Next Day by Randall Jarrell
I think, generally, people wish they were
somewhere or someone else, no matter where they
are or how objectively good their situations are.
They're not really complaining; consciously they
know things are going relatively well for them,
but there is always that nostalgia for more
romantic times past, or that nagging what if in
the back of the mind.
These feelings, which more or less everyone has
more or less all of the time, are what Randall
Jarrell's poem Next Day is all about. The speaker,
a woman, is lamenting the realization that she is
getting old. Her major life decisions have been
made, and the grocery boy is not checking her out.
She thinks back, briefly, to when she was young
and delectable, but is not long in remembering her
family; her daughter, her sons, her husband; the
people she most loves.
The poem's opening images wisk you directly into a
supermarket, where the speaker is shopping among
other housewives "slacked or shorted." Aside from
just setting the scene, each of these images has
some thematic significance. Cheer, Joy, and All
are not only brands of laundry detergent, but are
states of mind through which she cycles. At first
she is cheery: perhaps it is a beautiful day, a
morning in May (line 43 says it is morning). She
is also experiencing moments of joy: thinking of
her children or the delicious meal ahead of her.
But soon she settles on the all: wondering about
the world and her place in it.
The Cornish game hens are a symbol of class in the
poem; Jarrell is trying to show that this woman is
financially well-off. He doubles this notion in
line 14 when the woman says she was poor when she
was young, implying that she is not poor now, and
then triples it with the mention of a maid in line
38 (It is interesting to note that the made and
the dog are put together on their own line, a sign
of the times, perhaps?).
William James, mentioned in line six, was one of
the cofounders of a school of philosophy called
pragmatism, which maintains that "both the meaning
and the truth of any idea is a function of its
practical outcome."1 James also said that true
ideas "lead through experience in ways that
provide consistency, orderliness, and
predictability."1 Jarrell is saying that the
speaker and the the other ladies in the store have
become defined by what they do: cooking and
cleaning and shopping. There lives have become
consistent, orderly, and predictable, and
therefore true. The speaker ignores the
"identical/ Food-gathering flocks" because they
are precisely what she does not what to be; she
chooses not to acknowledge them. Still feeling
Cheer, albeit a bit forced, she tries not to lets
these visions bother her.
In the second stanza, though, she cannot help but
buy the All, and begins to notice what she has
been trying not to notice: that she is getting
old, just like the other women. Even shutting her
eyes doesn't help as the grocery boy, with his
whole life ahead of him, loads her car. The boy
triggers a rush of nostalgia in stanzas three and
four, as the woman thinks back to when she was
"young and miserable and pretty," when she wanted
what she has now. But now her "wish/ Is womanish:"
she wants what she had then. She realizes that she
was miserable, yet she wants it anyway. It was
exciting; she was an individual, not part of a
Food-gathering flock, and people noticed her. "I
was good enough to eat: the world looked at me/
And its mouth watered." Now, in line 27, the boy
takes notice of the dog over her.
Lines 24-25, "And, holding their flesh within my
flesh, their vile/Imaginings within my imagining,"
most likely refer to sexual experiences she had in
youth with which she was less than overjoyed. But
it could also be said that now, looking back, part
of her is sorry that that era of her life is gone,
and now such "vile/ Imaginings" exist only within
her imagining. At some point she gave that life up
and took "the chance of life," perhaps marriage.
She thinks back again, on the drive home in lines
29-34, to that last illicit sexual moment, and how
glorious it seems in her memory. She recalls how
it left, at its finale, "upon the palm/Some soap
and water" (Joy?), and then she is snapped back
into reality, perhaps by a green light, and thinks
of her family. She realizes in the next few lines
that it is not her life that she wishes would
revert to that of her "Gay/ Twenties," but she
herself, and her body. She is very happy with her
life, and does not want it to change. "As I look
at my life,/ I am afraid/ Only that it will
change, as I am changing." She is upset about
getting old, not about a stagnant life. Her "sure
and unvarying days" give her life meaning, truth.
In the ninth stanza the speaker talks about the
funeral of a friend she attended the day before.
She found that her dead friend reminded her of
herself. "My friend's cold made-up face, .Ã‚Â .Ã‚Â .
dressed body/ Were my face and body," writes
Jarrell, using a three-line metaphor. Within this
is another metaphor, where Jarrell describes the
friend's face as "granite among its flowers."
The speaker sees herself as becoming this woman;
she doesn't have long to go. But then she imagines
her friend telling her how young she is, and this
is the voice of reason. The woman realizes she is
not so old, really, and that she is an individual,
special and exceptional. She counts her blessings,
momentarily out of the All and into the Cheer,
seeing the brighter (colors or whites?) side of
things as an allied third party, alive or dead,
would see them.
This epiphany does not last long, alas, and the
speaker again feels lost, again feels anonymous
and unimportant and old. She realizes, however,
that it is not her problem exclusively; "no one is
exceptional," she says, "no one has anything."
This is why the poem is appealing despite its
sentimentality. It truly speaks to everyone. The
feelings which the speaker is experiencing are
what drive people to buy fast cars, get facelifts,
and abandon their families. Genetics aside, these
emotions are the root of m