Old Folk's Home, Jerusalem

Dove, Rita

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Taylor, Nancy
  • Date of entry: Oct-21-1997


Visiting an old folk's home in Jerusalem, the narrator notes the details of life and of nature--evening, the bees' buzzing busy-ness gone for the day, "the honeysuckle / in its golden dotage, all the sickrooms ajar." There ends, however, the "normal," for in the next lines we are brought up short with "Law of the Innocents: What doesn't end, sloshes over . . . even here, where destiny girds the cucumber." What are the Innocents doing in an old folk's home? And are the honeysuckle and cucumber vines the "destiny"--the liquid life-lines of feeding and IV tubes--that "gird" the occupants?

In the second stanza, the narrator recognizes that no matter what the occupants (or the narrator himself/herself) have ever accomplished, nothing of worldly success matters here. What is real are "horned thumbnail[s] hooked into an ear" and "gray underwear wadded over a belt."

The third stanza shows the narrator trying to come to terms with what he or she has seen and learned: old age is "minimalist," like the night air and the desert; light cannot overcome darkness; all that remains is the moment, itself nothing of any great magnitude: "finch chit and my sandal's / inconsequential crunch." The last stanza, one line, reads: "Everyone waiting here was once in love."


This poem is about our human equality, about what is and isn't important, and about the emptiness of waiting for death. Dove's ability to use words both literally and metaphorically enrich and deepen the poem's meanings. "Evening," and "the dark," imply life's end as well as times of day; "waiting" and "minimalist" and "desert" imply emptiness. The proximity of "ajar" and "sloshes" makes us think of slopjars; the night as "needlepoint with raw moon as signature" speaks of puncture wounds and bedsores; "the honeysuckle in its golden dotage" of the sickly-sweet and sour of urine and unwashed bodies.

"So you wrote a few poems," the narrator says to himself or to the occupants. The horned thumbnail doesn't care; the gray underwear says So what. And outside, in the "real" world, it is night, and we are in the desert on a plain looking down on the valley settlements that "put on their lights / like armor." But their attempts to stave off death are useless. The only "real" things are sounds: the finch's "chit," itself minimalist, and the poet's sandal's wonderfully onomatopoeic "inconsequential crunch"--a metaphor, perhaps, for the value of our space of time upon the planet.

But it is in the last line that Dove subtly reminds us of what is to come for each of us. We who were "once in love" will someday be the occupants of old folk's homes. It is this line that even the young student or resident can relate to, a line that may make them realize that the "old folks" might be real people after all.

Primary Source

Grace Notes


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York