Singapore by Mary Oliver Dissertation Paper

Singapore by Mary Oliver


As pointed out by a poetry reviewer for the Harvard Review, the poetic style of Mary Oliver “is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization, for too much flurry and inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives.” Thus, as a poet of wisdom, Oliver “allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making” (“Mary Oliver, Internet). These observations are best illustrated in Oliver’s poem “Singapore,” part of the collection House of Light and published in 1990.

The overall theme of “Singapore” expresses the “excesses of civilization” as noted above through a narrative which describes an airport housekeeper or maid caught washing metal ashtrays in the bowl of a toilet in an airport stall (“A woman knelt there, washing something/in the white bowl” This woman, although a lowly (and obviously socially poor worker) at the airport in Singapore appears to be uncommonly attractive and when confronted by the narrator becomes embarrassed and smiles back rather nervously.

The imagery related to her task in the stall is quite descriptive, for she is washing airport ashtrays “as big as hubcaps with a blue rag.” She is also small in stature (“Her small hands”) and approaches her work seriously, much like a river. The line “Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird” might possibly stand as a metaphor contrasted against the whiteness of the toilet bowl.

The narrator also points out that this woman, like all human beings regardless of their position in life, loves living and wishes to “rise up from the crust of the slop,” meaning that she wishes to be more than a mere airport worker. However, “This probably won’t happen,” due to the fact that society has placed this woman in a position of unimportance. The last stanza of this poem brings the reader full circle, for the narrator relates that even though this woman is on the lowest end of the social ladder, light or hope “can shine out of a life” which is symbolized by the way this woman “unfolded and refolded the blue cloth” and her smile cast toward the narrator which she interprets as “for my sake.”

The tone of “Singapore” is expressed through the narrator in several important lines. First, the line “A darkness was ripped from my eyes” indicates that the experience of seeing such an attractive, dark-haired woman washing ashtrays in a toilet in Singapore was a sort of epiphany in which the narrator quickly realized that the “excesses of civilization” are everywhere. Second, the narrator’s physical reaction to this experience is symbolized by the line “Disgust argued in my stomach” which indicates that the narrator was quite upset upon discovering this situation at the airport.

In essence, the narrator has created a pattern of contrasting images and symbols, particularly with the final line “The way this poem is filled with trees and birds” which shows that even a lowly airport worker can have a life filled with serenity and peace, much like one might experience by walking through a forest overflowing with nature’s simple beauty.

As contrasted with “Singapore,” the poem “In Creve Coeur” by Rosanna Warren symbolizes “our tarnished, everyday, ramshackle world of loss, anguish and sacrifice,” much like the tone of “Singapore.” As a poet, Warren “inhabits… A realm of classic purity, and in some of her best, most moving poems… dwells in both regions at once… ” (“Rosanna Warren,” Internet). One of the most obvious similarities between these two poems is that both are in an urban setting with the events described in Warren’s poem set in the city of Creve Coeur in Missouri. However, this setting is contrasted against Oliver’s poem with its Asian setting, being the city of Singapore in Malaysia. Overall, the tone of Warren’s poem is one of death, symbolized by the unconscious baby taken from a burning house by a fireman.

The imagery in this poem is quite similar to that found in “Singapore.” First of all, the focus is upon a fireman of Creve Coeur who is photographed by the narrator (“an amateur photographer”) as he brings the lifeless and naked body of a baby from a burning house. Oliver compares this baby to laundry “pulled too soon from the line,” meaning that like wet clothes, the baby is limp and rag-like (“rag of body”). The image of the baby cuddled in the arms of the fireman is a “huge, dark, crumpled embrace” and the baby itself, although unconscious, presses its “doll-like fist” to the chest of the fireman.

As the baby’s head appears to move for an instant, the fireman attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (“Sucking the spirit back/to us from its lair of smoke”). The narrator then takes a picture of this event which wins a prize, yet the baby fails to respond to the fireman’s efforts to bring her back to life. Thus, all of this imagery conveys the idea that life is full of “loss, anguish and sacrifice.”

And much like Oliver’s “Singapore,” Warren’s poem stresses a pattern of contrasting images and symbols — the fireman “bent low” as he cuddles the baby in his arms after taking her from the burning house; the baby’s hair “stands out like flame,” a metaphor for fire; the baby is also a “ghost,” a possible reference to her impending death from smoke inhalation. But most surprisingly, this poem relates that the fireman has done this type of thing many times in his career, much like the woman in the airport in Singapore who has washed ashtrays in the toilet an untold number of times.


Mary Oliver.” Internet. 2007. Retrieved at / prmPID/265.

Rosanna Warren.” 2007. Internet. 2007. Retrieved at / poet.php/prmPID/188.

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