"A Story About the Body" by Robert Hass (1990)

Danielle Olig

The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had watched her for a week.
She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved
her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him
directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One night, walking
back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, "I think you
would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double
mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts."The radiance that he
had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he
made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his
own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch
outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the
rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the
corners of her studio--was full of dead bees.

Way 1: First Impressions

My first impression of this poem is the idea of love versus lust and intrigue by a younger man to an older woman. When the poem states "he thought he was in love with her" (line 2) exhibits an indication of his idea of love. The poem goes on to explain that he loves her work which he compares to "the way she moved her body" (line 3). The most important idea behind this poem is discovered within the story; that when she reveals a side to her that he cannot see by observing her and that he fears, he is no longer interested in her or is scared off. Although the poem doesn't directly say that the woman put the blue bowl on his porch, the reader assumes that is the case in return for his rejection. The bowl full of dead bees disguised underneath the rose petals to me, symbolizes the pain or "sting" of love. This could also symbolize that although people can be beautiful on the surface, other things may lie beneath; pain specifically. What exactly is this poem trying to say? What does the blue bowl full of bees and rose petals symbolize?

Way 2: Engaging with the Text

Although I didn't find much rhyming in this poem, it is a quiet story. When read aloud, it rolls off the tongue as there are no percussive sounds. I did find examples of alliteration. Some examples of the alliteration are "working", "watched", and "week" (line 1), "both my breasts" (line 7), and "blue bowl" (line 10). The poem's rhythm creates pauses that allow the poem to flow gently off of the tongue until the last phrase; "was full of dead bees". There is use of a simile when he compares her work to "like the way she moves her body, used her hands, looked at him" (line 3). A simile is also used when the author references his belly and chest cavity that withered like music when she told him she had a mastectomy. I cannot seem to decipher any other details that sounds may imply.

Vertical Thinking: Close Readings of the Text

Way 3: A Point about Form and Its Relationship to Content

This is a prose poem, which presents certain challenges in analyzing this form. The traditional use of prose poems is narrative in nature which is how Hass has presented this poem. The choice of this form emphasizes the linear connectedness of Hass' intentions. By creating a poem without line breaks, the piece flows more smoothly; creating emphasis primarily through rhythm. An example of this is "The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could" (lines 7-9). Even though this is a long sentence, it flows in the same naturalistic way that conversation or writing does.

Way 3: A Point about Form and Its Relationship to Content

I had questioned after reading this several times whether there is a correlation between the Japanese woman character, the symbol from the natural world (the bowl of rose petals and dead bees), and the sparseness of the language. These elements are evocative of Haiku; a traditional Japanese poem, but this poem does not have a five-seven-five syllable pattern. However, I did conclude that the first and last phrases have five syllables each. This may not be a coincidence. The last line states "--was full of dead bees". This very powerful statement confuses the reader yet illuminates many interpretations. (See Biographical Context for further context regarding Haiku)

Way 3: Another Point about Form and Its Relationship to Content

Hass uses dialogue to give denotative meaning to the characters in his narrative prose. Upfront and honest, this dialogue between the two characters invites the readers to view them as mortal beings. The Japanese woman states "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy" (lines 5-7). Her stating this direct quote exposes the character's vulnerability and reveals mortality.Hass uses dialogue to also show the young composer's point of view which could be shown as insensitive, inexperienced, or perhaps, sympathetic. He states "I'm sorry. I don't think I could" (line 9). Initially this could be viewed as insensitive after the Japanese woman's revelation about herself but because Hass includes that he stressed to make himself look her in the face when he said it; he could be sympathetic to her. This dramatic dialogue gives the readers insight to the Hass' intentions.

Way 4: Unpacking an Instance of Figurative Language

Hass uses figurative language in the form of a simile to describe how the man loves the Japanese woman's work and why he thinks he loves the her. "Her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused or considered answers to his questions" (lines 3-4). "Her work with the way she moved her body" gives the notion that she, being a Japanese woman, who be stereotypically known for being graceful and intriguing; compares the graceful work with the graceful movements.

Way 4: Unpacking Another Instance of Figurative Language

Hass uses figurative language in the form of a simile again. "The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--withered, very quickly" (lines 7-8) Once he heard that she had a double mastectomy, his radiance withered like music. Perhaps when the music fades towards the end of a song, just like his love for her is short-lived; came and went.

Way 4: Unpacking Another Instance of Figurative Language

I believe the "blue bowl" that "looked to be covered in rose petals" however is revealed to be "full of dead bees" is symbolic of something. My thoughts vary on this symbolism. My first thought was closely tied to the quote "don't judge a book by its cover;" that although something appears a certain way on the outside or at first glance (rose petals), there are inner struggles (dead bees) beneath everyone's surface. This symbol that is emphasized in the end is key to understanding the meaning of the poem.

Way 5: Analyzing the Setting

Although "A Story About the Body" by Hass does not focus primarily on setting, it takes place at an artist's colony; which perhaps is in the woods or some remote area where different types of artists gather to display or perform their work. "One night, walking back from a concert" is a clue to this setting information (lines 4-5). Another clue about the setting is with this line; "He walked back to his own cabin through the pines" (lines 9-10). This setting gives the tone of beauty and naturalism to the poem. The last mention of the setting was after the man received the bowl of rose petals and dead bees"on the porch outside his door" (lines 10-11), "she must have swept them from the corners of her studio" (lines 12-13). This further supports the idea that this artist and composer are in a wilderness type setting where insects reside and studios are probably not as kempt. The setting possesses verisimilitude as the characters dialogue and situation are true to life of real people and their actions.

Sonja Rusch brought a different perspective of the setting in her peer review for me. In lines 5 and 11, the narrator illuminates the setting of "her door" and "his door" where a lot of the action takes place. The doors may not only be setting for these actions, but also a symbol of the young composer and Japanese painter's relationship. Neither one of them enter the others' door during the story and in the same sense, they don't really let each other in emotionally or end up getting intimate with each other.

Way 6: Identifying and Analyzing Point of View

This poem is told in third-person limited point of view. The poem is told through the young composer's perspective, sharing his thoughts through a detached narrator. "She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her" (line 2). The reader is given very little information on what the Japanese woman is feeling other than what is included in the dialogue; that she would like to have him but she has had a double mastectomy. As the poem continues, the narrator provides more insight to the type of character that the young composer is. ". . . he made himself look at her when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I could'" (lines 8-9). This characterizes him as sensitive to her feelings by him looking her in the eyes, yet apprehensive. Her action of leaving the bowl full of dead bees covered with rose petals at his door results in an ambiguous ending. We do not have enough information about her character to determine why she left it there for him, however it leaves much room for speculation.

Way 7: Analyzing Complexity, Ambiguity, and Difficulty

"A Story About the Body" by Hass provides a simple read in the ways of vocabulary and grammar however poses an ambiguous message at the end This one aspect, makes the poem complex and difficult to understand. "It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was full of dead bees" (lines 11-13). Not only is the act of leaving this bowl ambiguous, but it is also curious as to what the symbolic meaning of dead bees covered in rose petals would mean. In regards to the poem on a whole, it is difficult to determine what this blue bowl full of dead bees signifies as it holds many interpretations ranging from peaceful intent to angry intent. The most ambiguous part about it is that the narrator does not ever say for sure that the woman left the bowl for the man; it is only his speculation.

The most direct meaning would be that the woman simply did intend to fill the blue bowl with rose petals from the floor of her studio which consequently had dead bees on it. This act of putting the blue bowl on his porch does not come off as a malicious attack on the man; however could be construed as such. The bowl is described as blue which represents sadness or calming. This leads one to believe that it could signify forgiveness or understanding of the man's reaction to her having lost both breasts; that he was unprepared or simply could not partake. On the contrary, one would think that if a woman was to leave a bowl full of bees on a man's porch, her intent would be a negative one.

Regardless of the Japanese woman's intent, the "blue bowl," rose petals, and dead bees symbolize something that the author is trying to convey to the readers. On a small scale, this is as the title implies; "A Story About the Body." The contrast of the rose petals in reference to the woman's inner beauty and what you can see on "top" versus the dead bees in reference to the woman's deformity due to a life challenge which is hidden under her clothes can be referenced. On a larger scale, perhaps this is an indication of defining contradiction in life; the line between life and death; beauty and beast.

Horizontal Thinking: Connecting the Text to Wider Contexts

Way 8: Considering Canonicity

In Brown and Yarbrough, the definition of canon is "the collection of works judged by literary scholars, readers, and writers of the current culture and past cultures to be worthy of study and continual rediscovery. As suggested in this book, many factors--some of them controversial, political, or topical--contribute to whether a work becomes part of the canon or not" (page 323). Given this definition, "A Story About the Body" by Hass should be in the literary canon for a variety of reasons. The aesthetic value of this free verse poem is held within the plot, the wording, and the natural flow. The cultural value keeps readers attuned to the empathy of nature; how breast cancer has affected society of our time. "I've lost both my breasts" (line 7) is a direct line of dialogue that can spark a readers' sympathy. Even when scientists and researchers find a cure to cancer, this poem will hold its canonical value by showing the impact of this deadly disease and by catching the sensitivity of its' readers.

Way 9: Biographical Context

Biographical context refers to the information that we gather on the author's life and how it pertains to what they are writing about. According to Poets.org, Robert Hass was born in California in 1941 which made him 49 years old when he wrote "A Story About the Body." He was married to a poet named Brenda Hillman in 1995 which could be correlated to the reason Hass has two characters in this story that are artists; it shows his potential interests in other artists.

In an interview with Grace Cavalieri in 1997, Hass reveals his fascination with Haiku; a traditional Japanese form of poetry made up of three lines consisting of syllables of five, seven, and five. Specifically he explains "A kind of wonderful example of a poetry that doesn't quite praise or dispraise is the haiku form which I've been attached to for a long time. And I read some of these poems last night at the Library. Those are my translations of poems of Basho who is a seventeenth-century poet and one of the great initiators of the haiku form. The interest, Grace, of trying to translate these poems is to make their syntaxes simple and efficient as it seems to me to be in the Japanese, though I have learned the only Japanese grammar I know from trying to figure how these little magical pieces work" (Cavalieri). This intrigue of Haiku and Japanese culture could directly link to Hass' motivation of including a character that is Japanese.

Way 10: Historical and Cultural Context

Even if a reader didn't know that the poem was written in 1990, there are elements in the poem that are distinctly modern; mainly the way it is written with contemporary, simplistic language instead of more complicated language. In addition, the Japanese woman has a liberated view on sex and is direct with her use of language. This behavior was uncommon before the 19th century; moreover, this is indicative of post-feminist, contemporary womanhood. The idea of a man and woman together alone without an escort and if they were not courting would be unlikely during any early time period. "The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony" (line 1). The fact that this is set during the composer's summer residency at an artist's colony is suggestive of the broad popularity today of these programs; which offer housing and a stipend for performing creative work. There are no modern artifacts in this poem other than the artist's colony and the mastectomy; both of which I cannot find any evidence of before the 1800's. The young composer pining over the older woman is a reversal of typical roles of men and woman in which it is more common to find older men interested in younger women.

Way 11: Theoretical Application

As defined in our textbook, Feminist Criticism is a "way of reading that investigates the text's investment in or reaction to the patriarchal power structures that have dominated Western culture. Feminist readings frequently question the canonicity of established writers and the exclusion of others from that elite group; they also question long-held assumptions about the nature of gender itself, arguing that while sex is determined biologically, gender is a cultural construct subject to revision and revolution" (Brown & Yarbrough 325). The Feminist Criticism was the first approach that I found relevant to this poem.

When applying Feminist Criticism to "A Story About the Body," I found that some of the word choice indicates an olden day mentality about a woman's place in a relationship that the Japanese woman initiates. ". . .she turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like that too" (lines 5-6). It is apparent in this modern, prose poem that the Japanese woman character is direct and confident, however she states "have me" in sense that represents his possible ownership of her. This contradicts her previous attributes and strong characteristics that are offered in the text. With the many different ways of asking, why is this word choice used? Other ways that this could be stated is "I think you want me and I would like that too," "I think you want to sleep with me," or "I think you should spend the night."

The "young composer" is not represented as an intensely, manly figure who would want to have that power of ownership over her, but rather an inexperienced young man. This inexperience is also further amplified in the next phrases. "I have had a double mastectomy," and when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts" (lines 6-7). This unlearned man does not know what a mastectomy even is which raises several more questions. Does this misunderstanding exist because he is a man? Does he hold her ailment against her in a way that he would not find her attractive enough to be intimate with her? Does her mastectomy take away his supposed love for her? Is this even a fair judgment? After reviewing the questions that this Feminist approach asks, I have a deeper understanding on my view of this poem. I do not think the man holds her ailment against her, nor do I think that he finds her unattractive once he finds out. More so, I feel that he is unprepared for her direct approach to an idea that holds very complicated feelings.

Way 12: Another Theoretical Application

Psychoanalytic criticism is defined in our book as a "group of related methods of literary analysis predicted on the work of theorists such as Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, and Jacques Lacan. Psychoanalytic criticism frequently focuses on the significance of symbols and apparently accidental utterances that reveal the deeper intentions of the unconscious mind. Some critics attempt to explain the behavior of characters based on their supposed unconscious motivations, while other treat the literary text as a reflection of the author's own desires" (Brown & Yarbrough 331). The psychoanalytical criticism is an appropriate approach to this piece.

When using a psychoanalytical criticism to this poem, it offers a deeper insight to the author's intentions as well as the characters attributes. The poem says that the young composer watched the woman for a week and that he thought he was in love with her. Is it possible to be in love with someone after watching them for a week? Another question would ask why the young composer could not have the woman after he found out that she had a double mastectomy. Is this a subconscious or conscious fear of the unknown? Is he disgusted with her or sympathetic? These questions led me to decide that the young composer is fearful of her condition because it is unknown and he is inexperienced. If he really loved her, the double mastectomy would not be an issue as to whether or not he would "have" her.

Applying the psychoanalytical approach, it would question the significance of the symbolism of the blue bowl. Is this a present of forgiveness from the woman to the man? Is this a malicious gift? What do the bees represent, if anything? What do the rose petals mean? Is there any intention underlying the bowl being blue? Did the author use this ambiguity for a purpose? After reviewing these questions, I believe the bowl is given as a gift to the man to forgive him and let him know that she is understanding of his decision. I do not believe this was a gift of malicious intent. I do not think the bees represent anything, however I do think the rose petals were intended for the man. In addition, the idea that the man had about the woman sweeping up the rose petals and bees from the floor of her studio is accurate. I think Hass used this ambiguity to prove a point about relationships.

Way 13: Unifying Interpretation

In studying and applying the "13 Ways of Looking at Literature," I have a deeper, profound interpretation of this poem and towards literature on a whole. The many different elements that make up a literary work of art are not only thought provoking, but complex as well. Since I first read this poem, I have come a long way in my perception of "A Story About the Body" by Robert Hass. It started as pieces of a puzzle that I was finally able to put together in a way that I perceive it and understand it best.

Starting with my "First Impressions," I notice an increased insight. I no longer think there is any evidence of lust. I do believe that the man cares about the woman, but I do not think it is love. I also do not think the blue bowl represents a gift in exchange for his rejection. My engagement with the text provided me clear proof of the sounds that helped guide me to my final thoughts. Since this is a prose poem and does not have any specified meter or repetitive rhyme, there is indeed a purposeful rhythm that the author provides, to put emphasis on the clue that led me to unravel the poem; alliteration of "blue bowl" and figurative language of symbolism held within the idea of "dead bees." These key points are relevant clues to deciphering the poem.

The form and its relationship to content portion, as well as the biographical, historical and cultural context, allowed me to delve deeper into the mind of Hass at the time that he wrote the poem to determine his intentions. Since it is a rather modern poem and I was alive during the time it was written, I have an idea of the historical context in which he wrote. The information in his biography gave me clues to the cultural context with his fascination in Japanese culture and as to why he might have chosen a Japanese woman, instead of any other cultured woman. Even if this isn't a Haiku poem, the examination of Haiku poetry allowed me to recognize the naturalistic flow of his words throughout this poem up until the end; giving emphasis to the last five syllables; "was full of dead bees."

In examining the different theoretical applications, I now know that my interpretation of this poem will be different from other people's thoughts; and that it is acceptable. I have come to my own conclusions of this poem on my own terms through using the methods instructed and as long as I have applied those methods accurately, there is no wrong answer. Interpretations and criticisms leave room for improvement and allow certain questions to go unanswered. While applying the criticisms, it plunged me deep within the text to reveal answers to some of my questions; ones that would not have come to me through skimming the surface. The complete study of the "13 Ways of Looking at Literature" has expanded my mind to a different realm of thinking.

Although I was initially curious about the blue bowl and its symbolic significance of something extraordinary, I was not sure of what it represented until my final analysis now. I think the nature of its ambiguous message is comparative to the ambiguous nature of relationships; specifically lovers or those we find interest in. Regardless of what traditional symbolism holds for the color blue, dead bees, or rose petals; I believe the very idea of the inclusion of ambiguity was Hass' intention. The bigger meaning behind all of the context and subtext is the thought that relationships are complex, difficult, and hard to understand sometimes. "A Story About the Body" turned out to be an examination of the soul.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brown, James S., and Scott Yarbrough. A Practical Introduction to Literary Study. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005.

Cavalieri, G. Robert Hass: an interview by Grace Cavalieri. The American Poetry Review v. 26 (March/April 1997): 41-6. Humanities Full Text. Wilson Web. UW-Colleges. 25 Nov. 2008 <http://wilsonweb.com>.

Murfin, Ross., and Ray, Supriya M. "Approaches and Contexts" The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Bedford Books, 1998. Bedford St. Martin's virtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial. 8 Dec. 2008 <http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/crit_femin.html>

"Robert Hass." 2008. Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets. 20 Nov. 2008 <http://poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/194>

Rusch, Sonja. "Re: Danielle Olig-Feedback Please!" Online Posting. 18 Nov. 2008. Informal Peer Review of Your 13 Ways Project. 19 Nov. 2008. <http://www.uwc.edu>.