‘At My Grandmother’s’ by David Malouf is a contemplative poem that explores the haunting presence of the past, the weight of ancestral history, and the fleeting nature of time and existence. Through introspective reflections, the poem delves into the interplay between memory, fear, and mortality, inviting contemplation on the cyclical nature of life and the legacy we inherit.
Explore At My Grandmother’s
The poem ‘At My Grandmother’s’ by David Malouf describes a specific afternoon in late summer, where the speaker finds himself in a room that is closed off from the outside world.
The room is protected from the intense sunlight and the poisonous leaves by being shuttered. It feels like an underwater world, as if time itself is suspended, just like water, and is held in the embrace of a large, gilded clock.
In this room, the speaker’s grandmother is lost in the depths of her memories, recalling past sorrows and winding them out like threads. The speaker, as a small boy, becomes a captive audience, surrounded by the imagery of underwater plants and coral. The summer daylight seeps through his mind as if leaking through his thoughts.
The speaker is filled with fear in this room, particularly due to the parrot that screeches silently within its glass dome. The butterflies, faded and fragile, are like precious jewels pinned to a dark, fur cloak. The grandmother continues to unwind the threads of her grief, and the speaker holds onto them, feeling time trickle away between his outstretched arms.
The speaker’s greatest fear lies in the grandmother’s rigid and adorned fingers, fixed at her throat or fluttering like grey wings from word to word. He also fears her voice, which summons the ghostly figures of children from their gilded picture frames. These ghostly children once played with hoops and balls, and their faces, resembling those lost at sea, wear enigmatic smiles. They gaze across the wreckage and remnants of the years, looking at the small boy who now sits as they once did. He cradles time, like water, in the vast ache of his arms while the old and aged grey hands continue to wind out his life force, his blood.
The poem captures a sense of unease, evoking a somber atmosphere in the grandmother’s room, where the passage of time is both suspended and inescapable and where the weight of ancestral memories and sorrows hangs heavily in the air.
Structure and Form
The poem ‘At My Grandmother’s’ by David Malouf follows a specific structure and form, consisting of three stanzas. The first stanza contains eight lines, the second stanza has five lines, and the final stanza consists of ten lines. This structure creates a sense of progression and development throughout the poem.
The poem does not adhere to a consistent rhyming scheme, allowing the focus to be on the imagery and themes rather than on a specific pattern of sounds. This lack of rhyme enhances the poem’s free-flowing and contemplative nature, emphasizing the introspective and personal tone of the speaker’s reflections.
The varying stanza lengths contribute to the poem’s overall structure. The longer first stanza provides a detailed description of the room and the speaker’s grandmother, establishing the setting and the sense of unease. The shorter second stanza breaks the rhythm, drawing attention to the speaker’s fears and anxieties within this environment. This shift in length mirrors the speaker’s heightened emotional state.
The final stanza, with its extended length, serves as a culmination and reflection of the preceding stanzas. It expands on the speaker’s fears and introduces the haunting presence of ghostly children. The increased length of this stanza allows for a more intricate exploration of themes and emotions, building towards a climax before concluding the poem.
The structure and form of “At My Grandmother’s” contribute to the poem’s meaning and impact. The progression of stanzas, varying lengths, and absence of a consistent rhyming scheme all work together to create a sense of movement, intensity, and introspection, enhancing the thematic exploration of memory, time, and the haunting presence of the past.
In the poem ‘At My Grandmother’s’ by David Malouf, several themes are explored through vivid imagery and introspective reflections.
One prominent theme is the passage of time and its effects on memory. The speaker describes the room as an “under-water world” where time is held captive by a gilded clock. This imagery suggests a sense of suspended time, while the grandmother’s act of winding out her grief implies a connection between memory and the passage of time. The speaker, as a small boy, becomes entangled in this web of memories, as summer leaks its daylight through his mind.
Another theme is the fear of the unknown and the power of the past. The speaker expressed fear of the room, with its screeching parrot and faded butterflies, symbolizing the unsettling and fragile nature of the environment. The grandmother’s bejeweled fingers and haunting voice evoke a sense of unease and mystery. The ghosts of children summoned by her voice from gilded frames represent the lingering presence of the past, their drowned faces wearing enigmatic smiles. The wreckage and debris of the years serve as a reminder of the weight of ancestral history.
Additionally, the theme of mortality and the cycle of life is explored. The speaker holds time in his arms, symbolizing the fragility and transience of human existence. The old grey hands winding out the speaker’s blood imply the connection between time and life force, as well as the inevitability of aging and mortality.
Malouf delves into the intricate interplay between memory, time, fear, and mortality through these themes. The speaker’s vivid imagery and introspective musings provide glimpses into the complex emotional landscape of the grandmother’s room and invite contemplation on the broader human experience.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
David Malouf employs various poetic techniques and figurative language in the poem ‘At My Grandmother’s’ to convey its message and evoke vivid imagery.
- Metaphor: One technique used is metaphor. The room is described as an “under-water world,” creating a vivid comparison that emphasizes the suspended and timeless nature of the environment. The grandmother’s act of winding out her grief is metaphorically likened to unwinding threads, symbolizing the unraveling of past sorrows.
- Similes: Figurative language is also employed through similes. The faded butterflies are compared to jewels pinned against a sable cloak, emphasizing their delicate and precious nature. The faces of the ghostly children are described as spindrift faces, suggesting an ethereal quality reminiscent of sea foam.
- Personification: Malouf also employs personification to give life to inanimate objects. The gilded clock is said to hold time in its wide arms, anthropomorphizing the clock and emphasizing its significance as a keeper of time. The old grey hands are described as winding out the speaker’s blood, attributing human-like action to the hands and creating a vivid image of the passage of life.
- Imagery: This is a prominent poetic technique in the poem. The bright, envenomed leaves, the dome of glass, and the parrot screeching all contribute to the atmosphere of unease and fear. The imagery of summer leaking through the boy’s head and the daylight trickling through his outstretched arms emphasizes the transient nature of time and memory.
- Symbolism: The use of specific details, such as the imagery of weeds and corals, conjures a vivid underwater scene and adds depth to the sensory experience of the poem.
Through all these, Malouf crafts a poetic landscape that enhances the emotional impact and conveys the themes of memory, time, and mortality in ‘At My Grandmother’s.‘
An afternoon, late summer, in a room
Shuttered against the bright, envenomed leaves;
An under-water world, where time, like water
Was held in the wide arms of a gilded clock,
And my grandmother, turning in to the still sargasso
Of memory, wound out her griefs and held
A small boy prisoner to weeds and corals,
While summer leaked its daylight through his head.
The first stanza of the poem sets the stage for the atmosphere and themes that unfold throughout the poem. Through rich imagery and precise language, Malouf conveys a sense of time, memory, and the interplay between the external world and the internal realm of the grandmother and the speaker.
The stanza opens with the temporal setting: “An afternoon, late summer.” This establishes a specific time and season, implying a certain mood and the notion of an ending or transition. The room is described as “Shuttered against the bright, envenomed leaves,” indicating a deliberate shielding from the outside world, as if protecting against the intensity and toxicity of the surrounding nature. This imagery suggests a desire for refuge and the need to preserve a certain atmosphere within the room.
The subsequent line introduces a powerful metaphor, describing the room as “An under-water world.” This metaphor creates a sense of suspension and a dreamlike quality. It implies that time, like water, is held in the wide arms of a gilded clock, suggesting a sense of containment and control. This imagery evokes a feeling of stillness and the fluidity of memory.
The grandmother is described as “turning in to the still sargasso / Of memory.” This phrase further emphasizes the notion of memory as a stagnant and encapsulated space. The use of the term “sargasso” adds an air of mystery and depth, as the Sargasso Sea is known for its calm and stillness. The grandmother, within this realm of memory, “wound out her griefs.” This action implies a process of unraveling or releasing past sorrows, suggesting the weight of the grandmother’s experiences.
The stanza concludes with the poignant image of the small boy being held prisoner to “weeds and corals.” This signifies the entanglement and immersion within the world of memory and the grandmother’s grief. The phrase “summer leaked its daylight through his head” evokes a sense of permeation, where the external world seeps into the boy’s consciousness, blurring the boundaries between past and present, internal and external.
Essentially, this first stanza encapsulates the themes of time, memory, and the interconnection between external and internal worlds. The vivid imagery and metaphors create a palpable sense of atmosphere and set the stage for the subsequent exploration of fear, mortality, and the haunting presence of the past in the poem.
I feared that room, the parrot screeching soundless
Like trickling time, between my outstretched arms;
In the second stanza of ‘At My Grandmother’s,’ the speaker delves into their fears and anxieties within the room. Through vivid imagery and the exploration of symbolism, Malouf conveys a sense of unease and the weight of the past.
The stanza begins with the speaker expressing fear of the room itself, stating, “I feared that room.” This sets the tone for the stanza, suggesting a sense of apprehension and discomfort within the environment. The speaker’s fear is heightened by the image of the parrot screeching soundlessly within its dome of glass. This contradiction between the expected sound of the parrot’s screech and its silence adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the room.
The faded butterflies are described as “jewels pinned against a sable cloak.” This simile conveys a sense of preciousness and fragility, as well as a hint of darkness or mourning. The contrast between the once vibrant butterflies and their now faded state enhances the sense of transience and the passage of time.
The grandmother is depicted as “winding out the skeins” that the speaker holds. This image can be interpreted as the grandmother unraveling the threads of the speaker’s life and experiences. The use of the word “skeins” suggests a complex and interconnected web of memories and emotions. The speaker’s outstretched arms represent their attempt to hold onto and make sense of the passage of time, but it slips away like trickling water.
This stanza highlights the themes of fear, fragility, and the elusive nature of time. The presence of the parrot, butterflies, and the act of winding skeins all contribute to a sense of tension and the burden of the past. The speaker’s fear suggests the weight of ancestral history and the anxiety of grappling with the fleeting nature of existence.
Feared most of all the stiff, bejewelled fingers
Pinned at her throat, or moving on grey wings
In the wide ache of his arms, all time, like water,
And watched the old grey hands wind out his blood.
In the third and final stanza, the speaker delves deeper into their fears and unveils the haunting presence of the past. Through potent imagery and powerful metaphors, Malouf conveys a sense of mortality, the weight of ancestral history, and the intergenerational transmission of time.
The stanza opens with the speaker’s primary fear: “Feared most of all the stiff, bejewelled fingers / Pinned at her throat.” This image creates a sense of constraint and suggests a stifled voice or expression. The fingers, adorned with jewels, symbolize a kind of confinement or burden associated with the grandmother’s history. The movement of these fingers is likened to “grey wings from word to word,” further emphasizing the imagery of constraint and confinement as if the words themselves are carrying the weight of the past.
The speaker also fears the grandmother’s voice, which calls down “from their gilded frames the ghosts of children.” This metaphorical depiction suggests that the grandmother’s voice has the power to summon the presence of past generations. The ghosts of children who once played “at hoop and ball” evoke a sense of innocence and joy, yet their faces are described as “spindrift,” which alludes to the foam of sea waves. This juxtaposition creates an eerie and haunting quality, hinting at a loss or tragedy associated with the drowned.
The ghosts gaze “across the wreck and debris of the years,” symbolizing the accumulated remnants of the past. Their eyes meet the gaze of a small boy, the speaker, who now occupies the same position they once did. This signifies the intergenerational transmission of time and the weight of inherited experiences. The boy holds “in the wide ache of his arms, all time, like water,” suggesting a profound understanding of the passage of time and the burden it carries.
The stanza concludes with the vivid image of “the old grey hands” continuing to “wind out his blood.” This metaphorical portrayal reinforces the interplay between time and mortality, as the hands symbolize the relentless progression of aging and the eventual end of life.
The tone is somber and introspective, evoking a sense of unease and melancholy. The speaker’s fears, the haunting presence of the past, and the contemplation of time contribute to the overall tone of introspection and reflection.
The poem is so-titled because it centers around the speaker’s experience within his grandmother’s room, where memories, fears, and the intergenerational transmission of time play a significant role.
The poem triggers a range of feelings, including unease, fear, melancholy, and a contemplative sense of mortality. The vivid imagery and introspective tone elicit a sense of introspection and a haunting recognition of the passage of time.
The mood is melancholic and reflective, with a touch of unease. The vivid descriptions of the room, the weight of memories, and the interplay between time and mortality contribute to an overall mood of introspection, sadness, and a sense of the fleeting nature of existence.
Those who enjoyed this poem by David Malouf may also wish to explore the following others:
- ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’ by Liz Lochhead – is a poem that utilizes repeated wording, a lack of punctuation, a distinct choice of perspective, and simplistic ideas.
- ‘My Grandmother’s Houses’ by Jackie Kay – is a thoughtful recollection of youth and a young speaker’s relationship with her eccentric grandmother, who is forced to move homes.
- ‘Our Grandmothers’ by Maya Angelou – explores understanding and acceptance. It includes themes of family and relationships.