The poem is quite short but filled with imagery. The speaker uses clear language to describe his partner but also engages with figurative similes and colorful images. It’s hard to walk away from this poem without feeling as though one could envision exactly what he saw in ‘The Throwback.’
Explore The Throwback
‘The Throwback’ by Paul Muldoon addresses a woman’s heritage, movements, and appearance from the perspective of her partner.
The speaker spends the stanzas describing a few simple things his partner does that make him think that she’s likely moving in the form of her mother and grandmother. His imagination grows as the lines go on, and eventually, he determines that the red patch of psoriasis behind her ear was there when a different iteration of her stood up against Xerxes in Ancient Greece.
You can read the full poem here.
Even I can’t help but notice, my sweet,
that when you tuck your chin
into your chest, as if folding a sheet
while holding a clothes pin
In the first stanza of ‘The Throwback,’ the speaker begins by addressing his lover, someone he calls his “sweet.” He tells her that he notices something about her when she tucks her chin a certain way. All four stanzas make one long, run-on sentence. This means that it requires reading through all the lines in order to figure out what the speaker is thinking about. He tells her that she looks as if she’s “folding a sheet / while holding a clothespin.” This is a movement that, in the following lines, he relates back to her grandmother and mother.
It should also be noted that the imagery in this line is conveyed through the use of a simile. He tells her that she looks “as” if she’s folding a sheet.
between your teeth, or when, a small detail,
your thumbs like so, it’s as if you’re a throw-
In the second stanza, he adds in more details, completing an image of his lover that is quite easy to imagine. She puts her hands in a certain way on her stomach and her thumbs “like so,” and she is a “throw- / back” to her grandmother. These lines are enjambed. This means that the reader has to move down to the third stanza in order to finish them. This is all part of the poem’s structure as a single long sentence.
back to the grandmother you never met,
in this reddish patch of psoriasis
The third stanza is the first of two tercets. The speaker says that she looks like the “Grandmother you never met.” The fact that she never met this woman is an integral part of the poem’s meaning. She is connected, through blood and heritage, to someone (and that person’s personality traits and mannerisms). She’s related to a long line of women, and at that moment, the speaker feels as though he can see right down the line.
He mentions a “patch of psoriasis” in the last line of the stanza, again requiring the reader to move to the following stanza to finish the thought.
behind your ear that might
she wore when she stood firm against Xerxes.
The red patch behind her ear triggers his imagination, and he thinks about how it could be, as it would’ve been on her ancestor, a “flare up” from the “helmet / she wore when she stood firm against Xerxes.” This is a very specific allusion. It refers to Xerxes, the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. They conquered northern and central ancient Greece in 480 BC. The poet is suggesting that her heritage dates back to this time period, and he can see remnants of it (with some imagination involved) when he looks at her.
Structure and Form
‘The Throwback’ by Paul Muldoon is a four-stanza poem that is separated into sets of either four or three lines. The first two stanzas are quatrains, meaning they contain four lines, and the final two stanzas contain three lines and are called tercets. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB in the first stanza and CDEC in the second stanza. The end words “detail” and “twiddle” might be considered half-rhymes if readers alter their pronunciation slightly. The third and fourth stanzas do not follow a specific pattern, but the words “sight” and “might” are perfect rhymes, and there is an interesting example of sibilance with “psoriasis” and “Xerxes.”
Throughout ‘The Throwback,’ the poet uses several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: appears in the final line when the poet references Xerxes but does not provide details to define what the word means, who the person is, or what they have to do with the poem.
- Enjambment: can be seen throughout this poem when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “chest” and “chin” in stanza one.
The speaker is a partner, likely male, who is analyzing his female partner’s behavior and appearance. He sees in her the remnants of her mother and grandmother and then the generations that came before.
The tone is appreciative and descriptive as the speaker describes his lover in clear detail. He uses direct language, referring to her “pot belly” but also language that is more figurative in nature. This allows readers to get a full picture of these elements of his partner and what the speaker is interested in.
The purpose is to celebrate someone’s heritage in a creative way while also suggesting that readers look closer at the people in their life and see beauty and importance in everything they do.
The meaning of this poem is that each person has a heritage that dates back through generations and that we are all part of that heritage, doing things and appearing in certain ways that resemble our ancestors. This is something to be celebrated and appreciated.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Throwback’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ by Gloria Anzaldua – a complex, moving poem that investigates identity, heritage, and self-worth in the modern world.
- ‘Inheritance’ by Owen Sheers – reflects on the characteristics and mannerisms which Sheers has inherited from his parents.
- ‘What the Orphan Inherits’ by Sherman Alexie – a powerful piece about contending with the world as a Native American child after becoming an orphan.