Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

While the central meaning of this poem is to be found in the poet’s experiences with death, other matters are taken up as well. Specifically, the poet is concerned with the effects of his father-in-law’s life upon his wife and upon their relationship. What are the residual effects of his alcoholism? The suggestion is that if his wife had not been able to achieve a successful relationship with her father, she cannot, now, accomplish one with her husband. They talk of love: “Like us/ He loved what/ he knew how to love.” The point is that they do not know how to love each other, either. Hell, among other things, means an inability to love. The priest points out that he had lived “so long alone,” but the poet and his wife are also alone, even though they are together.

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How does one experience and deal with death in a world in which the ash heap of all social order is the only reality? The poet here, through his images, creates a world in which alienation and despair are the governors of human experience. These people consciously recall characters in T. S. Eliot’s poems of wastelands. In a universe where life is meaningless, can death itself assume or provoke meaning? How does one descend into a kind of further, existential hell if one is in hell already? The husband and wife, like her father, realize that they cannot: “When I lean to kiss you/ I am full of words/ the dead have spoken.” The poet entertains the idea that death in this land of “vacant lots,” “slimy mattresses,” and “disemboweled dolls” offers no more than the prospects of life in such attitudinal environs.

The reader may wonder why the devil is interchangeable with the ghost of the dead father-in-law, and why this devil-like character simply gives forth the “horny middle finger” instead of performing some sort of expected action of a figure from a classical hell. The suggestion is that the father-in-law is not dead—or, at least, it is for the poet to consider that this man’s life will continue to interfere with a successful relationship between him and his wife. Finally, they are unable to communicate because of the shadows of the dead, alcoholic father-in-law. In the last section they attempt conversation; the poet tries to explain to his wife what he had seen and what it means (the man with the “horny middle finger”). Yet while he can utter the words, she cannot grasp their meaning. They are left alone not merely in a world where they do not experience love and meaning, but in a world where these things are impossible.

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