Study Guide for Lynn Martin’s Blue Bowl
Lynn Martin was born in Phoenix Arizona. Her parents both passed away in 1975 and was followed by the deaths of many people who were close to her, including a miscarriage and the most recent death of her husband. These personal blows are the influence and reason for her style of poetry.
She attended Arizona State University where she obtained her BA in English and MA in Humanities. She also attended the University of Washington where she got her MA in Advanced Writing.
She has two major influences that she draws from. One is Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) who was a German poet and writer. He wrote the Duino Elegies which have a lot in common with Lynn’s style of writing about death. The second influence is Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). He was an Italian poet and writer who’s most famous piece was titled “La Divina Commedia”, which was later translated to English and titled “The Inferno”. Lynn Martin traveled later in life to Italy to study Dante and in 1988 was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for her studies in Italy.
She has had two books published. The first was called “Where the Yellow Field Widened: Elegies for a Lost Child” in 1994 following her miscarriage, and “The Blue Bowl” in 2000.
Lynn Martin is now a retired teacher of Gig Harbor high school where she taught literature and writing.
In the words of Jim Bodeen: Lynn Martin is like the Blue Bowl because only a person who has lost so much can have such great compassion and understanding for others who are going through loss.
Writing for the New Yorker magazine, Noelle Oxenhandler wrote, “Lynn Martin’s poems walk straight into the deepest sorrow. There, face to face with the most terrifying state of unknowing, they expand outward to the farthest rim of affirmation—where the blue bowl holds everything.” Between 1975 and 1990, Lynn Martin experienced a series of devastating personal losses, and her book, Blue Bowl, not only memorializes each of the persons vanished from her life, but it is also a testament to the human need to reach outward in times of grief and sorrow, and to resist the isolation which threatens to overcome us. In the book’s title poem, she imagines her “blue bowl” as the sky, the great vessel in which all of creation is held. “I love . . . things able to hold,” she writes, “[able to] be held by other things.” Lynn Martin’s blue bowl is nothing less than the bonds of blood and faith which urge, even compel, us to companionship. If human beings are social creatures, then the blue bowl is the place we congregate. And pain itself can bind. As tragedy comes, we are met with the compassion of others who have weathered the same, and this bond of mutual suffering becomes a deeper bond of mutual hope, as we lead each other outward from the darkness and uncertainty of tragedy. ”When the new pain comes,” she writes in her poem “Cosmos,” the old pains/ do not walk out the door, but stand along beside them.” The searing pain of loss works, in the forges of the heart, a miracle.
Motifs and Symbols
Some of the recurring elements in Blue Bowl include water (rivers, rain, ocean, swimming, fish, waves, boats, lakes), colors (many colors, but blue and white seemed the most significant), flowers and trees, especially in blossom stage, though also throughout the seasons, light and/or dark, and wings and winged creatures, like birds and butterflies. These elements occur in nearly every poem and often are combined (i.e. flowers, trees, birds, and light or water).
A few of the poems that reference water include the following: “The Talk of Dying” (p. 21),“A Guest of Fishes” (p. 22), “Elegy for Stephen Tudor” (p. 29), “Third Elegy” (p. 41), “Entering Rain” (p. 75), “Intimacy,” (p. 79), “Where Everything is Red” (p. 85). Water symbolizes a number of things in these poems. Rain is often equated with tears and mourning. Swimming can be a journey or struggle (like flight, but more difficult and dangerous because of the water’s resistance, unpredictability, and power). Rivers also seem to symbolize a journey, always running to the sea. The sea itself seems to be a sort of wholeness or completeness and an expanse, which touches everything but is much larger and older than humans and is out of the realm of human control, almost like afterlife, a physical representation of the infinite (like space).
Colors and light and/or dark can be seen in these poems, among others: “The Blue Bowl” (p. 20), “Four Snows” (p. 33 - 36), “The Blue Hyacinth” (p. 67), “A Guest of Fishes” (p. 22), “It is Sunny” (p. 26), “Elegy for Stephen Tudor” (p. 29), “Four Snows” (p. 33 - 36), “Ecstatic Elegy” (p. 86), “The Wisteria” (p. 103). Blue is the most commonly referenced color in this book of poetry, often in association with the sky or water, which is what blue often symbolizes. Blue is sometimes associated with sadness. Blue is often associated with faith (even heaven), healing, calmness/serenity, wisdom, and seriousness, all of which seem appropriate for one who is grappling with great loss and the meaning of life. White is another commonly referenced color, a color associated with innocence, purity, light, and goodness. In her grief, we see the author exploring both darkness and light—grief, loss, and lack of understanding and hope, faith, and enlightenment—often grappling with both at the same time.
Martin’s references to flowers and trees, often in blossom stage (but also throughout the seasons)—apple trees, particularly, but also cherry blossoms, magnolia, poppies, dogwood, etc.—seem to tie the losses she’s experiencing into the greater “cycle of life” that can be seen in nature. Her particular reliance on springtime images at times suggest a sense of hope and understanding, but also at times simply serve to magnify her loss by showing death in contrast to new life. Most poems include references to the natural world, but a few examples include the following: “It is Sunny” (p. 26), “Prayer” (p. 27), “Four Snows” (p. 33), “Third Elegy” (p. 41), “Eighth Elegy” (p. 46), “Ninth Elegy” (p. 47), “Fasting” (p. 61), “High Sierra Trail, July” (p. 94), “Lace Curtains” (p. 98), “The Apple Tree Opens Its Fists” (p. 100), “The Ancient Plum” (p. 101). Martin’s discussion of the trees and flowers around her also contrast the desert (Phoenix) from where she herself originated; she is a “transplant.” These references also compliment references to water and other natural life, such as birds.
Imagery of wings or winged creatures seems to at times also highlight her struggle to find enlightenment during a time when it feels like her wings (her freedom and hope and future) are being broken by the weight of loss. A few examples: “ . . . my weakness dragging along, like broken wings . . .” (“Elegy for My Parents,” p. 25); “Butterflies land on the scarlet poppies. /Will I even again—have wings? . . . Cover me with your huge wings, summer night” (“Seventh Elegy,” p. 45); “With the given wind, birds coast, wings open” (“Twelfth Elegy,” p. 50), “oh, let my wings lower me into a nest of light” (“That Other Life,” p. 102). A few other poems that reference wings or winged creatures include “Solitude” (p. 62), “Two Butterflies” (p. 63), and “Cosmos,” (p. 84)
“ . . . if we’d open our arms” (“Come June,” p. 24), “ . . . I feel the darkness/rush towards me, and I open my arms” (“Under the Walnut Tree,” p. 88)
holding/being held (find poems)
Lynn Martin makes use of literary devices, such as personification, imagery, allusion, and metaphor, throughout her poetry.
In her poems, Martin often gives human-like qualities to natural life; for example, “The air proclaimed/its own buoyancy . . .” (“A Guest of Fishes,” p. 22) and “The whiteness of the plum blossoms cracks a smile” (“Fasting,” p. 61) and “ . . . Rain invites you . . . Rain’s gesture is ample and/innocent. It sings for itself . . .” (“Entering Rain,” p. 75). Martin creates mental images using concrete sensory details in poems, like “Four Snows, I. December Elegy” (p. 33): “Birds assemble to ornament/the trees, replacing apples. And I suddenly realize/something—feminine—about the sweep of nut trees/over the crest of a hill, their arc of ecstacy. It’s/Christmas Eve. I learn again who I am, alter of heart/to be left empty, which simply is, the stubble-yellow,/then, hundreds of white geese illuminate a green field.” The poem, “The Blue Hyacinth” (pp. 67 – 71), particularly, makes use of allusions, including modern painter, Matisse (and his bold blues), Odysseus and Penelope (The Odyssey—the heroic journey), Amma Syncletica (a “desert mother” of the Eastern Orthadox Church), and Thoreau (and civil disobedience). Another examples of the use of allusion can be seen in the poem, “Tuscany” (p. 87) , which includes references to Dionysius (Neoplatonic Christian Philosopher) and Van Gogh’s sunflower and iris paintings.Much of Martin’s metaphor use actually comes in the form of similes; for example, “ . . . to leave everything grey—like flattened hubcabs . . .” (“Early Elegy,” p. 39) and “ . . . my weaknesses dragging along, like broken wings,/my future like a mouth, unable to speak to the dead . . .” (“Elegy for My Parents,” p. 25) and “Cold hangs like stars do . . .” (“I. December Elegy,” p. 33). However, she also makes use of metaphor; for example, the last stanza in the poem, “Intimacy” (p. 79): “I am the pitcher which pours you . . . I am the window . . . I am the branch . . . I am the wood . . .”
1. What role does color play in Martin's poetry?
2. Martin is known as the poet of the elegy. What do elegies have to teach us? Do they do more than express sorrow?
3. What's the significance of the title/title poem? How does that guide our understanding of the book as a whole?
4. How do (or do) the original elegies ("Where the Yellow Field Widened: Elegies for a Lost Child") fit with the book as a whole?
5. Consider the line in "Tenth Elegy": "I understand the crimson leaf and plum swing on the same tree." How does this reveal the poem's (and book's?) theme?
6. In the “Ash Wednesday” section of the poem “Lenten Sequence,” Martin uses the refrain, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a line from Genesis 3:19. What other significance does this line have, within the poem and beyond it?
7. In “Prayer,” Martin writes, “I wish you doubt enough to keep you/ human, doubt enough to keep you clear.” How does she relate doubt and uncertainty to faith?
8. “Cosmos” compares the flight of a bird to the migration of souls. In describing life and death, how does the book’s use of natural images enhance our understanding?
9. “Lace Curtains,” like many of the book’s poems, uses some breathtaking metaphors. How is lace used in this particular poem?
10. The book’s last poem, “The Wisteria,” includes the poet’s wish for the style of her own death in its final stanza. What does this wish have to say about a collection of often dark poems?
11. “Eleventh Elegy” asks “Is it possible/ to love a love not from need?” In other words, can we do so both willingly and selflessly?