The Rest by Jane Huffman explores sickness and pain, the poet conveying the reality of lung disease. Huffman focuses on one damaged lung, using imagery to bring pain to life. This lung is carried around inside her, constantly burdening the poet. Huffman watches herself slip into the clutches of disease, unable to stop the process.
Explore The Rest
The use of water imagery suggests the tainting of something pure, reflecting the lung becoming infected. There is no sense of rest in the poem. One can assume the ‘Rest’ that Huffman refers to in the title is an oncoming sense of dying. The poem is tragic, exploring the physical impacts of sickness upon the human body.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Jane Huffman uses a strict poetic structure when writing The Rest. Each stanza is composed of three and four lines alternatively. Stanza one and three both have three lines, while two and four have four lines. This brings to the poem to a total of 14 lines. 14 lines are often used in poetry to make reference to the sonnet form. This reference within the poem is tragic, the body not reciprocating Huffman’s wishes. While sonnets are normally about love, this subverts the expectation, being a horrific vision of a slow death.
This constrained structure could reflect the physical inability of the poet. Instead of free-flowing verse, she is confined to a certain position. Huffman could be using this tight structure to represent her own physical state, unable to move freely due to her condition.
The structure is also controlled on a microlevel, the meter of The Rest being stunted. Lines are hardly allowed to flow freely on to the next, enjambment being used only once. The lack of freedom of meter creates a stunted and awkward rhythm. Huffman controls her poem both on a stanza and micro level, ensuring it is as slow and painful to read as the disease she carries.
The key theme explored within The Rest is human illness. Huffman battles a sickness in the poem, resigned to resisting the pain it causes. Yet, this is ultimately futile, suggested by the destruction of syntax in the final line. The final line of each stanza repeats a similar phrase, the syntax becoming more disjointed as the poet falls further into sickness.
One way in which Huffman controls the structure of the poem is through caesura. Caesura, interrupting lines mid-flow, create a sense of disruption. This technique prevents a line from flowing easily, the disruption in meter reflecting the pain the illness is causing to the human body. Nothing is easy for Huffman, each line a battle in itself.
Another technique that Huffman uses is a metaphor. The description of the ‘Cut red flowers hung in pink water’ is incredibly polysemic. It could be understood as flowers on the bedside table, sitting alone and watching. Yet, this image could also be a representation of Huffman’s lungs, the water is colored in ‘red’. Red bears connotations of blood, the destruction of her lungs evident in the corrupted flowers.
The Rest Analysis
Still, I keep myself, I take(…)flowers hung in pink water.
The Rest begins with a single word followed by a caesura, ‘Still’. Huffman uses the caesura to place emphasis on the word, her status of being immobile, and ‘still’ focused upon. Sickness has left her unable to move, further displayed through the slight pause implied in caesura. The reader must linger uncomfortably on this state, immersed in the same stagnation as Huffman.
The grammatical isolation of ‘I keep myself’, enclosed in caesura furthers the sense that Huffman’s movements are measured and exact. She must fight to ‘keep’ herself, battling against the illness inside her.
The use of the first person pronoun creates a connection with Huffman, the poet displaying her own personal experience. This pronoun is repeated throughout the poem, a chilling reminder that this is someone’s experience.
The focus on the state of the flowers as ‘cut’ creates a sense of foreboding. It is unsettling, linking subconsciously to the semantics of surgery and medicine. The harsh plosive ’t’ to finish ‘cut’ furthers the brutality of the word, the flowers subjected to violence. This could reflect the human body, ‘flowers’, destroyed, ‘cut’, by the disease.
Stanza Two and Three
My other lung is out of line.(…)Cut red water hung in pink flowers.
The second stanza has a long stream of consonance carrying through. Across ‘Lung’, ‘line’, ‘lie’, and their repetitions, the alliteration of /l/ strikes clear. This continual sound could reflect the poet’s lucidity, fighting to remain in control of her own body. Again, the use of caesura demonstrates the difficulty of this situation. The disrupted meter engendering a sense of internal destruction that mirror’s the corrupted human body.
Huffman emphasizes ‘pain’, focusing the metrical stress of this line on the word. The state of being in ‘pain’ is the constant ‘truth’ of the poet. Huffman cannot do anything without a sense of pain, the corrupted lung sucking her energy away.
Huffman manipulates the syntax of the final line in each stanza. Each time it becomes more hellish, the syntax becoming disorderly and confused. This confusion could reflect Huffman losing her battle with illness, poetry becoming harder to sustain.
The rest of it is stillness, rest.(…)Cut pink water hung in red flowers
The contrast of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ demonstrate the continual nature of her disease. Be it a soft’ or ‘hard cough’, Huffman still feels the pain. There is no escape for the poet. This is further displayed through the syntax of the final line. Huffman states that ‘Cut pink water hung in red flowers’. The ‘flowers’, once representing Huffman’s lungs have become tainted with ‘red’. Red can be understood as a reference to blood, her lungs becoming corrupted and damaged. The ‘pink water’ has an unsettling sense of fantasy, the situation seeming absurd to Huffman. Lucidity is becoming harder for the poet, the poet slipping away and succumbing to the disease. The lack of a full stop demonstrates that this is not the end of Huffman. There is still a fragment of hope in this, not all is lost.
Sickness is a topic often explored in literature. Sylvia Plath writes a more frantic depiction of sickness in Tulips. Both poets use flower imagery to reflect the mental and physical state they are currently in. Tulips is an excellent poem, well worth a read if you haven’t already.
Another poem that explores human illness is Tory Dent’s us. This incredibly tragic poem focuses on a relationship in which one member is dying. Dent wrote the poem for her husband as she was dying in the hospital. It is incredibly moving. Both Huffman and Dent manage to tap into the human response to illness, creating vivid and emotionally heavy poetry.