This month, I want to take a deep dive into one of the first poems I ever included in the classroom, and one of the few poems I teach nearly every year: “The Widower,” by Rachel McKibbens. My copy of the poem appears in a chapbook that McKibbens prepared and printed ahead of a performance at the University of Arkansas about fifteen years ago. Luckily, there is a copy available in the FRiGG Magazine archive.
Rachel McKibbens is quite recognizable in the poetry community given her success in both performance spaces and with published collections. She’s also a fierce advocate for human rights and a fixture in activist movements focused on protecting vulnerable communities, dismantling patriarchy and disrupting white supremacist systems. Beyond this, though, McKibbens is a skilled educator and has developed some of the most generative writing prompts I’ve ever encountered. One of her most popular prompts is an imagery exercise designed to help students create unexpected metaphors for their poems.
Though many contemporary poets are infusing narrative elements into their poems and/or arranging collections to develop a central narrative, one of the things that most often confuses students is the direct analysis of metaphor. Moving from the literal to the figurative is challenging, but I think “The Widower” is a perfect tool to develop this skill. There is a narrative within the poem, but it exists primarily through the interpretation of images. Because the poem is fairly brief, educators and students can spend ample time unpacking the various images and hypothesizing about an underlying narrative.
Quick caveat: In my experience, students are most resistant to poetry when they have been taught that metaphors have a singular or correct meaning. It is essential that educators communicate that metaphors are interpretative and make space for multiple interpretations during discussion. The words are one layer of the poem, but another layer comes from our individual experiences. Students need to learn how to support their reading of a poem, rather than craft their reading to fit another’s experiences or expectations. For that reason, I avoid critiquing any interpretation offered. Instead, I ask students to point to the words in the poem that evoke their analysis and to explain how that language informed their thinking. This metacognitive process helps them develop critical thinking skills and enter poetry with a more open mind.
UNPACKING THE TITLE
When I teach this poem, the first thing I ask students to do is unpack the title. Learning how to do this will help them enter poems with at least a general expectation for what the poem might address. In this case, the title is straight-forward and students readily pick up on the idea that this poem will likely involve a marriage in which one of the partners has died.
Once we feel like we have a decent understanding of the title, we read through the entire poem once without stopping.
Next, I have students take a look at the various images in the first stanza and discuss what they might mean.
the refrigerator is now an obscene tombstone – similarities between the refrigerator and
a tombstone include color, size, and the way they dominate their respective spaces; the tombstone reinforces our expectation of death; the word obscene here is interesting, as it suggests that looking at the refrigerator is offensive in some way
hums like neon vacancy – the simile here gets a lot of mileage; students usually pick up on the idea that neon vacancy signs usually appear at hotels or motels and indicate empty space, which suggests that the refrigerator is empty, but also may speak to the internalized emptiness the speaker feels and/or the emptiness of the home itself
Comparing the butter and cherries to parts of “her” body tells us that the person who has died is the speaker’s wife. It also gives us a window into the delicacy associated with her wrists, as well as how the speaker’s grief is causing their heart to shrink. Given that these cherries are usually associated with indulgence and sweetness, we can infer that the speaker feels bitter or disillusioned, something the opposite of indulgent.
My students always react strongly to the image of the speaker pressing his thumb into his lover’s fingerprint. We unpack the story of this image and what it tells us. For one, the cheese is likely a block, and the presence of her fingerprint suggests that she may have held it while grating cheese for a meal. The fact that it’s still present tells us that the speaker is invested in preserving what remains of his wife, that her impact on his life is concrete and immediate inside the poem.
The image of bone spiders trickling over the speaker’s ribcage is usually jarring for students, as we often associate both bone and spiders with negativity. However, this reading is somewhat complicated by the verb “trickled,” which is typically a delicate or subtle movement associated with water. Thus, the movement is fluid, rather than sharp or disruptive. It’s also a fun place to point out the genius of comparing fingers to spider legs in that humans typically have 8 fingers (assuming thumbs are not fingers).
This stanza ends with one of the more expository phrases in the poem, as the speaker laments that his wife will “never hold a child’s hand while crossing the street.” What this tells us is that the couple did not have a child, but they may have discussed the possibility. I often ask students why they may not have had a child prior to her death. Popular answers include that she may have been young, they may have been newly married, there may have been a physical issue that prevented childbirth, or that she may have died as a result of childbirth.
STANZAS THREE AND FOUR
The third stanza is masterful at giving the poem temporality. Up to this point, the grief has been somewhat distant. We haven’t been able to make strong predictions about the passage of time between her death and the moment of the poem. However, the image of wedding cake sitting in the freezer “like a stopped watch” suggests that the marriage was less than a year old. Students may not pick up on this tradition, so be sure to explain the metaphor for those who are unfamiliar. Again, the choice of verb is interesting, as “sulks” usually implies something that indicates guilt. It also implies physical movement, which we generally don’t associate with something frozen. What is the guilt doing in this image? Is the speaker projecting responsibility for her death, or perhaps blaming the cake for reminding him of their wedding day?
We learn several things about the relationship from the clipped coupons image as well. For starters, this image introduces the idea that the wife was nurturing, as she is associated with “saving.” We can also infer that the wife was frugal and practical, as well as organized. If we associate marriage with balance, this may suggest that the speaker now feels a lack of organization, or chaos. The coupons may be expired, or he may simply refuse to use them because they are another concrete artifact of her presence in the home.
Speaking of concrete artifacts, the fourth stanza presents an image of curdling milk. This adds to the temporality offered in the third stanza, giving us even more insight into how recent the wife’s death really is. Milk spoils fairly quickly, so we can infer that she has likely been gone less than a month. That the stench of spoiled milk is juxtaposed with her lipstick again complicates the image, as readers must grapple with the duality of a souring experience (mourning) and the tenderness of memory (lipstick). Since the neighbors will complain, we may also infer that they are not aware of the wife’s death, which emphasizes how isolate and alone the speaker is in his grief.
This stanza can be a lot of fun to unpack. The introduction of spoiled eggs further emphasizes temporality, but the association of eggs with birth alongside the “pink Styrofoam casket” could suggest that the wife died while carrying a baby girl. Here, I usually remind students that the color may be literal, as some cartons are actually pink, or it may be an intentional metaphor. What’s important is not what the author was thinking while writing the image, but how the image impacts our understanding. Regardless of the color, the word “casket” certainly encourages us to connect the egg with death.
The idea that the eggs perch in the carton until they are either cracked open or thrown at God’s front door is interesting. Throwing the eggs at a door is a familiar image of vandalism, an act of malice that may suggest the speaker is placing some blame on God for the wife’s death. However, the possibility that the eggs will be cracked open instead could mean that the speaker is not consumed by that blame. Most interesting to me is that this image resists resolution, refusing to give readers (and by proxy the speaker) any closure whatsoever. Given the newness of her death, this helps render the emotion expressed throughout the poem as more authentic and relatable.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Once we have unpacked the various metaphors throughout, we talk about our experience with the poem. Some students usually insist that the wife died while pregnant and the speaker lost both his wife and little girl. Others are reluctant to say that the wife was pregnant. Most agree that the speaker is going through several stages of grief within the poem, and almost all usually feel like they have a strong understanding of the dynamics of the narrative. The reason this is such a significant discovery for a lot of students is that they often see poems and immediately assume that they don’t “get” poetry. Even after the first reading, most of my students say that they feel something when they read the poem, but they don’t know “what it means.” By the end of the discussion, they realize that they actually do create a lot of meaning while they read.
I usually teach this poem early in the semester as a backdrop for all critical and textual analysis. While “The Widower” is a poem, it functions as a bridge or tool, helping students understand how we can combine prior knowledge with the details in front of us to make predictions and inferences about a text. The same goes for visual and auditory features. While the primary device in this poem may be metaphor, understanding that device in context is no different than making thoughtful inferences about subheadings, supporting images or extended analogies in argumentative writing. The bonus, of course, is that McKibbens is a masterful poet, and laying the groundwork for critical analysis is just more fun with a concise poem than a few pages of argumentative prose.