Study Guide

Tulips Quotes

  • Isolation

    I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly (3)

    Some of the speaker's ideas about happiness don't seem all that well-adjusted to us, but there is something oddly appealing about this quiet, meditative space she's in. It's also the perfect set-up for the crazy tulip stuff at the end, because it makes the tulips' intrusion all the more invasive.

    My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
    Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks. (20-21)

    Most people worry about being alone, about not having a family to turn to in hard times. But this speaker is not most people. Her family portrait, like the tulips, is interfering with her precious alone time.

    I am a nun now, I have never been so pure. (28)

    Nuns are supposed to live peaceful and calm lives, separated from the world. They can't get married or have children. One of the things our speaker wants to get away from is the attachment to her family (20-21), so being a nun probably sounds like a good deal to her.

    I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
    To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty. (29-30)

    The speaker's problem isn't that she's alone: it's that she doesn't feel alone enough. But for Pete's sake lady, whoever gave you those flowers was only trying to be nice!

    They concentrate my attention, that was happy 
    Playing and resting without committing itself. (55-56)

    Oh, so <em>that's</em> the problem with the tulips: they give the speaker's mind something on which to focus. They force her to pay attention to her surroundings. The things that tie us to the world give our lives meaning, but they also hold us down, and this is a woman who definitely doesn't want to be tied down.

  • Versions of Reality

    Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe (37)

    Things are getting really weird, guys. Flowers don't breathe. They just don't. There's no way to know exactly what's happening to the speaker, who thinks the tulips <em>are</em> breathing, but we can tell that something is definitely not right.

    The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me (44)

    Yikes. Tulips don't breathe, sure, but they <em>definitely</em> don't turn toward a person. So does our speaker really think this is happening? Or is she being a bit more metaphorical? And if she is being metaphorical, what in the world does she mean?

    The vivid tulips eat my oxygen. (49)

    Not cool, tulips. But really, our speaker has bigger problems. Clearly, we're not just talking about tulips here. We're talking about a complex, powerful stew of emotions, so it's probably not that surprising that sometimes it sounds like she's left reality behind completely.

    The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves (57)

    So it's not just the tulips: the walls, too, are coming alive (at least in the speaker's mind). Of course they only <em>seem</em> to be, so maybe our speaker is actually regaining her grasp of reality?

    They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat, (59)

    What are we dealing with here: a crazy hallucination or just a pretty poetic image? This poem definitely tiptoes along that line; sometimes our speaker sounds downright nuts, and sometimes she sounds merely imaginative. But wait a second – is it possible she can be both at the same time?

  • Man and the Natural World

    The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. (1)

    This isn't really a "nature poem" in the typical sense, but based on the first line, you might think it was. In this opening moment, there's no way to tell that we aren't outside, except for this: tulips don't grow in wintertime. So something's off here.

    They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps (12)

    Check out how the speaker sees something natural (seagulls) in a very unnatural, human space (the hospital). Why do you think she chooses this particular image to describe the nurses?

    My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water (15)

    On the one hand, this is just a metaphorical way of expressing the way the nurses treat her. But on the other hand, it's yet another way that the natural world creeps into almost every line of this poem. Once you start looking, you start to see the natural world just about everywhere.

    Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips, (47) 

    Nature gives us plenty of pretty images in this poem, but it's also a bit of a threat. Its powerful forces fill the poem with life, but they also make our fragile speaker feel vulnerable and maybe even a little imprisoned.

    Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river 
    Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine. (53-54)

    Here the tulips are turned into something man-made, a rusted engine stuck in a river. That's the way it goes with these tulips. They are natural, sure, but there's also something not quite right about them, like an engine that's been plunked in the middle of a beautiful river.

  • Suffering

    And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons. (7)

    The pain of surgery is still fresh in our speaker's mind. But is it just the surgery that's caused her pain and taken her identity, or is it something else entirely?

    Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks. (21)

    Wow, that's not exactly a nice way to describe her loved ones' smiles. Now we know for sure that her pain goes much deeper than physical pain. Anyone who compares smiles to painful hooks has got some serious troubles.

    The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. (36)

    Okay here's a question: if these tulips are bothering her so much, why doesn't she just have a nurse throw them away?

    Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds. (39)

    This is creepy, huh? The red tulips are somehow having a little chat with her wound. But what wound is she talking about here: the incision from surgery, or some kind of deeper, emotional wound?

    Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color, (41)

    The tulips are starting to totally freak her out. And you know what? They kind of freak us out, too. In shocking moments like this, the poem does a pretty good job of forcing us to share the speaker's pain and fear.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in (9)

    Sure, it might be fun to be on bed rest for a day or two, but once you're all caught up on <em>House</em>, what are you supposed to do with yourself? Stare at the wall, that's what. She's got only her eyes to rely on for entertainment, and that makes it hard to shut anything out.

    They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep. (17)

    If being attacked by rabid tulips is getting you down, sleep is one way to escape. All through this poem, the speaker connects the idea of numb emptiness with freedom.

    How free it is, you have no idea how free—— (31)

    Now she's really going for it.  She loves the feeling of just lying in bed with nothing to do or think or see or feel, and she wants us to understand why. In fact, it's almost as if she was trying to sell us on this weird empty freedom, trying to get us to try it, too.

    Nobody watched me before, now I am watched. (43)

    This is a spooky line, for sure. Since she can't move out of her bed, she just has to stay there, under surveillance. But here's our question: why wasn't anyone watching her before? Surely her family was, at least, right?

    The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; (58)

    Now she turns her feelings of confinement around, and suggests that maybe the tulips should be in a cage. After all, they're the ones causing all the trouble.