Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Understanding A Sunday Phone Call

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Maxine Kumin’s poem, A Sunday Phone Call, is about a daughter whose parents have both died and on this particular Sunday, has a conversation with her late father as if he were still alive.

Throughout he poem we are given the opportunity to overhear a private discussion between a father and his child, a conversation that might not have occurred in many years. We are also invited to aspects of her childhood that she remembers while talking with her father.

Kumin’s use of alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, in the first stanza gives the reader a better sense of how Kumin is feeling and how the weather plays along with her feelings. “Drab December, sleet falling./ Dogs loosely coiled in torpor./ Horses nose-down in hay.” (ll. 1-3) The ‘d’ sound is a very hard sound, and it gives the impression of finality and completeness. That first line alone sets the tone that the poem is going to be more on the serious side. However, had she started the poem with “Merry May” then the reader would have been more aware that the poem was going to be more frivolous and carefree.

During the actual phone conversation, there is an obvious difference in the tone set forth by the father and the tone set forth from the daughter. She even says it herself, “he’s jolly, expansive.” (l. 16). I feel as if the father understands more that even though a person has died, they are not really gone forever. They are still a part of their families’ lives and they can “talk” to them. The daughter, like most people myself included, sees death as the end all and be all of life. There is no looking back and there is no nothing anymore. Even when the phone rang, around the same time that they would talk, she “idly empty of expectation” (ll. 7-8) answered the phone. There was no hurry to answer the phone, I’m sure that she even entertained the thought of not answering it at all. It’s almost as if she wanted it to be her father, but deep down knew that it couldn’t be.

It’s like when anyone dies, it’s human nature to expect to see them walking through the door, but the logical side knows that won’t and can’t happen. The one paragraph that really stands out in my mind and the one that had special meaning to me was:

I read it somewhere. Broke your neck, et cetera

He says this vaguely, his shorthand way of keeping his feelings at bay. The daughter, who was involved in a serious accident where she “almost died”, understands that her father really does care about her and does want her to be healthy, but on the flip side, she also realizes that her father isn’t one to fully and completely show his emotions. These lines are important to me because I am going through a difficult time in my life health wise and even though my father doesn’t ask about it or bring up my illness, I know that it’s not because he doesn’t care, but it’s because he can’t. My father and the father in the poem both know that if they allow themselves to vocalize every emotion that they felt, they wouldn’t be able to stop. Kumin ends this poem in a way that a phone calls ends, abruptly. She keeps with the theme that it is a phone call and not poetry. The last thing the father says in response to his daughter asking when she will be able to see him again is:

A long pause. Then, coughing his cigarette cough,

Pupchen, he says,

I may be dead but

I’m not clairvoyant.

Behave yourself.

The line clicks off. (ll. 61-67)

The poem ends there, with no happy ending with no nothing. She wants to know experiences that aren’t hers to know. One can’t know the future because the present will be changed. The father knows this and he explains that death and telepathic powers do not go hand in hand.

I looked at over twenty poems before I found this one and when I did I didn’t look at any others. This poem to me is so different than others that I have read only because it gives you the sense that you are invading on a personal and private conversation. However, this poem can relate to many people who have lost someone very important in their lives.

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