Summary and Analysis

5 Jan

Well, here’s a good reason to keep writing short:  “The poem might be annoying if it lasted much longer than it does.”

A site called eNotes has an analysis of the book’s title piece, and it actually asks some of the right questions.  But since the purpose of the site is to make money by keeping students from thinking for themselves, I have no compunction about reproducing the essay in full here.

* * *

“Lift your right arm” resembles some of Peter Cherches’s other works in its striking brevity. Cherches is a leading writer of “short short fiction” (or “very short fiction”), which condenses a narrative into a page or less. Certainly this poem seems motivated by the same impulse to be concise and thought-provoking. The less the writer explains things for us, the more we have to rely on our own interpretive assumptions and come to our own interpretive conclusions.

The poem begins by jumping “into the midst of things” (in medias res), immediately presenting us with a number of puzzles. Who, in the first place, is the unnamed (and never-named) “she” who is addressing the speaker in line 1? Who, in the second place, is the unnamed (and never-named) person to whom she is speaking? Why is “she” telling that person (is it a he? is it a she?) to lift his or her right arm? Why the right arm, specifically? What is the context? Some readers will immediately begin to imagine various scenarios that might provide answers to these questions. Is the “she” a doctor or a nurse? Is the unnamed person to whom she is giving instructions a patient? If so, what is the doctor or nurse looking at or for?

Part of the “point” of the poem, perhaps, is to illustrate how deeply humans abhor a vacuum of information. Our “natural” impulse, in some ways, is to begin filling in whatever interpretive blanks we encounter in anything we read. The poem is intriguing (and hard to leave unfinished) precisely because it refuses to tell us what it is all about. We continue reading partly because most of us cannot leave mysteries—even possibly trivial mysteries—unexplained. We need to know not only what happens, but also why.

The tone of the speaker is as mysterious as anything s/he says. Why is s/he telling us about this encounter? Why doesn’t s/he explain more fully what is going on? Why does s/he so readily and willingly follow each command s/he receives? What is s/he feeling as s/he obeys each instruction? Is s/he intimidated by the person giving the orders? Does s/he find the whole situation funny? Should we find it funny, or should we be as serious as the speaker seems to be? Or is that seriousness only mock seriousness, expressing a kind of dead-pan sense of humor? Some lines suggest this latter possibility, as in the concluding sentence of line 4:

  Lift your right arm, she said.

I lifted my right arm.

Lift your left arm, she said.

I lifted my left arm. Both of my arms were up. (1-4)

The poem might be annoying if it lasted much longer than it does. Instead, Cherches knows how to stimulate our curiosity without straining our patience. He creates just enough mystery to arouse and sustain our interest without leaving us so frustrated that we stop reading.

The end of the poem is in fact more mysterious than all that comes before. Just when we think we may have figured out who these people are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it, the speaker creates new puzzles:

  Silence. I stood there, both arms down, waiting for her next

command. After a while I got impatient and said, what next.

Now it’s your turn to give the orders, she said.

All right, I said. Tell me to lift my right arm.  (17-20)

The impatience the speaker begins to feel resembles the impatience the reader has also begun to experience. However, just when we begin to grow bored with the arms-up-and-down routine, the poem switches gears and then ends in a way that takes us, potentially, right back to the beginning.

The conclusion of the work raises a whole new set of interpretive questions. Is the relationship of the two characters more playful and familiar than it had earlier seemed? Is there perhaps an even slightly masochistic tinge to the speaker’s attitudes? Or are these two characters playing games with one another, and is the speaker playing games with us? The poem doesn’t obviously say, just as all throughout its length it cleverly uses clear and simple phrasing to say nothing very clearly at all.


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