Introductions. Who needs them anyway? The poem called “The .38” by Ted Joans
1. Who is speaking?
The persona of this poem is the person that is in the upstairs room. This person that is in the upstairs room is recalling the sounds that he or she heard. The sounds are translated into a very powerful image: physical and emotional abuse.
In line twenty-one and line twenty-six the emotional abuse is shown. The reason I mention these two is because line twenty-one describes the “eerie silence” and line twenty-six describes someone’s threatening statements: “I warned you and now it is too late.” There are two striking differences here--silence and screaming. This is a very dramatic change, and something that is that dramatic will stay embedded with someone quite a while, causing emotional problems.
Even though the speaker never describes what he or she sees, the speaker knows where some items are located in the house. A couple examples of this are in lines twenty-two, thirty-two, and thirty-eight. In line twenty-two, there is a specific detail of where the gun lives: “I hear him open the top drawer of his bureau (the .38 lives there).” That proves that the speaker has either broken into that house or lived in there; I think that the speaker still lives there. The reason is simple. In paragraph thirty-two, the speaker describes the room as “overcrowded.” How is it possible the speaker knows that? The last example of this idea--the speaker has been or lives in the house--is in paragraph thirty-eight. Here is the line: “I hear him step into my room.” This line states that the speaker lives at this house. It is a single room that the speaker is in; the speaker calls it his room in line 38. It, therefore, can be assumed that the speaker is related to the people downstairs, because if the speaker was not young, he or she would be old enough to survive on he or she’s own. Nevertheless, the speaker does not move, not even out of the room.
This relation between the speaker and the couple downstairs is questionable in many ways. First, it is impossible to tell what gender the speaker is. The only way is through the words, and I think that it is a male voice. The reason is because of the description of the abuse; no, I am not falling in a stereotype here either--I hope. It is written much like some kind of Gothic piece. This poem has the grotesque but not the blood. The poem relies on the theme of domestic violence, not lonely insanity, leading to some kind of violence. There is a similarity though; it is in the idea that both poems create a disturbing vision through violence. Another reason I think it is a male is because the speaker tells in the poem that the man’s wife has a “beautiful body.”
Second, what is the relationship between the speaker and the man? In the first line the speaker represents the woman as “ the man downstairs slapping the hell out of his stupid wife/again.” The speaker is not a child of this couple, because the speaker would call her mother instead of “wife.” There is an exception to this though. If it were the speaker’s mother, the term wife may have been used, because he wanted to acknowledge her as his wife. This may be a way to fulfil one of Freud’s theories: the Oedipus Complex. There is not a whole lot to support this idea, but there is another piece--the beautiful body-- that I have already mentioned. This is just a possibility.
✓Another idea on this subject:
The speaker, I think, is the son of the wife beater, and the one reason I think this is because the speaker has lived with dad--the wife beater--and has learned certain behavioral characteristics from dad. The idea I am thinking of is the use of the word “stupid.” I know some people are just stupid--ignorant actually. But why would he--the speaker--use that word? Probably because one male--dad--somehow taught the other male--the speaker--that it is ok to think that women are stupid, because of some preconceived notion that the male species have about them. Actually, I think it deals with the female supposedly being dependent on the male. Or the supposedly irrational thought of women, while men are supposedly rational in their thought. An example of this, providing I am right when I say that this is a male voice, is the linear format of this poem. Keeping with the traditional roles above, a male is more likely to write in a linear format. A linear format is not that creative. The reason is that supposedly females are creative and emotional, while men follow orders; this poem follows a specific order.
There is one thing that is intriguing though: the speaker is tired of the abuse. In line one and one-half (I missed a line when I was numbering) the speaker says “again.” It is the only word in that line, putting a strong emphasis on it. This shows that the speaker knows that abuse is not right. But the speaker fails to do anything about it. He just stays in his room, afraid. Why? One reason is because he is afraid and behind a closed door. The speaker doesn’t have to deal with the problem directly, since he is closed off--hiding behind a door-- to the actual physical abuse. This is typical; if something can’t be seen, then it does not happen. It is wrong; nonetheless, the speaker falls into that trap though.
2. To whom is the speaker speaking?
The speaker is speaking aloud. He is purging himself from some emotions that he is experiencing by describing them while it is happening. This helps the speaker so that he does not focus as much on what is happening below him--the abuse downstairs. § (This idea is explained better in the next section, because I could not cut it out of the section below. It seemed to fit better there. The mark--§-- represents where the idea is picked up again in the next section. )
3. About what is the speaker speaking?
The speaker is describing a disturbing, abusive experience. It is similar to an observation. A perfect example of this is the first two words of every line-- “I hear.” Except it is not in lines one and one-half, 40, 42, 44, and 51. Lines 40, 42, 44, and 51 all have one common idea--the bullet and the gun. The size of the gun--a .38--is heavily emphasized through lines 42-49 and 51. This, perhaps, was done to emphasize the fact that a number is cold and an emotionless thing--the same as a cold and emotionless gun. This may also have been done to give the wife beater/killer a place in the end of the story, since he is not mentioned after line 39. The gun replaces the man, and this can be considered personification. The reason is because the gun does the abusing now, which originally was the man. One example is in line 48: “I hear it coming closer to my sweaty forehead the .38.” The .38 is the gun. The bullet has to come out of the gun, unless it was the gun itself coming closer. That, however, is not so though. There is a “bullet of death,” which is in line 46, on its way to meet his head, not the gun. Lines 47-49 and 51-52 exhibit personification, too.
Anyway, the observations are powerful. An example of this is in line 15: “I hear the blows of her head against my door.” The speaker is describing what is happening. This piece is in the present tense because of the two words “I hear.” To further this point, line 21 would say “I heard the eerie silence,” if it were in the past tense. This poem is set up in a linear fashion, which further illustrates that speaker is describing something. If something isn’t described in that fashion, the person listening or reading will be confused and not get the intended meaning, because it is the easiest to understand. This poem works well with this format; it keeps building up much like a pot of boiling water and then explodes.
This description may be necessary for the speaker, so that he can get rid of these thoughts while this ordeal is going on. It might have taken some horror out of the situation. The speaker manages to capture some of that fear. An example of this is in lines 33-38, describing the details of the door opening. That is pretty universal right there. Most people can sympathize deeply with the speaker, feeling a portion of the negative emotions that go with this poem, but the part with the door seems the most universal. Everyone has had an experience where he or she has heard footsteps down the hallway or down the stairs. Then he or she finds the door being tampered with or knocked on when no one is expected.
The rest of the disturbing abuse is hard to experience the full effect of, but it describes the physical abuse so well that it makes the reader feel excessively bad. Since the speaker is alone in the room, he needed to get rid of these feelings.
This is the part that I would label the climax. More specifically I think it would be around line 39, because until that time the speaker does not have to deal with the physical abuse directly. It is in that line right there that the speaker is confronted with his true physical fear--the wife beater and the gun. The fear of mystery torments him before this, not being able to see what is happening while he is in his room, which can be just as scary. In line 24, for example, the speaker shows his anxiety by describing an act of nervousness: “the drops of perspiration fall from my brow.”
4. Where is the speaker speaking?
The speaker is speaking from his room. An example is in line 38: “I hear him step into my room.” But where is the speaker before line 38? He is in the same room, hiding behind a closed door. There are many spots where this can be seen. Lines nine through thirteen prove that the speaker is behind his door. Line eleven is a good example: “I hear her banging on my door.” Also, the use of “I hear” in almost all the lines proves that he is somewhere other than where the abuse takes place. The place is his room.
5. When is the speaker speaking?
There is no definite time given. The only time that I could associate with it is at night. The reason is because of “the eerie silence.” I think that if it were taking place during daylight hours, there would be some kind of outside noise. Unless it took place out in the country where nobody roams. As I mentioned earlier it is in the present tense, so it is taking place in the now. It serves as a narrative which no matter what time it is read will still result in the same complexity of emotions. Time is universal here.
6. How is the speaker speaking?
There is the narration/description of what happens, and there is the dialogue the wife beater spoke. The narration/description part of the piece is everywhere. It does not matter at which line is looked at. The dialogue part is in lines 25 and 26. The speaker uses tag lines, but he does not include quotation marks. There is a lack of punctuation throughout this piece anyway. The only types of punctuation are parentheses, which are in line 19 and 22, and there is an exclamation mark in the last line, which is 53. There are dashes, too, in lines 20 and 30. The lack of punctuation was probably done to simulate how fast this abuse took place, leaving the chaos of running together lines.
Enjambment is seen in a couple lines; the lines are one and 1½, 39 and 40, 41 and 42, 43 and 44, and finally 50 and 51. I named both of the lines since both go together.
7. Why is the speaker speaking?
I think the speaker is speaking to eliminate some of the negative feelings associated with what he is experiencing. Instead of expressing these emotions to another human life form the speaker is expressing them on paper trying to alleviate and dull what is happening. The writing of this down could also serve as a kind of proof that this happened.