Commentary based on Poem by Elizabeth Brewster, written for a grade ten english class
|Just the title of Elizabeth Brewster’s work ‘New Year’s Day, 1978’ sets the tone for the rest of the poem. Traditionally a day of reflection and resolution, New Year’s Day represents mankind’s constant striving for something bigger – something better. Throughout the rest of ‘New Year’s Day’, the reader is sent through a symbolic journey of Brewster’s expectations in life. By the use of symbolism, metaphors and relativity, we catch glimpses potentials, disappointments, adversity, longing and, ultimately, hope.
The audience first realizes Brewster’s turmoil and isolation in the lines:
’You’ll be sitting alone in a highrise apartment
In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Writing a poem to yourself’
How disappointed would I have been?
The very idea of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan brings about feelings of smallness and a kind of limit set upon you by location; Saskatoon is not exactly a bustling city. Alongside the inferiority, writing a poem to yourself is lonely and belittling. Most commonly, poems are meant to express deep emotions like love and hate to people in a way that they can understand them. Therefore, it is very sad indeed to sit alone on New Year’s, a day for partying, while writing yourself a love letter.
Describing herself as a romantic young girl, the author sets forth a sarcastic, mocking tone exemplified when she says:
It’s easy to laugh at myself as I was then,
If I don’t envy myself.
Then, by pointing out the incurable shyness of her younger self, Brewster is able to reach into the audience and let the reader latch onto this familiar feeling. Full of aspirations of fame and love, the young girl has just reached a rite of passage of being “in love for the first time’. Thusly, the young girl believes that she has just begun her life; she is now a citizen of the world because she now knows what love is. She is, in her mind, now officially an adult to be treated as such.
Fame, I thought.
Love, I thought.
Sons and daughters.
A big house with an orchard behind it.
Expectations for a good, wholesome life have begun, as represented by the orchard behind the big house. By hoping for sons and daughters, the author is hoping for permanent roots and for the continuation of her lineage. Athens and Troy symbolize the thirst for the sophistication and knowledge which the Greeks are known for.
However, there is a phrase: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Almost because Brewster wished for stability, love and fame, the exact opposite was given to her. Now she lives her life ‘in rented rooms’, a residence, which by its very nature, means the constant upheaval of lives and the impossibility of a true home. All of the author’s ‘loves have been temporary’, meaning she has never found the one to stay with her always. Because there has been no permanence in her love life, there have been no children, symbolizing the author’s lack of future potential. Not knowing the location of Athens or Troy is a slap in the face to the author’s childhood wishes of knowledge. Instead, the author has only realized that she does not know as much as she once thought she did because she does not even know where to find the knowledge. To paraphrase Rene Descartes, she is now only sure of one thing, and that is that she knows nothing. Brewster’s despair and disappointment is most fragrantly displayed when she admits that the God she once believed in strongly, she now believes in intermittently. The audience is forced to ask: did the dissatisfaction of life affect her so greatly that she could only believe in God when things were going well?
However, in the seventh stanza, the author chooses to toss aside her disillusionment and instead use it to build her character. Brewster takes charge of her life when she decides to learn from what she experienced. Her experiences are emphasized to the reader in the lines:
Would not omit depressions, wars, conflicts,
Or this solitude in which I drink coffee.
In juxtaposing the idea of conflict and chaos with peace and solitude, Brewster begins to rekindle her faith in life by pointing out the good and the bad. The revitalization is further conveyed in the metaphors:
Smoke rises. The river flows under the ice.
There is a new blossom on my geranium.
Where there is smoke, there is fire, and it is still burning, going, just like the author’s life. ‘The river flows under the ice’ is a phrase in which the ice is symbolic of the ‘rut’ that the author has become stuck in, believing in only the negativities. However, the author recognizes that she can still embrace life, if she chooses by ‘melting the ice’ and allowing the river, her life, to flow again. Of course, the new blossom is metaphorical of the new hope in life.
In the tenth stanza, as paralleled in the fourth stanza, the author is once again placing all her faith in the future; hoping that tomorrow will be better. In understating marriage later in life, making light of it by referencing an old age pension, the author stimulates the tone from the beginning of the poem. For an instant, the author lets go of the new, hopeful, maybe even excited, tone, and once again embraces a sarcastic, almost bitter tone.
Finally, in the last stanza:
In heaven I shall be a ballet dancer,
Creating perfect patterns
Brewster decides that if life should fail her even more, there is always heaven. She believes that in heaven, she shall be a ‘ballet dancer’ who is poised, precise, graceful and vital, able to make ‘perfect patterns’ in which everything settles into place. Unlike life, in heaven, she will be able to express herself and what she wants without words, or in this context, without poems. In heaven, there is no trying, there is no failing, and there is no exasperation, only and extraordinary utopia where everything simply is.
In conclusion, “New Year’s Day’ is a sequence of events reminisced upon, where the author examines her life’s expectations. We witness, through her words, her hopefulness and her voracity for life even after many disappointments. For even though nothing turned out as planned, the author dealt with what came and accepted it, but still she hoped for a better tomorrow. Her disenchantment was conveyed through texts as subtle as ‘the delicate tracery of hoarfrost on berries.’ The generalization of Brewster’s life allowed the reader to connect with her and enabled the mood to flow as the tone changed throughout the poem. Brewster’s convictions ring true throughout the poem, even as she acknowledges that only in heaven can true fulfillment be achieved.