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Easter by Jill Alexander Essbaum

“Easter,” a poem by American poet Jill Alexander Essbaum, first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine. This poem is about a speaker’s, usually understood as Essbaum’s personal reflection upon the celebrated Western Christian holiday. It’s a day of happiness and joy as Lord Jesus was said to have resurrected to heaven on that particular auspicious day. Easter, for Christians, comes after Lent, a long period of sacrifice and penance. So, on the last day of the Holy week, everyone comes together to rejoice in the festival and reaffirm their faith in the holy concepts of goodness and rebirth.

Essbaum, in this poem, however, takes a different stance to the conventional one and describes her feelings of sadness which she experiences during the season. As a post-modern poet, Essbaum’s poems are haunted by uncertainty and doubt over the conventional understanding of happiness and joy. Yet, her poems lend a certain kind of comfort to all those who, perhaps for various reasons, cannot be happy on the days when one is required to be cheerful.

  • Read the full text of “Easter” below:
Easter Poems
Easter Poems | Poemotopia
Easter
by Jill Alexander Essbaum

is my season
of defeat.

Though all
is green

and death
is done,  

I feel alone.
As if the stone

rolled off
from the head

of the tomb
is lodged

in the doorframe
of my room,

and everyone
I’ve ever loved

lives happily
just past

my able reach.
And each time

Jesus rises
I’m reminded

of this marble
fact:

they are not
coming back.

- from Poetry (January 2011)
Analysis of Easter by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Summary

Easter is the “season of defeat” for the speaker. Despite the atmosphere being “green,” she feels lonely, somehow unable to blend in with the joy of the spring. During Easter, “death” is said to be “done” because Jesus resurrected on this holy day after his crucifixion. But the speaker cannot feel this optimism, almost as if the heavy headstone of a grave has “rolled off” and “lodged” itself outside her door, making it impossible for her to come out and be a part of the celebration.

Then, the speaker reflects upon how all the people the speaker has ever loved seem to be out of her reach. They are all happy, but they are very far away from her (or dead). Each year when Easter comes around, the speaker is reminded of this brutal “fact”; even if Jesus comes back, her loved ones will not return.

Meaning

In her personal essay, “Easter, and the Christians are at it again, raising the dead.” (published on April 6, 2012), Essbaum talks about the feelings she expresses in “Easter.” She explains or tries to, the reasons behind her sadness on Easter:

Indomitable faith isn’t my strong suit.  I’m pretty good at misgiving; doubt’s my specialty.  Trust? A habit I’ve unlearned.  My conviction is never convinced and what assurance I do have is never, but never blessèd.  Therefore my belief in God comes and goes in the manner of a city train: it chugs from Skepticism as if it were a northern suburb and it runs all the way down to Denial, an outlying town at the end of the line.  And while I do indeed disembark at Spirituality Central Station often enough to know which tram will get me to the cathedral without having to look it up in a Frommer’s, at some point I get back on the train.  It’s inevitable.

The speaker is uncertain about God and His Grace, so she cannot participate, as she says in the poem, in the stable happiness the people around her feel during Easter. Her dead loved ones will no longer return, and that is why she, who carries her “emotions just under the skin,” cries on Easter, for those she had lost, for God, and for herself.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Essbaum is prone to place non-traditional subjects inside traditional structures almost as irony, and in her poem “Easter,” she does the same. The speaker, most often equated with the poet, is a woman undergoing feelings of sadness and despair during Easter or spring. The poem is written from her point of view in first-person. Consisting of a total of twenty-six lines, the poem is divided into thirteen couplets. It does not have end rhymes, but it does have slant rhymes, such as in “fact” and “back.” These words do not produce identical sounds, but the “k” sound somehow resonates. Apart from that, there are some perfectly rhyming words, such as:

  • “season” and “done”
  • “alone” and “stone”
  • “tomb” and “room”

The length of the lines is short. Some contain only a few syllables, such as “and death/ is done” – have two syllables each. The long lines have only four syllables: “As if the stone,” “in the door-frame,” etc. The poem does not have a set metrical scheme. Essbaum mostly uses iambic rhythm with a number of variations.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

In this poem, Essbaum uses some important poetic devices in order to make the speaker’s feelings more appealing to readers. Let’s have a look at some devices used in the poem.

Assonance

The resemblance of sounds in a line due to identical vowels is known as assonance. Essbaum uses assonance to create an internal rhyming. Some examples of used assonance are:

  • alone./ As”
  • “stone/ rolled”
  • everyone/ I’ve ever”
  • “lives happily”
  • “reach./ And each”

Alliteration

Alliteration refers to the repetition of a similar sound at the beginning of closely placed words. Some examples of alliteration from the poem include:

  • death/ is done”
  • the doorframe”
  • everyone/ I’ve ever”
  • loved/ lives”

Enjambment

Enjambment occurs when one line spills onto the next. It forces readers to read the lines together in order to grasp the idea. Essbaum uses this device throughout the poem. For instance, the first two lines are enjambed:

[Easter]

is my season

of defeat.

It can also be found in the following lines:

As if the stone

rolled off

from the head

of the tomb

is lodged

in the doorframe

of my room.

Metaphor

Essbaum’s poem begins with a metaphor, “[Easter]/ is my season/ of defeat.” The speaker compares the season (spring) to her emotional defeat. Therefore, the two parties in battle are the speaker’s mind and nature. This year-long battle comes to an end with her defeat in spring. Alongside that, the “marble/ fact” is a metaphor for a harsh (or hard) truth.

Allusion

The line “Jesus rises” is an allusion to Christ’s ascension to heaven after the crucifixion.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-7

[Easter]

is my season

of defeat.

Though all

is green

and death

is done,  

I feel alone.

The first word/line of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poem is the title of the poem itself. “Easter” or spring is the time the poet specifically talks about in this poem. The speaker feels helpless and defeated during this time each year. Even if the weather is nice and nature is in new attire, she feels absolutely “alone” for some underlying pain. Since Easter stands for resurrection and rebirth, it is a season of joy and light for Christians.

However, for the speaker, it is a time when she feels the loneliest. Families celebrate, but perhaps the speaker feels a void in her life for her dead family members. That’s why she feels so deserted and unhappy during this time supposed to be spent with one’s loved ones. This is a highly genuine theme because so many people in the world feel sad and desperate during festivities due to personal loss and the death of loved ones.

Lines 8-19

As if the stone

rolled off

from the head

of the tomb

is lodged

in the doorframe

of my room,

and everyone

I’ve ever loved

lives happily

just past

my able reach.

Death, grief, and loneliness haunt the speaker in these lines. She explains her mental state with the brilliant imagery of a metaphorical headstone of a tomb “lodged” in her “doorframe.” This stone of separation prevents her from coming out to enjoy the celebrations observed on Easter like everybody else. Those the speaker has ever loved seem to be happy, but she feels that she cannot have that same happiness because all those people are out of her “able reach.” Now, the season literally intimidates and enrage the speaker. These lines are poignantly relatable to all those who struggle to be happy like others but fail due to certain experiences and circumstances.

Lines 20-26

And each time

Jesus rises

I’m reminded

of this marble

fact:

they are not

coming back.

Jesus was resurrected during Easter after his crucifixion, and that is why the week of his ascension to heaven is considered to be holy for Christians. Every year during spring, they celebrate the resurrection. Masses held at churches praise the Lord’s glory in performing such miraculous tasks. However, amidst all such events, the only thing the speaker thinks about is even if Jesus can return, her loved ones cannot. They are taken away from her forever.

She asks emotively in her essay,

Where did you go, Jesus, I’m dying (ha!) to ask.  How did you return?  Did it hurt getting stuffed back into your body?  Do you remember what happened in between those two events?  Where is everyone else?  Do they want to come back?  Where you gonna put everyone?  What happens if someone’s body got burned?  Whose do they get?  Why do you have to die to live forever?

These are her thoughts during Easter because she wants to know if Jesus can come back why her loved ones don’t. Where have they gone? What is she supposed to do on Earth without them? All these churns inside her head, making her feel lost and disturbed.

Historical Context

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s writings question and explore religion, spirituality, the connection of the mind and body to reflect upon life with all its nuances, nuances that often get overshadowed by the conventional aspects and expectations of life. Essbaum frequently challenges accepted norms towards an understanding of life and human beings, and her poetry is in tune with such practices of hers. Her position in a postmodern world is one of uncertainty and instability. Still, regardless of that, her poetry has a comfort of its own that makes people who cannot tap on with the flow of life feel comforted and understood. All who feel the aching gap inside due to the loss of loved ones during the festive season the most can relate to the poem “Easter.”

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum about?

More so than being about the celebration of Easter, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poem is about human emotions. She describes how a speaker cannot feel happy during the season. What she can only feel is loneliness. This can be generalized to any happy moment one person cannot participate in due to personal issues. In “Spring,” Edna St. Vincent Millay also explores this nuanced theme where she presents a speaker enraged by the vitality of nature during spring.

What is the meaning of “Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum?

The title of Essbaum’s poem hints at, not clarifies, the actual subject matter that deals with the clash between human emotions and nature. Easter is the season of festivities for Christians as well as the season of spring. Though everything around the speaker is “green,” the whiteness of the “marble fact” haunts her deep. She feels desperate and enraged by the fact that Christ can rise and descend, whereas her loved ones’ had a one-way ticket to heaven. Her mental state can be compared with the speaker of “The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sidney, who feels the same when confronted by the song of the nightingale in spring.

Why does the speaker describe the fact of her loved ones not coming back as a “marble fact”?

The speaker knows that while orthodox Christians believe in the presence of God and Jesus’ return, nothing truly can bring back her loved ones. Miracles only happen in myths. Those events have no significance in real life. So, the fact that her loved ones will never return is marble-like, strong, and unyielding.

Why does Essabum use the imagery of the headstone in the poem “Easter”?

The headstone imagery is symbolic of the poet’s sadness regarding her lost loved ones. Her grievings over them prevent her from being truly happy during happy occasions. The headstone blocking her door is symbolic of the separation between the speaker and her loved ones, her expectations and reality, and happiness and grief.


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