The Last Rites may well be autobiographical and describes the feelings and emotions of the narrator who loses their Grandmother. The poem contrasts beautiful imagery with images of the cold reality of death. The poem could be considered to be an elegy as it is about the narrator’s grandmother passing away. Although the grandmother herself is not really described and the poem focuses more on the feelings surrounding her passing.
Form and Tone
The poem is quite morose in its tone which is unsurprising given the subject matter. It is split into four stanzas. The first, second and fourth stanza all contain 8 lines and the third stanza contains just six. Rhyme doesn’t feature in the poem but that is also expected. Generally rhyme is associated with more jovial topics and although it can be used in poetry pertaining to darker subjects this isn’t the norm.
The Last Rites Analysis
The very first line of this poem is a beautifully obscure way to describe how the hospital looks. It sets the scene in such an effortless way using a made up word which is an obvious amalgamation of landscapes and the colour white. This helps to create an image of the area being clinical and pristine. This description of the environment continues in the second line. The narrator lists all of the items that make up the aforementioned “whitescape” In the third line it becomes clear that the narrator is addressing somebody in the hospital. Although it is unclear at this point who that is.
The narrator then says that the person they are addressing is staring into the whiteness beyond this white. I think this is a reference to the “light at the end of the tunnel” this is a phenomena experienced by those facing near death experiences. They claim to see a brilliant white light. The final lines of this stanza give a clearer indication of the seriousness of the grandmother’s condition. Although I guess it is kind of obvious from the title that the patient would be in a bad way if they are being read their last rites! What is interesting is that being read your last rites is a practise associated with Catholicism. Hints from some of her other poems suggest that Nair is a Hindu.
Once again we see Nair use very powerful and evocative language here. She compares the whiteness of the hospital to the wooden feel of the home where the grandmother once lived. The narrator calls on the image of a Gargoyle. This is a well-known mythological being, despite its grotesque appearance the Gargoyle is supposed to act as a form of protection. In architecture they were used to protect the masonry in building by diverting water away from it.
The way the start of this stanza is constructed suggests that the wood is what is killing the person in the hospital, however I think the wood is a metaphor, wood is often cold to the touch. I think the suggestion is that this person had been isolated in their home and therefore their relationship with the narrator had deteriorated. This would fit in nicely with the image of the gargoyle whose primary function is to stop deterioration.
The next part of the stanza sees the narrator pleading with their loved one to show some sort of sign that they want to live. Does this give us a clue to the state of the person in hospital? I think this part of the poem suggests that they are in a vegetative state. The last line is particularly poignant as it once again refers back to the wood and intimates the grandmother is trapped. Does this mean they are trapped here in the mortal world?
This stanza is two lines shorter than the other stanzas and I think this is used as a device to differentiate it from the others. This stanza acts as a flash back. The narrator is reflecting on better times spent with their love one. This reminiscing suggests that the end is drawing near. The narrator talks about how their loved one used to feed them wisdom and how they were reluctant to follow the advice. Does this hint as to why their relationship potentially soured? I’m not sure but it does show the narrator longing to be back there.
In this imagined world their loved one is able to act in the way that they used to. In that environment the narrator feels like they can be helpful. They feel they can “cloak them (you) with rainbows” the narrator uses some really beautiful imagery to describe an idyllic reality. This is an example of romantic poetry as nature is called on and the images of the stars and the oceans are used to convey a sense of euphoria and serene beauty. The final line sums up what they have become and it is quite a startling contrast to their imagined scenario. Unfortunately the reality is this person is on a “borrowed life”.
This stanza returns to the eight line format. In this stanza there is almost a sense of acceptance. The narrator is saying goodbye and sadness is briefly replaced by a sense of curiosity as they question their loved one as to what they are seeing as they pass on. Once again these are striking images that could be considered beautiful, until the fourth option they could all be construed as positive calling on words such as light, golden, topaz. The black vortex seems almost like a reality check, as if the narrator is thinking “what if it isn’t nice on the other side?” I think it is this thought that prompts them to tell their loved one to “keep going”.
Clearly the narrator has a belief in the afterlife as they mention that beyond is a chance they will be reunited. I think that this last stanza offers a nice sense of closure. When I read through I got the impression there had been some form of estrangement between the narrator and their grandmother. This longing to once again be with them suggests that bridge has been repaired. It offers a nice sense of closure.
About Anita Nair
Anita Nair is an Indian poet, though she writes the majority of her material in English. She has lived for the majority of her life in her native India. Where she picked up a BA in English literature from Kerala. She released her first book in 1887, a collection of short stories called Satyr of the Subway. It is one of her many works. Throughout her career she has experienced a lot of success, winning and being nominated for several prestigious awards.