by Mary Oliver
Section 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your great-grandfather's
farm, a place you visited once, and went into, all alone, while the grown-ups
sat and talked in the house.
- Our speaker introduces a memory of a place: an old barn on a great-grandfather's farm, and this one time that we went into it alone while the grown-ups were in the house.
- Wait, our great-grandfather's farm? What's with the "you" and "your"?
- She's not fooling us; this didn't happen in our past. It probably happened in hers.
- But by putting this part of the poem in the second person, it draws us in, associating us with the memory.
- Of course, it doesn't have to be anyone's actual memory—it might be a story or allegory.
- Remember: anything goes in a poem.
It was empty, or almost. Wisps of hay covered the floor, and some
wasps sang at the windows, and maybe there was a strange fluttering bird
high above, disturbed, hoo-ing a little and staring down from a messy ledge
with wild, binocular eyes.
- The barn was empty. There was some hay on the floor, wasps at the windows and an owl on a ledge, looking down with eyes that are metaphorically described as binoculars.
- Once again, the speaker is zeroing in on minute details that have a natural flair. This is one woman who knows how to pay attention. She seems hyperaware of everything around her.
- And check out the change in form. We've gone from short, spacey lines to a really long line—almost a paragraph. Maybe that change reflects that she's no longer just reciting images—she's telling a story, a memory.
Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of animals; the
give-offs of the body were still in the air, a vague ammonia, not unpleasant.
- Our speaker describes the barn smelling of milk and animal odors. But hey, it's not stinky. Her phrasing here tells us that, while our first instinct is to think of animals as smelly, the barn was actually "not unpleasant." Which figures, right? This is a speaker who clearly has a thing for animals and nature.
- Just look at how she describes the animals—they have patience. Probably more patience than humans. And that definitely seems like a good thing for a speaker who wants us to get comfortable in her poem.
Mostly, though, it was restful and secret, the roof high up and arched,
the boards unpainted and plain.
- Now our speaker describes how it felt being there in this barn all alone: restful and secret.
- That description of "the roof high up and arched" almost makes this place sound like a church or a cathedral (albeit a plain one) with a vaulted roof.
- That only adds to the definite sense of spirituality we've got flowing underneath these lines. This is a speaker who finds solace in the quiet, natural world.
- Don't expect any planes, trains, or automobiles in this one.
- Finally, our speaker has been using a little trick called anaphora to transform our perception of this scene in the barn. Using that phrase "Mostly, though" a second time is kind of like taking a step back and seeing or experiencing the barn from a whole new angle. Normally we expect that if something is mostly one thing, it can't be mostly another thing as well, right? But what most affects us from moment to moment can change, and this transformation of what the barn "mostly was" reflects that.
You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner, on the
last raft of hay, dazzled by so much space that seemed empty, but wasn't.
- The "you" apparently could have (or felt like she could have) stayed there forever.
- Check out the descriptions here. We're definitely taking a turn for the figurative. Calling the hay the "last raft" reminds us of stories of Noah's ark and the flood, plus it's just a really neat metaphor; we can really see the speaker's childhood imagination at work.
- And again, there's that emphasis on the barn almost being empty. Sure, there are no humans around, but the barn is still quite full of animal life. It's a peaceful place, but it's very much alive. No wonder it's so dazzling.
Then—you still remember—you felt the rap of hunger—it was noon—
and you turned from that twilight dream and hurried back to the house,
where the table was set, where an uncle patted you on the shoulder for
welcome, and there was your place at the table.
- The "you" feels a pang of hunger and hurries back to the house. Lunchtime!
- Call us crazy, but we think of this as an allegory for growing up, or losing one's innocence. The "you" could have stayed in this mystical, religious spot, but is led away by desire. (Hunger, after all, is pretty much the most basic desire.)
- Plus, "hunger" is a wonderfully flexible word. We use it for all sorts of desires. Think about it: we say that people are "hungry" for power, or fame, or pretty much anything.
- And where is she led to by that hunger? Back to the house, where all the adults are. They've been waiting for her to show up.
- Even if we're right about the loss-of-innocence thing, we can't help noticing that it doesn't sound all bad. Sometimes the loss of innocence is made to be the worst thing ever. And we definitely get a sense of loss—she no longer has this dreamlike connection in the barn and its inhabitants. But we also get to join the world of people, and her uncle seems like a nice guy. We have a place there. It feels right.