Mary Oliver’s ‘Singapore’ was first published in June 1988 in Poetry magazine. It was later included in her well-known collection, House of Light. Readers familiar with Oliver’s work will recognize her treatment of the mundane and nature images. This piece is at once inspiring and grounding.
‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver is a thoughtful poem about beauty, poetry, and what makes a happy life.
The poem opens in an airport restroom in Singapore. When the speaker walks into the restroom, she notices a beautiful woman standing in one of the bathroom stalls washing something in the white bowl. The speaker admits that she was disgusted by this discovery and immediately suggests that what she saw that day is not appropriate material for the subject of a poem. As most of Oliver’s poems do, she says that a poem should “have birds in it.” There should be natural elements like trees, rivers, a waterfall, etc.
The woman turns around and smiles at the speaker, who smiles back. Here, she begins to consider how ridiculous her prior disgust over the situation has been. The world is not perfect, as some poems are. All people, like this woman, have to work. She’s staring down at “her labor” in the bowl and washing “the tops of the airport ashtrays.” She’s scrubbing quickly and steadily.
The speaker knows that the woman loves her life despite the uncomfortable situation. She is inspired to imagine that same woman rising from her life and flying down to the river, as though she’s one of the birds in Oliver’s other poems. The speaker concludes the poem by suggesting that the same happy, peaceful feelings captured in nature poetry are also present in this one.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
In Singapore, in the airport,
a darkness was ripped from my eyes.
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.
In the first stanza of the poem, Oliver begins by describing entering an airport restroom in Singapore. The opening lines are striking in their juxtaposition. The speaker is using first-person perspective and takes a narrative approach to the entire poem. But, the second line is metaphorical in a way that should set the tone for what’s to come.
She describes the “darkness” being ripped from her eyes as though prior to that exact moment, she was living in darkness. Her prior understanding of the world was changed over the course of this poem.
Inside one of the bathroom stalls, she sees a woman kneeling and washing something in a “white bowl.” She’s partially hidden away and partially out in the open for everyone to see.
The speaker’s initial reaction to this discovery is disgust. She hates what she’s seen. In her mind, this woman is debasing herself. She’s kneeling in what is likely a less-than-clean bathroom, washing something on the floor. The images she’s faced with make her want to leave that place as soon as possible (signified through the speaker’s instinctual reach for her ticket).
A poem should always have birds in it.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
The third stanza provides an interesting juxtaposition with the previous. The speaker takes readers out of the initial scene and questions whether this kind of content is even suitable for a poem. Far more appropriate poetic subject matter includes birds, trees, rivers, waterfalls, etc. These beautiful, peaceful, and calm images are what people want when they read a poem. They want a “to stand in a happy place, in a poem.” They don’t want, the speaker suggests, to stand in a bathroom watching a woman scrub something in a white bowl on the floor.
When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Everybody needs a job.
The speaker is struck with surprise when she sees the woman’s face. She doesn’t know exactly what to think, and it takes her a few lines to reanalyze the situation.
The woman is beautiful and clearly embarrassed by being seen during this part of her job. The speaker notes the ways that the beauty and embarrassment collide on her face and the “struggle” that results in neither winning. This is a constant battle, one that is going to play out day after day as the woman attends her job.
The woman smiles kindly at the speaker in the next line, a gesture that the speaker returns. This simplifies the situation for the speaker immensely. The woman is simply doing her job and “Everybody needs a job.” She suddenly feels that her previous assertion regarding how disgusting the scene was is “nonsense.” Now, with the darkness pulled away from her eyes, she sees the scene in a new light.
Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.
The speaker returns to the line they ended in the third stanza with, “A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.” She acknowledges that this ideal image of life is true. But, first, “we,” the poem’s readers, watch “her as she stares down at her labor, / which is dull enough.” Reality, struggle, work, and embarrassment come before the peace and joy of a perfect moment. The world is not as simple as a poem is, and by including these darker, less glamorous moments, the poet makes the perfect ones feel more real and more powerful.
The following lines seek to find the beauty in the woman’s movements. Despite the grimy setting, the speaker concentrates on her in a way that makes her work seem graceful. The speaker compares her work to “a river” and her hair to the “wing of a bird” through similes.
Readers should note how the inclusion of natural images, particularly the image of the bird, brings the poem back around, again, to the imagery in the third stanza. Oliver, who is best known for her nature poems, is easily relating this real-life, mundane situation to a peaceful and beautiful scene in nature. This continues in the next lines.
I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
The speaker is moved by the woman’s actions and peace. She “loves her life,” the speaker asserts. This is something that would’ve surprised the speaker in the first lines when she initially came upon the woman in the restroom. But now she has more perspective.
The speaker’s appreciation for the woman and her hard work inspires her to wish the best for this unnamed cleaner. She wants her to “rise up from the crust and the slop / and fly down to the river,” like the bird she compared her to in the previous stanza. She is hoping the woman is able to find happiness and beauty in her life, the same kind of happiness one finds within a classically pleasing poem.
But, the speaker knows that this wish is farfetched and that life is far more complicated. She can hope, but much of the world is “pain and logic.” Despite this, there is a place for beauty and hope. If it was only “pain and logic,” she notes, “who would want it?” Who would want to live in a world with only struggle, fatigue, and ugly airport bathrooms?
Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.
The final stanza demonstrates an example of anaphora through the repetition of “the way” at the beginning of the last three lines. The speaker is focusing on the “light” that she interpreted in the unnamed woman’s life and how it shined out in a way that ripped the darkness from her own eyes.
Life isn’t only a struggle, and she reminds the reader. There is the woman’s smile, which was “only for my sake,” and her graceful, intentional movements as she cleaned. This poem, the speaker concludes, is just as “filled with trees, and birds” as any other she’s ever read (or written if readers consider the speaker to be Mary Oliver herself).
The last line works as a metaphor. She’s suggesting that this poem is filled with the same feelings of hope, joy, and perseverance that one might find in any classically beautiful nature poem.
Throughout this poem, Oliver engages with a few themes. The most important of these are beauty in the mundane, nature, and life struggles. She focuses on an encounter with a beautiful woman cleaning in a Singapore airport bathroom. The speaker’s initial disgust at the work the woman has to engage in is quickly transformed after being met with the woman’s smile. She loves her life, the speaker realizes, and she has to work as everyone does. Life is not as simple as a classically beautiful poem. But, this poem, the speaker notes, includes all of the same elements. It is at once hopeful, transcendent, and universally applicable.
‘Singapore’ asserts that life, even if it doesn’t conform to traditional ideas of happiness or success, is still beautiful. The speaker conveys her changed opinion regarding a woman cleaning in a Singapore airport and how she, despite her less-than-glamorous job, loves her life.
Structure and Form
‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver is a seven-stanza narrative poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, there are numerous examples of half-rhyme and internal rhyme throughout the seven stanzas. The easiest way to find these examples is to read the poem aloud and consider where words partially rhyme or where rhymes exist internally.
Throughout this poem, Oliver makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use either “like” or “as.” For example, the comparison the speaker makes between darkness as clothing when she says: “In Singapore, in the airport, / a darkness was ripped from my eyes.”
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses either “like” or “as.” For example, “She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river” and “Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “don’t doubt” in stanza six and “world were” at the end of that same stanza.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “Disgust argued in my stomach.”
The purpose is to highlight an unnamed woman’s less-than-glamorous life and compare her favorably to the most beautiful and peaceful images one usually finds in poetry.
The speaker is often considered to be the poet herself due to the several references to poetry within the text. But, the speaker’s exact identity is not necessary for one’s understanding of the poem’s major themes and purpose.
The tone is contemplative and compassionate. The speaker spends the seven stanzas analyzing the woman in the bathroom and her opinion of her. She very easily admits that her initial reaction was wrong and is compassionate in her analysis of the woman’s world.
Often, Oliver promotes respect for the natural world and one’s fellow humans. She also often speaks about the purpose of life and what it takes to live a good and fulfilling one.
‘Singapore’ is about the nature of reality and how it contrasts and complements the reality often portrayed in poetry. The poet focuses on a woman working in a Singapore airport.
Some of Mary Oliver’s best-known poems include ‘Wild Geese,’ ‘Flare,’ ‘A Dream of Trees,’ ‘The Journey,’ and ‘When Death Comes.’ The first of these, ‘Wild Geese,’ is generally considered to be her best and most commonly studied.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Mary Oliver poems. For example:
- ‘Flare’ – is a beautiful poem that asks the reader to leave the past behind and live in the more important present.
- ‘Morning Poem’ – uses the dawn of a new day to speak of hope and new beginnings, offering an optimistic message.
- ‘Wild Geese’ – expresses what one must do in order to lead a good life.