The Vacuum by Howard Nemerov talks about a widower and his late wife, and how he uses the vacuum as a symbol for her death. The poem expresses deep sorrow and sadness that derive from the loneliness of the speaker, after his other half’s passing away. Nemerov attempts to take his readers on a grief-stricken Journey, by strategically employing fgurative language (mainly personification, metaphor, simile, and alliteration), fractured rhyme schemes and turns in stanza breaks in the poem.
The poem itself has many examples of personification all throughout the stanzas, uggesting that the speaker highly connects the vacuum to his wife and her demise, as well as to his ordeal after losing her;
“the vacuum cleaner sulks in the closet” (line 2), “Because there is old filth everywhere/She used to crawl, in the corner and under the stair” (lines 11-12), “its mouth/grinning into the floor, maybe at my slovenly life, my dog-dead youth” (lines 3-4) and “biting at air” (line 15).
The first type of personification refers to the vacuum showing attributes of a human being, who “sulks”. It can be assumed that since the death of his wife, the vacuum is o longer being used, and now sits in the corner closet. Also, this type of personification can be seen as a reflection of the speaker’s sadness, showing that he, too, is sulking of her demise. In relation to that, the second example of personification reflects the emptiness of the speaker and how his wife’s absence can be felt through the vacuum.
She used to crawl, in the corner and under the stair” suggests that his wife actively used the vacuum to perform housecleaning when she was still alive. With her demise, it can be seen that the speaker did not take up the cleaning role of is wife, thus “there is old filth everywhere”. The third example of personification is made in relation to the vacuum being perceived as a fgure of death, who is mocking the speaker. Since his wife has died, it seems as if the vacuum is “grinning” at him for his misery and pathetic state, and that his life has now become “slovenly’ and “dog-dead”.
Finally, the last personification “biting at air” refers to the similar attributes of the vacuum and the speaker; a (personified) vacuum bites at the air when it is put into use, while the widower bites at the air out of the emptiness and grief he feels after osing his wife. Apart from this, simile and metaphor are also present in the poem. The expression “Its bag limp as a stopped lung” (line 3) shows the use of simile; the bag is limp and can no longer move, Just like a stopped lung.
In context, a stopped lung is attributed death. This reflects the comparison between the vacuum’s inertness and that of the wife’s body. Also, the phrase “l know now how life is cheap as dirt” (line 13) shows that the speaker’s new perception on his life without his wife; sorrowful and meaningless. In addition to that, Nemerov takes advantage of many other forms of figurative anguage, to show the speaker’s connection to the vacuum and the death of his wife.
But when my old woman died her soul Went into that vacuum cleaner, and I cant bear To see the bag swell like a belly, eating the dust And the woolen mice, and begin to howl” (lines 7-10) From this extraction, the speaker is looking back at the experience of his wife’s death. It can be seen that the speaker thinks the vacuum has been possessed by his wife’s soul after death in the phrase “But when my old woman died her soul went into that vacuum cleaner”. From then on, he proceeds in relating the actions of the vacuum nd how it depicts his wife’s demise.
The bag (which was previously described as limp) is now “swelling like a belly’, reflecting the wife’s body prior to her death. Also, the phrase “eating the dust” bears resemblance to the term “bite the dust”, which is a common metaphor for dying. Finally, after her painful ordeal, the wife “begins to howl” out of her suffering and dies. Furthermore, Nemerov also employed alliteration to the poem, reflecting the widower’s constant sorrow and agony. “And still the hungry, angry heart/ Hangs on and howls, biting at air. ” (lines 14-15).
The repetitive use of ‘h’ in words ‘hangs’ and ‘howls’, as well as the similarity of pronunciation in words “hungry’ and “angry’ adds emphasis to the suffering of the widower. It can also be seen that Nemerov used a fractured rhyme scheme when writing the poem. Words like “mouth/youth”, “soul/howl”, “dirt/heart” show examples of the rhyme scheme that the poet has used. The words rhyme in a slant way and do not rhyme directly, which may suggest the feeling of incompleteness that the speaker is experiencing without his wife, as opposed to direct rhyming words that may show a omewhat positive tone and feeling of wholeness in a poem.
Apart from that, the poem consists of a series of turns that reflect different parts of the speaker’s feelings and the experiences he had. The significance of these turns is made possible through the use of stanza breaks. For example, the first stanza is written in relation to the speaker’s point of view about the vacuum and how he perceives it as a taunting, living thing that has vacuumed out the meaning of his life in his old age. In the second stanza, the focus shifts towards the speaker’s wife and ow she has come to possess the vacuum.
From this stanza, it can be seen that the perhaps a more worried and speculative tone. Finally, the third stanza refers to the aftermath of his wife’s death, in which he shifts his tone of speaking to a more resentful tone, filled with hopelessness and melancholy. Towards the end of this final stanza, it can be seen that the speaker is showing signs of bitterness towards life, with him concluding that his life has lost its purpose and that he is bound to be alone and miserable for the rest of his life.
After having analysed the poem, it can be observed that NemeroVs frequent use of figurative language was the key element that took readers on a Journey filled with sorrow and loneliness; with personification as the most significant type of figurative language throughout the poem. The theme of the poem, which is focused on dealing with the death of a loved one, suggests that perhaps everyone will have to experience grief at one point in their lives, and that different people will take different approaches on overcoming such a painful and intense ordeal.