The poem includes several quite skillful examples of figurative language. For example, in the first stanza, the poet uses both similes and metaphors. This helps depict the country as she sees it and gets the reader to consider her opinions. In the later lines of ‘The Firebombers,’ Sexton uses specific examples of imagery with the hope of making the reader empathize with those harmed and killed by America.
Explore The Firebombers
‘The Firebombers’ by Anne Sexton is a powerful poem in which the speaker addresses acts of violence committed by America.
The speaker starts the poem by including herself as part of the country. “We are the coffin fillers,” she says. The country is responsible for countless deaths that are treated callously. They occur regularly and in such a way that the government does not appear to care who they impact and why.
The poem goes on, describing a child opening a shoebox bomb and a woman washing her mangled heart in the river. These striking and emotional images are contrasted with the lack of regard the speaker sees America showing for the rest of the world. The poem concludes with the speaker asking America where its “credentials” are or what right it has to take the actions its been taking.
You can read the full poem here.
We are America.
We are the coffin fillers.
We pack them in crates like cauliflowers.
In the first lines of ‘The Firebombers,’ the speaker begins by describing “we” as “America.” Before the poem really starts, the speaker is ensuring readers know exactly what extended metaphor she’s dealing with. The following lines add onto this, describing Americans as “coffin fillers” and “grocers of death.” It’s a common, everyday practice in America for government agencies to kill and fill coffins. By comparing them to grocers, the speaker is hoping readers will consider the juxtaposition between the two elements.
The dead bodies are packed away, as simply and without as much feeling as one would pack up cauliflowers. The last line of this stanza is an example of a simile.
The bomb opens like a shoebox.
And the child?
The child is certainly not yawning.
she is rinsing it off in the river.
This is the death market.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to direct two questions towards the reader. When a child opens a bomb-shaped like something innocuous, like a shoebox, they aren’t yawning. This allusion forces readers to consider what they are doing, and the only answer is screaming. This is followed by a second description, one that requires a bit more of one’s imagination. The speaker describes a woman “bathing her heart” that has been “torn out of her.” She’s rinsing it in the river like one might see someone rinsing clothes or some other possession alongside a market. But this market is a “death market.” It, like the grocers in the first stanza, sells death as commonly as trinkets and food.
By providing the reader with these images, the speaker is suggesting that it’s too easy for America to kill and destroy. It takes no effort to wipe out entire groups, and the government insertions do it without regard for the women and children their weapons are harming in the crossfire. The comparisons to markets and grocers, s well as shoe boxes and cauliflower, are meant to emphasize how common these occurrences are. As often and simply as you might go to the grocery store, the American government is killing children with shoebox bombs, the speaker says.
where are your credentials?
In the third stanza, the speaker directs a question to America. She asks the country, or perhaps more directly those making the life and death decisions described above, where its “credentials” are.” This is an interesting concluding question, one that may lead to different interpretations. By asking where the country’s credentials are, the speaker is perhaps asking what right the country has to take lives so often. It’s clear the speaker sees these deaths are purposeless and as murder.
Structure and Form
‘The Firebombers’ by Anne Sexton is a three-stanza poem that is divided into one set of four lines, one set of nine lines, and one final couplet, or set of two lines. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means that the poem is written in free verse. Despite the lack of a structured pattern, there are still examples of repetition that give this poem structure.
Throughout ‘The Firebombers,’ Sexton makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “crates” and “cauliflowers” in stanza one and “rinsing” and “river” in stanza two.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. In the first stanza, “We” starts all four lines and “We are” starts three of those. In the second stanza, “And” and “the” are both used multiple times at the beginning of lines.
- Metaphor: can be seen when the poet compares two things without using “like” or “as.” For example, “We are the grocers of death” in stanza one.
- Simile: occurs when the poet creates a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “The bomb opens like a shoebox” in stanza two.
The purpose of this poem is to remind readers of what the speaker sees as the callous loss of life that occurs at the hands of the United States Government. By using the figurative language she does, the poet drives home how thoughtless these acts of murder are.
The tone is direct, passionate, and determined. The speaker does not hold back. She questions the reader and America while bringing in shocking images that should be memorable for most who encounter them.
The themes at work in this poem are war, the value of life, and the power of government institutions. Readers might also consider government accountability and the power of citizens to change their governments while reading this poem. It’s clear the speaker believes major changes are needed, but she also seems to allude to the fact that these changes may not be possible.
The meaning is that without being held accountable, America is going to kill citizens of other countries indiscriminately. Deaths occur as commonly as a grocer selling groceries are treated as emotionlessly as someone packing up cauliflower in a box.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Firebombers’ should also consider reading some other Anne Sexton poems. For example:
- ‘Cinderella’ – tells the story of Cinderella while also engaging with the theme of feminism and focusing on a very different ending.
- ‘The Starry Night’ – an ekphrastic that explores Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It delves into the emotions that a speaker interprets in the painted elements.
- ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ – an emotional poem that speaks about traditions and attitudes around death, as well as Sexton’s response to loss in her own life.