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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 toward the central concerns of the poem. Having looked at the objects, he sees some paradoxical connection between the medieval past and the present. Section 4 expresses the poem’s thematic concern with universal human suffering and raises questions about the ways humans often attempt to experience and to tempt life “without fear of consequence,” drawing back from life-threatening experiences just at the moment when mortality seems likely. Also in this section, the first (primary) speaker acknowledges the presence of a woman, and, playfully, they pretend she is his executioner. In the posture of someone about to be beheaded, he places his head on the block, preparing for imaginary death by breathing deeply. The speaker is so involved in the experience of the moment, he does, in fact, say that he feels he “could almost drift off” like the many others who were awakened by their torturers.

Section 5 records a dialogue between the primary speaker and his companion as she, like the real torturers, tries to get him to “wake up” from his imaginary death. For the time being, he does not do so; he wishes to continue his near-death experience. Realizing there would be little time, when this close to death, for prayer, he attempts to embrace the experience of death as the prayer “drops unfinished” from his lips and his companion moves to touch him with her imaginary ax (“the idea-of-axe”). Pretending to be beheaded, the male speaker imagines what will come after death: “. . . I tilt, nose over chin into the last of sight, of whatever sheen or rapture I can grasp to take with me, wherever I’m bound.”

The poem ends as the speaker and his companion discontinue their game of executioner-victim. Recognizing they have just undergone an experience that differs only imaginatively from the reality of death, they leave “just shaky and not ourselves” and seek the “light” from the dark dungeon they have just exited. When they finally leave the castle, however, they find themselves still in need of light even though they are “outside” and “in the open.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(The entire section is 1,401 words.)