Disclaimer: I won’t be doing most of the assignments, but I thought I would do this one if I had some down time. I had some down time.
In the Department Store
T. S. Eliot
The lady of the porcelain department
smiles at the world through a set of false teeth.
She is business-like and keeps a pencil in her hair.
But behind her sharpened eyes take flight
the summer evenings in the park
and heated nights in second story dance halls.
Man’s life is powerless and brief and dark.
It is not possible for me to make her happy.
The above is a little known poem by T.S. Eliot (I know, I feel like I should be writing about a female poet, too, considering T.S. Eliot is one of the “great, dead, white men” we often read about) that I took the time to keep to memory. I confess I am not a huge Eliot fan, though I do appreciate his work and find some of his imagery fascinating. In this poem, however, I love his simplicity. I love the ending.
Here is a woman, who one assumes is unremarkable, who works in retail. She looks just like any other person, or woman, if you will. She smiles when appropriate. She welcomes customers. She probably appears ordinary. But this is all deceiving, of course, as it is whenever we encounter anyone like her. As Eliot reminds us, “behind her sharpened eyes take flight” a listing of memories. As readers we wonder about those summer evenings in the park and perhaps remember our own experiences. Eliot also tells us the nights in second story dance halls are “heated” with sexuality and intrique, or so we presume as readers often do.
But then we don’t know for certain. We just fill in the blanks.
The ending is what gets me each time. [My life] is powerless and brief and dark / it is not possible [to make someone] happy. I love the realization. I love the charge you get as a reader when you finally get to the end of that and realize, oh. Yeah. No one can do that. He cannot. I cannot. No one. It is sudden and powerful and in some wonderful way a relief.
And we leave the poem. We go about our day. The memory of that final line stays with us, though, or at least it did for me because if there is anything I remember best about this poem, it occurs in those final lines.
It is not possible for me to make her [or anyone] happy.
I remember that. I keep going.
P.S. There is an interesting article about this poem that can be found here. It is a JSTOR link, so you know what you have to do if you want to read it.