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Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” is a poem about a son’s forgetfulness about his father’s recent death. The title of this piece is a direct allusion to Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. Alexie uses the sixth line as the epigraph of his poem. The difference between these two poems lies in their subject matter. The poem containing “Grief” in its title deals with anger that is incited by deepest sadness. Whereas, Wilbur’s piece, as the title shows, is about a lovely scene that a speaker witnesses just before waking up. But, why does Sherman allude to his fellow poet’s work? To know the answer, readers have to dive deep into the analysis.

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World by Sherman Alexie


Summary

This poem begins with a humorous scene. The speaker is in the bathroom of a five-star hotel. He is in some trouble most probably with his bowel movements (a wild guess though!). Without knowing who can provide him the best guidance for his problem, he rings home. Previously, in such tricky situations (to be specific the speaker’s critical bathroom incidents) he always sought his father’s help. That’s why he calls home by ringing the blue telephone in the bathroom.

His mother picks up. Until this moment, readers are eagerly waiting for some humor. Discouraging his audience, Alexie reveals the speaker’s father is already dead. He died a few months ago. But Alexie’s speaker is still in the impression of his father’s presence. On the same day, he prepared coffee for his papa and left it on the table. His mama’s response (Simply her gasping sound) makes him so disturbed or ashamed that he loses his temper. He starts to curse the angels responsible for forgetfulness.

The angels who play such tricks drag a person so rashly (metaphorically, there are no such angels in the real world to drag our speaker) that at the end, he finds himself groveling in the dust.

Meaning

What does the title of Alexie’s “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” mean? The answer lies in the subject matter of the poem. Grief or hidden pain that takes recourse to our hearts when we lose our loved ones. The speaker is in such a state. From the poem, it is clear that he has a very warm and deep relationship with his father. But after his loss, the speaker still thinks that his father is there. On the same day when he was struggling in the bathroom, he had prepared coffee for his father in the morning even though he was not alive. After realizing his mistake, he becomes so agitated that he curses the angels responsible for his forgetfulness.

So, the hidden grief in his heart incites the passion of anger. For this reason, Alexie uses the title to highlight the fact that grief is the only thing that makes us confront the things of this world in a harsh manner.

Form, Meter, and Rhyme Scheme

Form

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” is written in free verse. It begins with an epigraph that alludes to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. The overall poem consists of 13 couplets or stanzas having two lines. There is no specific rhyme scheme in this piece. Alexie uses the conversational scheme and uses colloquialism. The language used in the text is straightforward and does not include flowery terms. Regarding the point of view, it is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker.

Meter

Let’s scan the first few lines of the poem and understand the overall metrical scheme.

The eyes/ o-pen/ to a/ blue te/-le-phone

In the/ bathroom/ of this/ fivestar/ ho-tel.

I won/-der whom/ I should/ call? A plum/-ber,

Proc-to/-lo-gist,/ u-ro/-lo-gist,/ or priest?

As we can see, the poet mostly uses the iambic meter. But, there is not any specific metrical pattern in the text. Though the first line is in iambic pentameter, the following line contains a combination of spondees and pyrrhics. As this poem follows the conversational scheme, it contains the rhythm of day-to-day speech. So, the stress falls on the syllable which the speaker wants while reading.

Rhyme Scheme

As mentioned earlier, this poem consists of unrhymed lines. Each line of this piece sounds like a speaker is talking to himself or directly to readers. The modern poems written in conversational form do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. But, the lines do not sound monotonous due to the presence of internal rhyming. On top of that, Alexie uses short lines to accelerate the pace of reading. That makes readers focus on the approaching idea, rather than giving stress on the rhyme of the lines.

Literary Devices

Sherman’s “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” contains the following literary devices:

  • Allusion: The poem’s title, as well as the epigraph, is an allusion to the American poet Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. To be specific, the epigraph alludes to the sixth line of Wilbur’s poem “The morning air is all awash with angels”. The poem also contains a biblical allusion to the angels of forgetfulness.
  • Sarcasm: The poem begins with the use of sarcasm. Alexie’s speaker opens his eyes to a blue telephone in the bathroom of a five-star hotel. The rhetorical question that follows the first couplet makes the situation of the speaker seem more sarcastic.
  • Anticlimax: It occurs in this line “Proctologist, urologist, or priest?” It is an anticlimax because the term “priest” is used after the references to two medical specialists. The placement of this word at the end of this line creates a comical effect.
  • Irony: Readers can find the use of irony in “He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.” The speaker’s father is not astounded to hear from his son while he is in the bathroom. He would become naturally disturbed as his son did so previously.
  • Alliteration: The following phrases contain the repetition of similar sounds: “I wonder whom,” “plumber, Proctologist,” “by bathroom,” “slap our souls,” “forever falling,” and “prey and praying”.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout this piece. Alexie uses this device to internally connect the lines and maintain the flow of the poem. For example, the first two lines of the poem are enjambed. Another example can be found in the third and fourth stanzas.
  • Anaphora: It occurs in the penultimate couplet. Both lines of this couplet begin with the word “Those”. It is an example of anaphora.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Epigraph

The morning air is all awash with angels …

Richard Wilbur

The epigraph of “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” is taken from the poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” by Richard Wilbur. This piece of Wilbur deals with the thoughts of a speaker between sleep and wakefulness. He is about to wake up from his dream or sleep. His eyes wander at the ladies outside either doing their laundry or preparing for the day. Wilbur compares them with angels. When his speaker is about to wake up, he describes it as a bittersweet moment. At this point, the person again returns to his daily schedule.

In this poem, Wilbur deals with the feeling of love incited in his heart after visualizing his surroundings in the early morning. Whereas, in his poem, Alexie adopts the title and reframes it by replacing the first word. His poem is ironic as it tells just the opposite. In Wilbur’s text, the speaker praises the morning angels. But, Alexie rather pokes fun at the angels who make one forgetful about reality.

Coming to the line that is used in the epigraph, readers can decode this line as an ironical reference to what the speaker did in the morning. He thinks the angels might have been playing with him. They are making him recall that his father is no more. That’s why he uses the word “Grief” in the title.

Lines 1-4

The eyes open to a blue telephone

(…)

Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Now, let’s have a look at the first two couplets of this piece. The first two lines depict a character who is well-off. His eyes open to a blue telephone. The color of the telephone is a symbolic reference to his financial state. In the following line, we are informed that he is in the bathroom of a five-star hotel. The reference to the bathroom and the speaker looking at the telephone is humorous enough. It depicts the fact that no matter how rich a person is when bathroom-related issues occur, it makes everyone restless.

In the second quatrain, the poet intensifies the humorous effect. The speaker wonders whom to seek help from. He is confused regarding whom to call, a plumber to fix the issues in the bathroom (if there is any), or a proctologist to fix his colon-related issues first. He can also seek help from a urologist or there might be a priest who can redeem him out of this critical state. But, Alexie does not reveal what his concern is. We can assume he is just feeling a bit lonely.

Another important thing to mention regarding the fourth line “Proctologist, urologist, or priest?” If we look closely, the speaker mentions two specialists related to the anus and rectum, and urinary system respectively. This gives us a hint that the speaker might have been suffering from some sort of constipation? Whatsoever, the reference to the “priest” in this context is anticlimactic. Who does ever think of calling a priest while pooping? This is meant to bring in the comic effect, for sure!

Lines 5-9

Who is blessed among us and most deserves

(…)

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,

What does the speaker plan to do then? He gives a roundabout or circumlocutory answer. According to him, in such a situation, we seek help from the most blessed and deserving among the available options. Readers have already started to anticipate that he is going to call one of his loved ones, parents, or his life partner.

The speaker goes with the option, father. Why does he prefer to call his father? The speaker clarifies his point for doing so in the following line. He says that his father is accustomed to getting such bathroom calls from him. It means he had trouble with his stomach before. Each time, his father was there with him. This line, no matter how humorous it is, reveals the love between a father and son.

He dials home and his mother picks the call. Readers can understand he is in no mood of having a customary conversation with his mom. He just rings the phone and badly needs his father’s assistance. Without wasting any time, he asks whether “poppa” is nearby. He needs to talk with him. In reply, what does his mother reply? “She gasps …”

This is the moment when the mood is going to change. All the readers’ anticipation regarding the plot is going to turn upside down. As the person who would supposedly help him is sadly no more.

Lines 10-16

And then I remember that my father

(…)

Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And then he remembers… To dive into the analysis further, let’s explore a thing first. Read the previous section again and then go through this line. Readers can possibly understand how quickly the mood shifts from a happy and humorous one to something grave and grievous.

Whatsoever, the speaker remembers that his father has been dead for nearly a year. It is natural for him to feel that his father is still there. One who brought him up, spend a long, long time with him, cannot be forgotten easily. Even the impression of his presence cannot get removed from the subconscious mind easily. Like a relationship gets ripe with time, it takes time to get detached from it. In the case of our parents, the process is harder.

He replies to his mother with the colloquial term “Shit”. The use of this word makes us feel that he is one of us. It helps us to connect with the persona more easily. However, he feels a bit ashamed of referring to his father even though he is dead.

His blunt reply “I forget he’s dead” gives us another hint regarding his mental state. He uses the term “dead” for not being angry with his father. Rather he uses the term to depict his grief. It is hard to accept one’s father’s death. He has made the mistake of believing his father was alive. This simple mistake pains him deeply as it reminds him of his father again.

He made coffee in the morning for his father and left it on the table. This thought adds to his existing pain. When a person cannot forget the things he badly wants to forget it increases the pain. In the speaker’s case, he made coffee for his father every morning when he was alive. It’s a twenty-seven-year-long relationship. How can he forget him within a year?

Lines 17-22

And I didn’t realize my mistake

(…)

Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

The speaker of “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” tries to hide his pain from his mother. His reply makes it clear. He tells his mother that he did not realize he had made a mistake until that afternoon. It means that he might have made coffee and left it on the table each morning before leaving. However, the fact that his father is not alive will become natural after some years. Right now, it has been only a year. It is too early to forget someone closer to one’s heart.

His mother knows that his son is faking his pain by hiding his love for his father with the term “mistake”. That’s why she laughs at not his foolishness, but for how his son cared for her husband.

Whatsoever, Alexie enjambs the line “My mother laughs …” with something else. According to him, she is laughing at some angels. Who are those angels and why is she laughing at them? These are the angels of forgetfulness. They make us pause during the “most ordinary of days”. In the quoted phrase, Alexie uses hyperbole for the sake of emphasis.

How do the angels impact us? They sing in praise of our forgetfulness. But wait, they not only sing for the follies that we commit in forgetfulness but also slap us harder. The poet uses the term “cold wings” symbolically. It stands for the irony of life. These cold wings or the ironic facts of life remind us how foolish we are.

Lines 23-26

Those angels burden and unbalance us.

(…)

And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

The last two couplets of “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” imaginatively explores the activities of the angels. According to Alexie’s speaker, they burden us with grievous memories and unsettle our day-to-day thoughts.

The speaker’s tone has become so angry that he curses the angels for doing that thing to him. It seems as if they are riding on him piggyback. They snare him and hauls him into the dust. Human beings are prey to them. By playing with our emotions, they make us pray to them.

Those who have read Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” have already understood why the poet is talking about “angels” in this section. He talks about these creatures in an ironic fashion.

To clarify what these angels stand for, it can be said that they act as a symbol of the human mind. It is our mind that shows us what we like to see. Whenever a person tries to be realistic, the mind comes into play. It makes us forget the things we should do in order to get rid of a particular thought. But, the mind takes us again in the cycle and watches our suffering. (A bit of personification for the sake of clarifying the concept!)

Themes

The poem “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” taps on the themes of grief, father-son relationship, and perception vs reality. Let’s explore how these themes are incorporated into the poem.

Grief

The theme of grief for the most part remains in the depths of the text, not on the surface. Superficially, it features a humorous incident that happened with the speaker and how he deals with it. While readers dive deeper into the text, they can find the speaker is in a state of loneliness. He is missing someone badly. The person is his father who died recently. There is an underlying pain in his heart that makes him unsettled. It surfaces in the following lines:

  • “I forget he’s dead. I’m sorry—”
  • “I made him a cup of instant coffee / This morning and left it on the table— / Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—”


Father-Son Relationship

Another important theme of this piece is the father and son relationship. When the speaker had been in a critical situation he always sought his father’s assistance. No matter what the condition is, be it something related to his bowel movements or his lonely musing. He always asked for a solution from his father. Each morning he made coffee for his father and left it on the table before leaving. Even if he is no more, he still makes coffee for him. It shows readers how attached they were. Now, when he realizes his father’s absence, it makes him extremely sad. This sadness leads to anger and mental disturbance.

Perception vs Reality

What we assume as reality, is ironically a mere perception. In the speaker’s case, this dualism between perception and reality makes him suffer. He perceives that his father is alive. But, in reality, he is no more. It makes him sad and disturbed. That’s why he thinks it might be some angel’s doing. Even in this case, he is blaming something that is outside, without realizing that the problem is originating from his mind.

Tone

The tone of this piece remains humorous in the first few lines of the poem. Firstly, Alexie creates a light mood by introducing a funny scene. A person is in the bathroom of a five-star hotel and he has probably some issues with his bowel movement. He thinks his father would help him and dials home from there.

While in the following part of this poem, the tone changes. It becomes ironic, angry, and disturbed. The speaker’s anger is reflected in the usage of his words. Furthermore, his tone is also a bit sad. As the dominant emotion is that of anger and despair, it does not reflect directly. If readers try to think what is the cause of his anger, they can realize that it is a reflection of his underlying grief.

In the last few lines, the tone becomes ironic and sarcastic. Here, the speaker talks about the angels, an allusion to Wilbur’s poem. Alexie metaphorically compares those creatures to the human mind and reveals how it plays with us.

Context

The poem “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” was published in Sherman Alexie’s poetry collection Face. It was published on April 15, 2009. This postmodern poem deals with the soft themes of the father-son relationship and a loved one’s death. In this piece, Alexie talks about a speaker who has lost his father and still mistakes his father being alive. Whether the speaker is the poet himself or he is an imaginary character, it is not clear. If we look at the poet’s biography, it does not reveal more about the relationship between the poet and his father. But, from an objective perspective, this poem efficiently depicts what a son undergoes after losing his dearest father.

FAQs

What is “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” about?

Sherman Alexie’s “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” is about a speaker who perceives his father as alive even though he is no more. This poem is based on this dualism and how it impacts the speaker’s mind.

When was the poem “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” written?

The poem was published on April 15, 2009, in Sherman Alexie’s book of poetry Face.

What is the theme of “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World”?

The main theme of the poem “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” is the father-son relationship. It also taps on the themes of missing someone, death, and love.

What is the message of “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World”?

Through this poem, Alexie tries to convey the message that no matter how one tries to forget a loved one, the mischievous mind always tricks us and drags us to the same point.

What is the allusion in “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” by Sherman Alexie?

Through the title of this piece, Alexie alludes to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. Wilbur was one of the foremost American poets of the 21st century.


External Resources


More Sherman Alexie Poems to Explore

  • “The Powwow at the End of the World”
  • “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”
  • “Crow Testament”


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