Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
- Still, she can't just float away into empty, white peacefulness because something is stopping her. It's those darn tulips. They keep poking their heads back into the poem, interrupting the speaker, stopping her spacey meditation.
- It's the bright red that gets to her, that breaks up all the soothing white around her. They're so red, so bright that they hurt her. But how can a bright color hurt?
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
- Now, like in a horror movie, the tulips start coming to life. Zombie tulips – yikes!
- She tells us she could "hear them breathe" through the paper they were wrapped in. Tulips should definitely not be breathing. So what's this personification all about?
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
- This line is sneakily enjambed with the line above it. "I could hear them breathe" reads fine all by itself. It's not until this line that we learn the breathing is faint and soft.
- The paper that it comes through is white (like everything else here, it seems) and it reminds her of "swaddlings" (the cloth in which you would wrap an infant).
- And then we get the creepiest simile of all time: "like an awful baby." Not only are the tulips alive, but they're breathing like an awful baby. These tulips are just the worst.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
- Let's ratchet up the intensity, shall we? Let's make this hallucination even weirder, if that's even possible.
- Now she goes a step further in her personification by imagining that the red of the tulips is talking to her surgical wound. She tells us that the red of the tulips "corresponds" with her wound. That word jumps out at us, so let's take a moment to talk about it.
- "Correspond" can mean a couple of things. It can mean that the red color of the tulips is somehow communicating with her wound, as the first part of the line seems to say. But it can also mean that the redness of the tulips somehow matches her wound. Perhaps the blood in her wound is the same shade as the tulips.
- At any rate, the bleeding red of her wound is linked to the red of the tulips; it looks like it, but it also seems to be talking to it. This is getting strange, that's for sure. And a little gross, too, if we may say so.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
- She calls the tulips "subtle," but how can tulips be subtle? Does she mean they're not very noticeable? Probably not: the tulips are bright red in a room full of white. They are definitely noticeable. Okay, then maybe she means that there is something a little bit unknowable about them.
- They are mysterious. That much is obvious from the fact that somehow they are both floating and weighing her down. This is what we call a paradox – lightness and heaviness happening at the same time – and these paradoxes are all over this poem. Can you find some more?
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
- These tulips really bug her. Frankly, they're starting to bug us, too.
- The way she describes them here reminds us of startling little critters, with their "sudden tongues" darting out. Again, the tulips seem alive and kicking. And they're determined to upset our speaker. It's the color, too, always the color, that really gets to her, that makes these flowers so upsetting. Red is definitely not her shade.
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.
- Even more upsetting is this metaphor of the tulips as twelve lead weights around her neck, pulling her underwater. This isn't the first time we've heard about sinking. In line 27, the speaker uses this same image of drowning, only this time it's the tulips, and not the anesthesia, that are getting the job done.
- Let's take this chance to point out another little quirk of this line – the phrase "red lead." It rhymes, which makes it kind of fun to say. But it's also a weighty line. You have to say it nice and slow. Red. Lead. See how the sound mirrors the meaning of the line, as if it were dragging us down? See if you can spot other moments like this in the poem, and check out "Sound Check" for more on the sounds of this poem.