The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

“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.

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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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

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 role of executioner. A simile is used as an extension of the personification when the poet writes that the “spiked interior” of the iron maiden could close on one “like a demon, like one possessed.” The iron maiden becomes a symbol of death, which possesses one and takes away all the light, with iron representing the strength of death from which there is no escape. This image is therefore a springboard for discussing torture, which is portrayed throughout as a symbol of the human need for control over destiny, particularly mortality.

Other notable symbols and poetic devices in the poem occur in sections 2 and 3. The rack suggests, once again, the human need to control destiny through exerting control over another person. The crucifix, in itself a symbol of human suffering, death, and destiny, represents a paradox to the poet. The torturers themselves were, like Christ and those who crucified him, “human, after all”—thus connecting the need for human control with death. Perhaps the poet is also suggesting that Christ, as according to Christian mythology, died for humanity in order for human beings to overcome death.

In section 4 the speaker describes himself and his companion as “the North Pole and the South.” In this metaphor he hints at a conflict between the two, who seemingly are polar opposites. Also in this section, he describes the groove into which he places his head as “pulse-filled”—another example of personification with symbolic significance. Since the poet has suggested the eternal and universal quality of human suffering throughout the course of history, to describe the groove as “pulse-filled” suggests that it has a life of its own, with many stories to tell. Furthermore, the groove, a seemingly dead object, is full of life even though it is ironically associated with deadness and decapitation.

The last two sections, characteristic of the minimalism with which the prose of Carver is often associated, have no significant poetic devices. The poet, however, does call the imaginary ax his companion holds “the idea-of-axe”—perhaps indicating his playfulness while simultaneously suggesting that imagining a near-death experience brings about central questions about life and mortality. Carver closes his episode as the speaker and his companion leave the dungeon and seek light, a metaphor for life, hope, spirituality, and purpose, but they find little promise of the “chink of understanding” he mentions in section 3.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

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