On the 32 Poems Facebook page, we discussed our favorite poems. Julie Brooks Barbour took us up on our offer to write about one of her favorite poems. What follows is a brief essay on “Singapore” by Mary Oliver.
Singapore In Singapore, in the airport, a darkness was ripped from my eyes. In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open. A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl. Disgust argued in my stomach and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket. A poem should always have birds in it. Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees. A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling. A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. When the woman turned I could not answer her face. Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and neither could win. She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this? Everybody needs a job. Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor, which is dull enough. She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps, with a blue rag. Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing. She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird. I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life. And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and fly down to the river. This probably won’t happen. But maybe it will. If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it? Of course, it isn’t. Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only the light that can shine out of a life. I mean the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth, the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.
This poem was posted to my office door during the years I worked as Staff Support for a university composition program, supporting my husband through graduate school. At that time, graduate students and professors surrounded me, and many saw me as a secretary, nothing more. Like anyone else, I hoped I would one day arrive where I wanted to be and that this was simply a stopping place. I was always a grad student’s wife, uncertain about my place in the world.
What I love about this poem is its wide social significance. I didn’t post it on my door to remind others that my job didn’t define me. It was a reminder to not judge others by the jobs they perform. My position, though it may have paid more, did not make me a better person than a custodian or groundskeeper. This poem is a lesson in humility: though the work of another person may disgust her, the speaker realizes that she is no better than the woman because she can flee (“I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket”). The janitor’s smile is only for the speaker’s sake; her hair becomes as beautiful as the wing of a bird because she is human, not because she cleans toilets. The “darkness” that is “ripped” from the speaker’s eyes is the darkness associated with dirtiness, and, more possibly, class distinctions.
Though the title is important in defining place and how we, as readers, might visualize the woman in the poem, I think that is where its significance ends. Since the woman we meet through the speaker never utters a word, acting as a silent movie character, she could very well be any woman cleaning any airport anywhere in the world. What is most significant is the way in which the speaker argues against how the larger culture has taught her to treat a janitor or anyone working a job that would make her cringe, and how she accepts this woman as part of the world, as a human among humans, in the only way she knows how: through a poem.