Paging Dr. Phil. This couple has some major communication issues. Even worse, some of their communication issues are about communication itself. What a mess. We've got a man who doesn't know how to speak without making his wife angry, and a woman who communicates mostly nonverbally, until she explodes, volcano-style. At the same time that this couple seems to have bigger troubles than communication, their inability to talk to each other is pretty dominant.
Lines 6-7: Already, we can see that this couple has communication issues. She has a habit of stopping at this same place, but hasn't told him why. And he's not the type to be satisfied not knowing.
Line 10: Now, he's just talking to fill time. This is never a good sign.
Lines 13-14: At this point in the poem, we've heard a lot from the man. The woman, however, communicates nonverbally, by stiffening up and growing cold. We can imagine that this frustrates the man, who seems to like to talk a lot instead.
Lines 36-37: These two lines tell us a lot about the communication in this poem. First, they show us that this guy has a nasty habit of repeating himself. A lot. Second, line 37 points to one of the central issues of this poem—that the couple can't communicate effectively about their grief over losing their child.
Lines 38-40: These lines show how the wife doesn't think the husband, or any man for that matter, can talk about something as serious as a dead child. At least, they can't understand her grief. These lines also show, especially line 39, how she is preoccupied with getting out of the house, and therefore doesn't really listen or respond to him, making the communication that much more difficult.
Line 45: Again, the woman points out that the man doesn't know how to communicate. She says he doesn't even know how to ask her the right question. Sheesh.
Line 47: Here's another example of how the woman communicates (or tries to) nonverbally.
Lines 48-51: The man, in this part, complains about how he doesn't know how to speak to her, but he's blaming her for being hard to please. He suggests that he could improve his communication abilities, perhaps that she could teach him, but backtracks on that offer by saying that it's not really possible. We're not holding out much hope for these two to get their act together.
Lines 52-53: These lines point out one of the important parts in their communication difficulties: the gender barrier. The man seems to think that women are just from a completely different planet than men, and to talk to women, a man has to give up his manliness. But it's not just the man who's putting down the opposite gender in this poem—the woman has some bad things to say about men, too.
Lines 53-58: These lines address a method of communication that could possibly help this couple coexist peacefully, but would also mean that their relationship isn't very healthy. The husband suggests that they could have an agreement to simply not talk about certain things. But, he says, those agreements are needed for relationships that lack love, and intolerable in relationships with love. So, if the couple had one of those agreements, according to his definition, that would mean that they don't love each other. Hey, you two, here's another idea: therapy.
Lines 74-75: In these lines, the man exclaims that he feels as if she's made it so he can't speak about his own child. And, once again, she shuts him down, saying that he doesn't know how to speak—at all. It's pretty clear that they don't know how to talk to each other about their loss, which has got to make for some awkward family dinners.
Lines 88-90: Now, the topic has switched. The woman thinks that it's inappropriate that her husband talks about everyday things after he's just dug the grave of their child. We agree with her on one hand, but on the other, everyone copes with grief in a different way. Maybe this is just his way of coping. So should she cut him some slack?
Lines 95-100: The woman is so upset by his inappropriate talk that she remembers every word he said that day. Lines 96-97 almost sound like an aphorism of sorts. Disturbingly, this proverb isn't as unrelated to "what was in the darkened parlor" as she would like it to be. "What was in the darkened parlor" is a euphemism for their dead child's body. As the birch fence is rotting, so is the dead body. Whether or not the man realized this connection, it is a little disturbing that he would say this after just digging his child's grave.
Line 112: The man's words here imply that by just talking about her grief, the woman should feel all better. But the wife is not having this. Even though she's talking about her grief, the communication isn't necessarily getting through to him, and just communicating about it doesn't make it automatically better. If anything, him continuing to not understand, even as she spells it out, could make her feel even more distant.
Line 116: Here, she sets her man straight. It's not just being unable to talk about the subject that was troubling her—it's her immense grief for her dead child. And it seems no amount of talking will be able to instantly relieve that kind of grief.