The Poem

“Wake Up” is a narrative poem divided into six sections. Most of the poem is narrative, but in section 5, the poet records a brief dialogue between the speaker and his female companion. The setting of the poem, Kyborg Castle, in Zurich, Switzerland, provides an occasion for the two speakers to contemplate human suffering and death.

The first section of the poem introduces the spatial setting: the dungeon of a medieval castle. There the speakers observe an executioner’s block, which sits near an iron maiden, one of a number of instruments of torture used in the Middle Ages, which was, curiously enough, in the shape of a female. Also in the dungeon is a rack, used for stretching criminals. The poet notes that at times the torturer would have to awaken his charges by throwing water over them. This was done so that the prisoner would feel the effects of the torture to the utmost.

In contrast to the images of torture is “an old cherrywood crucifix,” which hangs on the wall in the chamber’s corner. Section 3 questions the suitability of the image of crucifixion in a room noted for punishment. Moving almost to the level of sarcasm, the poet suggests that the “criminal” would, almost at the point of death, possibly receive religious conversion. This section hints at the horrible punishments often associated with the Inquisition, which claimed to be acting with God’s inspiration.

At this point, the poet begins to move...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Forms and Devices

For the most part, “Wake Up” is more like a story than a poem. Although the poem contains a few poetic devices, the poet relies primarily on conveying the experience through portraying the emotional effects of imagining death and using symbolic language. The poem was inspired by a trip Raymond Carver and his second wife, Tess Gallagher, who is also a poet, took shortly before Carver discovered he had lung cancer in the fall of 1987.

Except for a few lines (particularly those in section 3), the poem reads like a narrative, which perhaps suggests that it can be labeled a “prose poem.” A prose poem conveys the poet’s feelings about one experience in a concentrated manner like that of a poem, but it does not follow poetic conventions with regard to form, rhyme, and meter. Even though the poem is very proselike, the author does use figurative language. Most frequently used are parallelism and personification. A series of parallel prepositional phrases opens the poem, giving a rhythmlike effect and suggesting the poem’s almost ritualistic reenactment of the tortures of the Middle Ages that will be applied to the speaker’s present life and, by implication, the universal human misery with which the poem is concerned.

The poem’s use of traditional poetic devices, however, is minimal. The poet describes the iron maiden, which is in the shape of a woman, as possessing an “iron gown” and as having “serene featuresengraved with a little noncommital smile.” Such personification ironically parallels the later incident of having the speaker’s companion, a woman, play the...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


Bethea, Arthur F. Technique and Sensibility in the Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Gallagher, Tess. Soul Barnacles: Ten More Years with Ray. Edited by Greg Simon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

Lainsbury, G. P. The Carver Chronotope: Inside the Life-World of Raymond Carver’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Powell, Jon. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 647-656.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Stull, William L., and Maureen P. Carroll, eds. Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1993.