by Mary Oliver
Section 5 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
was the blue wisteria
- We're switching back to the past tense here, which means we've entered the magical world of Memory, with a capital M.
- The speaker remembers her mother as the blue wisteria, which is a particularly pretty kind of flower that grows on a vine (not that Shmoop is picking flower favorites or anything).
- The key here is that her mother is remembered metaphorically. She was the wisteria. She doesn't remind the speaker of wisteria. She didn't smell like wisteria. She wasn't standing next to the wisteria. She was the wisteria.
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
- Just line the first two lines of this section, lines 3-4 metaphorically associate the speaker's mom with a stream in their backyard.
- The speaker's mother, from these descriptions, comes off as beautiful, and maybe gentle. She's being associated with the natural world. In our speaker's eyes, that's probably a very good thing.
- And once again, she literally is the thing in the memory. In the speaker's mind, the natural things around her house are conflated with her mom—they're one and the same.
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
- Just when things were sounding so pleasant, natural, and happy, we learn that her mom was maybe a wee bit down in the dumps.
- Her life sounded more like a burden than a joy. It was something she had to schlep around—not something she could enjoy.
- These lines seem connected with the ideas of loss and self-pity that we've had earlier in the poem. Maybe the speaker's mom, unlike the moth, did feel some self-pity. And what do you want to bet our speaker thinks that's not-so-good?
- Line 9 connects to the idea of the past and memory, which have been floating around this poem. You could read them as being in the voice of the speaker's mother (who sighed "alas" earlier). In that case, it seems like the woman was laboring under some heavy load from her past—something she couldn't let go of.
- So once again, our speaker's looking for a different route to get at this idea of not lingering on loss or the past.
I bury her
in a box
in the earth
and turn away.
Our speaker lays the memory of her mother to rest, then shifts her attention away from her.
This is like a small reenactment of Section 3, a brief visit to the graveyard of things (and people) lost, then she turns away, refocusing on what's present and alive…
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust
was a poor thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
- … Or not. She'd rather focus on her father, it seems. The guy sounds like a frustrated, unhappy dude.
- For one thing, he didn't achieve his dreams. For another, he was untrustworthy. And to top it all off, he had rotten luck. Now there's a recipe for unhappiness if Shmoop's ever seen one.
- Plus, we can't help but notice that there are no flowers or peaceful streams in the speaker's description of him. It seems like he made her childhood a bit troubled.
- Lines 18-21 list more faults. Although we could look at this and say, "Good for him! He's got a spiritual practice!" it's hard not to notice that the emphasis seems to be on the negative.
- The impression we have is that the speaker's father was a lonely man. No friends (or at least none he could talk to) and no one to impress. Maybe he was religious only because he lacked human companionship or understanding. Or maybe he was religious because he wanted people to think he was religious.
- Either way, it doesn't sound all that genuine—nothing like the speaker's childhood experience in the barn.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.
- Our speaker addresses us directly again, telling us that this was her father's life.
- The way that "Listen" comes in really catches our attention. This is one of the many ways our speaker has of drawing us in, of directing what she's saying right at us.
- Our speaker also seems to be saying: I know it was hard. I acknowledge all the suffering my parents went through. But it was their suffering.
- So our speaker now does the same thing with her father's memory that she did with her mother's: she buries it in the earth, sweeping the closets clean and leaving the house (presumably her childhood house) forever.
- Cleaning out one's closet? Hmm. Sounds like a metaphor to Shmoop. In fact, it's a pretty well established metaphor for clearing our minds of repressed memories and thoughts.
- This seems to be another powerful declaration of our speaker's intent to move on, to acknowledge loss and suffering and then continue on with the work of living. She's remembering her parents and their difficult lives, but she's choosing not to let it bring her down.