striking moments happens in the first stanza: “And this from the second or third millennium / B.C., a female, aged about twenty-two” (lines 1–2). The lecturer describes the skeleton with objective language that reduces the humanity of the woman being described. We can presume that this woman was not asked permission to become a display in a museum thousands of years after her death. In a similar way, the abruptness of the first stanza revokes the reader’s own sense of agency or consent, as if their humanity has been forfeited for the sake of the poem. By objectifying the reader, Clarke forces us to consider some of the injustices of both anthropology and patriarchy.

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