Words for Departure

by Louise Bogan

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Summary

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Overview
Bogan’s lyrical poem “Words for Departure” offers instructions for a departing lover, but the poem goes beyond simple leave-taking to create an image of love found and then lost. The poem is divided into three sections, each containing several stanzas. The first section is one of oppositions and takes place in the present tense. The second section is focused on memories, recalling the lover as he was in the past. The final section pushes the lover away and looks to the future. The poem itself is filled with ambiguities that reveal the pain the speaker feels at her lover’s betrayal. In the end, although she instructs him on how a lover should leave, her own grief at this loss is captured in her inability to watch him leave.

Lines 1–5
The first line of Bogan’s poem begins with the word “nothing,” a word that is repeated several times in the first section of the poem. With the first line, the author also creates an opposition that dominates the entire poem. Initially the first line suggests a stagnant existence, when time stops and nothing is remembered and nothing is forgotten. The speaker would like time to stand still, but the poem quickly moves into real time, as images of the passing day reveal that she cannot hold back time. The author recalls the early morning world outside the lovers’ room, with the noise of wagons moving on the pavement and the evidence of recent rain still on the windowsill. The use of “we awoke” reveals they are lovers who have shared this room during the night.

There is a world beyond their room, and it is this world that will intrude. The town exists just outside the window. Bogan creates images of the town in only a few words. The chimney pots that grace the rooflines are compared to trees, only this image is a “grotesque” caricature of nature in which birds must nestle among the roofs in manmade perches rather then those created by nature’s hand. In this instance, pavement and buildings have replaced nature, defiling what nature has constructed. The word “grotesque” also refers to the narrator’s individual world, which is in turmoil because the loved one will leave that day for another love. The loss of the lover is a distortion of the author’s own world, an incongruity in her natural world, where love has been replaced by treachery.

Lines 6–11
The second stanza of the first section repeats the opening of the first stanza, with the repetition of the word “nothing” and the same opposition of ideas and lack of movement that opened the poem. The moment of separation is approaching, but the poet has not yet accepted the end of the love affair, and she cannot look beyond this moment to a future without her lover. All she sees at this moment is nothing. In the next lines Bogan’s focus shifts subtly from the lovers to the passage of time that marks their final hours together. The hours of the day are marked by “bells” that remind the speaker that only a few hours remain before the lover leaves her. The warm summer day begins to cool as evening approaches. While the first stanza noted the morning of their final day, the second stanza observes that time is continuing its unstoppable move toward the day’s conclusion. The day wanes and the “streets” become “deserted.” Soon the moon begins to light the dusk and the day is ending. The dark signals both the end of the day and the end of the relationship.

Lines 12–15

(This entire section contains 2060 words.)

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Lines 12–15
The last stanza of the first section develops a fuller picture of the lovers. While they were not described in the poem’s opening lines, in these lines the lovers stand together, face-to-face, with hands clasped and foreheads touching. It is the moment of their parting. Once again the author uses nothing to describe this couple. Nothing remains of the love that once existed. In line 14 Bogan suggests that the woman never really possessed her partner’s love and thus she cannot have lost what she has never had. In this moment of dissolution, she gains nothing and loses nothing, and in the final line of this section, she explains that he has not offered her the gift of love, nor has he denied his love for another. Initially it appears that in the nothingness of their love’s finality, the lovers will part without words of love or recrimination. The speaker seems to accept that there is nothing that remains of the love they once knew, but the following sections of the poem reveal that she cannot walk away so easily.

Lines 16–18
The second section of the poem moves backward from the present tense of the first section to an image of the lovers’ past. In lines 17 and 18 the narrator begins to reveal the depth of her attachment for her lover. He was not a brief moment in her life, a quick stop at an unfamiliar town. Her love for him was sure and steady and not a love, as she reminds the reader in line 18, from which she had fled. In these lines the author offers the first suggestion of the depth of pain with which she has been left. She was committed to loving him and did not deny him the fullness of her love. These lines also reveal a growing tone of bitterness that the poet is unable to mask.

Lines 19–23
In the final five lines of the second section of the poem, the author uses images from nature to explain the importance of the lover in her life. Lines 19 and 20 describe the newness of the relationship and the inexperience of the lover. Their initial time together was tentative, the hesitancy of new love described as “awkward as flesh.” And yet how can flesh, nature’s creation, be awkward? The tension created with the pairing of words such as “flesh” and “awkward” suggests the speaker is returning to the lovers’ earliest days together, searching for signs of incompatibility that she might have missed. Perhaps she missed warnings of what was to come? She describes her lover’s initial touch as uncertain and as weightless as early morning frost or the dusting of ash that adds no weight and yet covers and obscures a surface. Both the frost and the ash continue the oppositions the author favors in this poem: one image is of clean white purity, while the other image is the remains of something annihilated. Ash, so easily stirred by wind, is grey; it is nature’s response to the fire that destroys life, and it hides what might remain after the fire has been extinguished. The lover’s touch, once so light and pure, was really something darker that hid the betrayal that lay below.

Line 21 continues this image of something hidden. The rind of fruit hides what is concealed within, but the image is incomplete, and the rind is not pealed away to reveal the fruit. The lover is without substance. There is nothing below the surface, no depth of feeling. The next image focuses on the purity of an apple. The speaker is all interior, all emotion. She has no outer rind to protect her and is instead open to all the emotions that flow from her. The two fruits continue the opposition noted elsewhere in the poem. The cliché about the fundamental differences between apples and oranges is a familiar one, but Bogan uses this old cliché in a new manner. In this case the rind of the orange is paired with the white-juiced interior of the apple to demonstrate that the lovers never belonged together. In the final line of the second section, the author compares the lovers to music that has been written but never completed. The music that would have given voice to the lyrics is missing, just as the lovers were unable to find completeness in their relationship. Now that their relationship is ending, their song together will never be completed; their story is left unfinished.

Lines 24–28
At the beginning of the third section, the speaker tells her lover that there will be no further recounting of the past. He is told to “Go from mine,” the speaker’s world, “to the other,” the world of a new lover. She tells him to create a new life with a new lover, and yet there is ambivalence in these final words. This ambivalence is present in the opposition of images relayed in this section of the poem. Initially the lover is told to “Be together” with his new love, to “eat” and “dance,” but the contrast appears with the inclusion of the word “despair” in this line. The lover will know contentment initially, but the time with the new love will not be without its grief. This idea is continued in line 27, when the author instructs the lover to “Sleep, be threatened, endure.” The speaker reminds the lover that his sleep will also be coupled with discord, just as it was when they were together. He will “know the way of that,” since the lover experienced those same emotions of unhappiness when he was with the speaker. Although the lover is moving on to someone new, the patterns of the old relationship will not be lost, and happiness will continue to be elusive for someone who is so easily dissatisfied with a lover. In these lines the tone of bitterness that earlier crept into the poem becomes more obvious. Although the speaker suggested in line 15 there would be no recrimination, the lover’s betrayal and the pain it has caused linger near the surface, and she is unable to let him walk away without pointing out his weaknesses.

Lines 29–34
In these next four lines, the speaker looks ahead to the end of her lover’s next relationship. She is sure he will treat his next lover the same way he treated her, and so she offers him advice on how to leave the new lover. When that relationship ends, he is told to “be insolent.” He should be impertinent and disrespectful as he departs, but he should also not linger. As he cuts off the relationship, he should do so quickly, with a quick “strike.” And he should not be too serious, but instead be “absurd,” and yet he is also instructed to “be mad.” The opposition of images that began this poem continues in the final lines. Contrasting phrases such as “be absurd” but “be mad” suggest that this is how he treated the poet when he was preparing to leave her. There was no logic or fairness in how her lover treated her. He was absurd, then angry, and then disrespectful. Since he treated her so badly, he should continue this behavior with his new love and “be insolent” but not “talk.” These commands reveal the depth of her pain. She has been betrayed, and love neither ends simply and easily, nor ends without pain. She predicts that this new love will soon lose the “bloom” of happiness and end with silence, just as their love ended with a lover’s silence. The reader never hears the word of the lover in these lines. He is silent, but the poet’s accusations serve to tell his story.

In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker moves from the future and her lover’s next relationship back into the present and the moment of leave-taking. She tells her lover to walk away into the dark; he should not need a lantern to light the way. Rather than illuminate his departure, the speaker prefers this leave-taking to occur at night. If she cannot see him actually leave, there can be “some uncertainty” about his departure. If he walks into the darkness and completely disappears, she need not ever see him actually leave. There will be no need to imagine him with his new love. In the final two lines of “Words for Departure” the speaker reveals the depth of her pain at her lover’s betrayal. She has used the previous seven lines to chastise him and to predict his inability to find happiness, but as he leaves all that is forgotten as she tries to grasp the enormity of his leaving.

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