Kenyon’s criticism of burial and the mourning process and the manner in which it fails to provide a sense of closure for those who have lost a loved one is the main underlying theme in The Blue Bowl. Through her vivid description of both the natural setting and the grief-stricken emotional overtone surrounding the burial of a family’s house pet and the events that follow in the time after the cat is put to rest, Kenyon is able to invoke an emotional response from the reader that mirrors that of the poem’s actual characters. Her careful use of diction and the poem’s presentation through a first-person perspective, enables Kenyon to place the reader in the context of the poem, thus making the reader a participant rather than a mere observer. By combining these two literary techniques, Kenyon present a compelling argument with evidence supporting her critique of burial and the mourning process.
Kenyon’s choice of a first person perspective serves as one of two main techniques she uses in developing the reader’s ability to relate to the poem’s emotional implications and thus further her argument regarding the futility of mankind’s search for closure through the mourning process. By choosing to write the poem in the first person, Kenyon encourages the reader to interpret the poem as a story told by the same person who fell victim to the tragedy it details, rather than as a mere account of events observed by a third party. This insertion of the character into the story allows the reader to carefully interpret the messages expressed through her use of diction in describing the events during and after the burial.
The diction Kenyon employs for her description of the poem’s physical and psychological setting serves as Kenyon’s primary means for presenting her argument regarding the nature of the mourning process and its failure to help those who have lost loved ones. The poem’s first stanza begins as follows, “Like primitives we buried the cat with his bowl. Bare-handed we scraped sand and gravel back into the hole(1-4).” The first two words, “like primitives,” give the reader immediate insight into Kenyon’s opinion regarding the nature of the burial itself. She sees it as a means of coming to grips with death that is less evolved than the mental state of those that it attempts to help. When the first stanza is interpreted as a whole, the reader is able to understand that Kenyon’s criticism pertains to the symbolic meaning of the burial and its effects on those who perform it. By telling the reader that the cat has been buried with its bowl, Kenyon illustrates what intention the family has in burying not only the cat’s body but also in burying a main symbol of the cat’s life, which is to eliminate the cat’s influence on their lives altogether, in order to attempt to “move on.” The futility of this attempt to “scrape sand and gravel” onto the cat in order to begin the healing process is illustrated by Kenyon’s careful diction in describing the cat’s resting place as merely, “the hole.” Since it is, “the,” hole, it does not in fact belong to the cat. The bowl is referred to as, “his,” bowl, yet the hole does not attain this same label. This difference in description allows the reader to see Kenyon’s main criticism regarding the nature of graves and post-mortem rituals that are intended to help those who mourn the dead cope, which is that once a living thing is gone only that which was part of the being’s life can be permanently attached to it. Because graves and burials are not part of the actual life of the now-deceased, Kenyon urges the reader to devaluate their role in mourning because simply putting a loved one out of sight does not eliminate their existence. The next stanza describes the cat in great detail, referring to “his long red fur, the white feathers between his toes, and his long, not to say aquiline, nose (5-9).” This description is used as proof of the inability of a burial to provide the sense of closure that it seeks to provide because of the manner in which the memories of the cat’s likeness immediately consume the minds of those who are supposed to have just let go of such thoughts through the burial of the cat. Through a careful analysis of Kenyon’s diction in the first two stanzas, the alert reader is able to understand Kenyon’s argument regarding the failure of burial and attempts to merely “let go” in helping the psychological well-being of those who are in mourning.
The second two stanzas of the poem proceed past the burial to describe, through careful diction and the employment of a first-person perspective, the emotional state of the family after they are supposed to have said goodbye to the cat and finished with its burial, thus providing Kenyon with empirical evidence to support the claims she makes in the poem’s beginning. Immediately after the burial, the family, “stood and brushed each other off,” which Kenyon uses as a symbolic representation of the elimination of emotional burden that the burial is supposed to bring in the mourning process. They go on to remind the reader that, “there are sorrows keener than these.” Kenyon’s use of this statement attempting to minimize the impact of the cat’s death provides yet another reference to the falsity of the closure that mourning is supposed to bring when the events of the next stanza are interpreted. The last stanza describes the events following the supposed end to the mourning process by telling the reader that the family “worked, ateand slept,” which would indicate that life resumed as normal had the fact that they “remained silent the rest of the day,” and that during their normal daily routine they found themselves “staring” as much as they were performing their other tasks. Since it can generally be assumed that a normal family would not remain quiet for an entire day and spend much of their time simply staring off into space, the inclusion of these two details can be seen as an attempt by Kenyon to show the reader that their lives had in fact not returned to normal, and that the grieving process did not end with a mere brushing off of sand and gravel. The description of the singing robin as a “neighbor who means well but always says the wrong thing” in the last two lines provides for one last assertion that things had in fact not returned to normal by illustrating the family’s reluctance to accept the reality of a new day without their loved one. Kenyon uses this rejection of the dawning of a new day as a final rebuttal of the idea that death is simply forgotten through mourning, thus allowing her to illustrate one last example supporting her argument regarding the failure of burial and the mourning process to provide a sense of closure for those who have lost a loved one.
Through the careful use of diction presented through a first-person perspective, Kenyon is able to use The Blue Bowl as a medium for social commentary regarding what she sees as a primitive mourning process that does not help those who undertake it. Through a careful analysis of the poem, the reader is able to understand Kenyon’s critique of the mourning rituals that humans use to alleviate the grief caused by the death of a loved one and interpret the shortcomings that Kenyon finds. Kenyon’s use of perspective combined with specifically chosen diction enables her to present a social commentary regarding what she believes to be the inherent shortcomings in the emotional effects of the burial itself and the sense of closure it is supposed to bring yet fails to achieve during a typical period of mourning.