First published in 2000, ‘The Letter’, is a contemporary poem written in the form of a short letter excerpt. This letter is addressed to the “beloved” of the writer, and begins so. It cuts off abruptly at the end with an end note stating that this was the end of the letter, giving a sinister feeling to the conclusion. The poem has no rhyme scheme, and is one stanza, fitting considering the unusual form of the piece, but all of the lines are of a similar length, except for the last, which ends a thought without connection.
‘The Letter’ is a poem written in the form of a found letter, left behind by someone who, the reader can assume, has died after some kind of military arrest. The writer of this letter is addressing her thoughts to her “beloved.” She describes the entrance of anonymous military personnel from an unknown country, who’s salute was terrifying. She and another, perhaps her brother, Jocko, attempt to avoid arrest but are unsuccessful. They are frozen in place, with terror and shock, represented by a vivid description of a tear freezing on and breaking off, Jocko’s face. They are arrested and taken a prison described as being made of ice, there is a television in a block of ice in the corner, and Jocko kicks at the walls. She seeks to share her innermost thoughts with the reader, and wonders whether she will ever see a grape again, a connection to the vineyard where she met her beloved in October.
She continues on, describing how back then she saw their futures so clearly. Now things begin to blur together, she skips back and forth between her current situation, their desperation, and her past. She describes trees as “glittering chandeliers” and later describes milking a cows, as she is forced to do, as similar to “cleansing a chandelier.” It is revealed that Jocko was shot for the trivial act of telling a joke. She asks the reader if the book she was reading is still open on their bedside table, and ‘The Letter’ ends by asking her beloved to treat it as a bookmark, “saving my place in our story.” The piece concludes with an endnote in parenthesis stating that it is here the letter ends.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Letter
This poem begins with the author of ‘The Letter’ addressing her beloved, and describing to him the entrance of an unknown military force. There are men, barreling through the snow, presumably outside of her home. They are dressed in “thick green coats” that are emblazoned with an insignia she does not recognize; they come from an unknown country.
This sudden change in this speaker’s life, in which her daily routine is interrupted by the entrance, and take over, by a group she does not even know, is a striking beginning to this piece. It is about a loss of control and direction in her life. Her days had been her own, until this moment in which they are controlled by someone else. This is made even more terrifying by the fact that she does not even know who these people are. Continuing on, she describes,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
She is doing anything she can to remain in the life she has known. She is being taken, along with another, Jocko. This is the first moment of his introduction. His part in this story begins with a vivid image of a tear falling down his cheek and freezing. It snaps off his face,
a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
This is the beginning of an extended metaphor that carries through the poem. The comparison of this invading military force, and the places to which they take the writer and Jocko, to freezing ice. At the moment these two characters are being arrested, they begin to freeze.
The writer of the letter and Jocko are taken,
to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoar frost
The metaphor continues, the place to which they are taken is described as an “ice prison.” This brings up images of a building without any kind of comforts, hard to the touch, and tough to remain within. These characters though have no choice.
The building is not only a prison though, but it is also called a palace (its interior features will be more defined as the poem continues). It is a palace suited to the needs of those who built it, not to those who now reside in it. It is encrusted with hoarfrost, crystalized, ice that is needle-like. This strange, uncommonly used descriptor adds an additional layer of discomfort to the piece.
The palace is in the shape of a dome, and it is lit from within. Although it is lifeless and feelingless, there is some kind of light coming from inside it. The source of the light and electricity is visible, and Jocko admires it. Presumably, it is complex, weaved around the interior of the palace/prison.
While they are both prisoners here, neither seem particularly upset by it. Jocko kicks the wall, but not in anger, she describes him as wanting to test out his new boots. There is also a television in the room, within a block of ice, frozen but still working. The image at its center is moving like water. Their whole world has been consumed, while some aspects of it remain, new shoes, television and electricity, a roof over their heads, and as will be spoken on later, livestock, nothing is the way it used to be. Everything is contained within this palace, they are stuck inside this mirror image of their past lives.
This is the turning point of the poem, in which the speaker begins to reminisce on the past, and combine her memories with her present moment. She references a past correspondence here in which her beloved asked for more insight into her thoughts,
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again?
She is giving him what he asked for, but most likely not in the way he was hoping. Instead of revealing inner torment and strife over her situation, or the life of her past, she is revealing thoughts that he may construe as idle nonsense (although they are not). She is trapped in a world she has no control over and is wishing for a part of her past life that was once meaningful to her. This becomes clearer as she and her beloved’s relationship to a vineyard is revealed.
…When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October—
The reference to grapes is more than idle thought, it is an important connection to her past. What may be assumed to be an important relationship began in a vineyard. She kissed her beloved there.
She continues to reminisce remembering after the vineyard harvest they cleaned their hands in the ice stream, turning their palms pink. Once more a reference to ice, a part of her future showing up in her past. The next line confirms this,
It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
So it was, ice was to be their future. Within the same line the speaker goes back to describing her present, saying it is quiet. There is a possibility that there are more people in this prison than just the speaker and Jocko. She speaks of how they do not close ranks, (they don’t work or come together) and how that weakens them. Perhaps there would be some chance of getting out if everyone communicated but instead, “It is quiet here.”
Her worlds continue to mix together as she describes snow falling “in a featureless bath,” and immediately transitions to mentioning again that she is the stranger that kissed him in the vineyard. It is as if she is creating another world for herself within her prison. She is living within her memories.
The next line references trees, and how they glitter like chandeliers on a sunny day. This is a beauty that she calls “mindless.” It does not take any effort or knowledge to appreciate it. This beautiful image is immediately contrasted with a shock, it is revealed that in May, Jocko told a joke and was shot in the head. It is clear that this is a serious environment, they are not supposed to adjust to it. It is supposed to remain as stark as it was when they first got there.
At this point she once more references the image of a chandelier, this time relating it to the utters of a cow she is made to milk. The repetition of milking the cow is similar to a memory she has of cleaning a chandelier. The movement of her hands brings back her past.
The poem concludes over the next four lines. She has lost another item from her past, her spectacles, and then asks her beloved if the book was reading is still open on her bed. He should consider it, she says, as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.
This is the last line of the letter, but the poem has one more line verifying that this is the end of this “found” piece of a letter.
About Mary Ruefle
Mary Ruefle has written a number of books of poetry, the most recent of which, published in 2016 was My Private Property. She is known for both her experimental poetry, such as her erasure poems, as well as essays. Ruefle has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Guggenheim Foundation. She currently lives and teaching in Vermont.