The Wild Iris
by Louise Glück
Stanzas 1-3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
- Hey, did we miss something? Sounds like we walked in at the end of a story instead of the beginning. And who is that talking about "my" suffering?
- Could it be the wild iris in the poem's title? Maybe…
- You'd expect to find a wild iris outdoors, growing, well, wild. But this speaker is talking about a "door," which makes us think of a house or room. Wherever this place is, it's apparently a place of suffering. Like a torture chamber? Ick, let's not go there unless we have to.
- Clearly, it's a metaphorical, rather than literal, door. Doors show up in lots of different contexts (just ask any Jim Morrison fan). For example, "open door" connotes escape as well as freedom and opportunity, including the opportunity to pursue this topic further in the "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay" section.
Hear me out: that which you call death
- "Hear me out." Where have you heard that expression before? Probably during an animated discussion that was heading toward an argument. As in, "No, you can't use the family car to drive 500 miles to a Arcade Fire concert." And then, "But, Mom, hear me out! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"
- Like three sharp knocks on a door, those three single-syllable words—Hear. Me. Out.—carry a lot of emphasis (find out why and how in the "Form and Meter" section). They also sound somewhat defensive, as if the speaker expects listeners to raise objections. But why would we?
- Well, maybe because the speaker is claiming to remember "death." So did this speaker have a near-death experience? We don't recall that I Survived: Beyond and Back ever featured a wild iris that miraculously revived after a fatal heart attack, but maybe we just missed that episode.
- The speaker even has the nerve to question our understanding of death, referring to it as "that which you call death." Perhaps this voice is actually speaking to us from the other side, beyond the grave, where death doesn't seem so, well, deathly. So are you skeptical? Intrigued? Maybe a little of both?
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
- Suddenly we're outdoors. A moment ago we were talking about rooms and doors. When did we go outside? Apparently during the white space between stanzas two and three. We better get used to jumping around in space and time because Louise Glück, sneaky poet that she is, does that a lot. And who can blame her? What's the fun of being a poet if you can't violate the fundamental laws of physics from time to time?
- In this new setting, we notice some "noises." (That means we're dealing with auditory imagery here, and you can explore how it works in the Symbols, Imagery & Wordplay section.) "Noises" is a pretty general word, and the lack of specificity makes Shmoop a little nervous, especially after that mention of death earlier (are the noises spooky?).
- But then we're told that the branches of a pine tree are shifting. So maybe the only noises are the creaking and rustling of pine branches. What's making the branches move, by the way? The most logical explanation is the wind, but is it a pleasant breeze or an ominous gale?
- In poetry, every word counts, and even the word "overhead" is significant (see "Symbols, Imagery & Wordplay"). As we continue moving through the poem, stay tuned for more about looking up, down, and all around.
- "Then nothing," says the next line. Hmmm, more guesswork. On the one hand, this phrase could just mean that the noises have stopped. On the other hand, "nothing" makes us think of nothingness, which makes us think of—you guessed it—death.
- On another other hand, "then nothing" might just refer to an absence of memories. In line 4, the speaker said, "I remember," so it's logical to assume that the images in this stanza represent the speaker's memories. Sometimes memories can be like a complete movie playing in your head, but other times they're more herky-jerky, like a series of flashes.
- Speaking of flashes, here come some flickers: "The weak sun flickered over the dry surface." Notice the visual imagery(flickering sunlight) and tactile imagery (dry surface).
- You might wonder why the sunlight is weak. Maybe the setting is fall or winter, when the sun is low in the sky. Maybe it's just a cloudy day (though not stormy, which answers our earlier question), or it's just late in the day. You also might wonder why the surface of the ground is dry. Perhaps it's summer, or there's a drought. In any event, both words—dry and weak—have negative connotations, implying thirst, lack of energy, and lack of vitality.