On the surface she is writing about how we appreciate something even more in its absence – we love water when thirsty, and we miss the ones we loved when we stand at their grave (“memorial”) – but the way each image is connected within the poem speaks to a unity that brings everything together and creates an image not of loss but of nothing ever truly being lost or left wanting.
The first line introduces a sense of wanting that is felt by the body: being thirsty. While water is necessary to all life, it is strictly a biological need that all living things require but is not a need that one would consider philosophical, it is strictly utilitarian. In this sense it is the most basic of needs and one that we can go the least amount of time in its absence and thus we are continually being “taught” by thirst since we are perpetually in a state of being thirsty. There is also some subtle wordplay here with “taught” which can be read as ‘taut’, being stretched by, thus giving us a physical description of being thirsty as if our tongues were taut with thirst.
The second line expands her metaphor from out of the individual’s body to encompass the whole physical world which contains every body. All people require a home (on dry “Land”) but on a deeper level we miss our “Land” when we are no longer in it: being homesick. She implies this sense of missing out “Land” with the image of “Oceans passed” as if we were on a train or travelling along the coast as the ocean rolls past as we make our way to a new, distant “Land” but all the while we think of the “Land” we are leaving behind.
She enforces this image of movement in the third line with “Transport” in which she connects the idea of being physically transported (as on a journey far from our “Land”) to the use of the word emotionally, as in being transported by joy or by pain, which she describes as a “throe”. She has moved the poem inward from describing those things which we physically can’t do without (“water”, “Land”) to the things we emotionally can’t do without and which causes us pain when we are separated from (as when we miss our loved one) but that we might not truly appreciate until we are separated from them.
The fourth line combines the previous images into the idea of conflict and war compared to peace. Perhaps the reason why someone might be on the road and far from home is because they are a refugee or have been conscripted into the Navy and are “Oceans passed” home on the other side of the world, surrounded by strangers, surrounded by undrinkable salt water, and desperately homesick.
The fifth line connects to the fourth, but is from the point of view of the person who missed them but, perhaps never came home and all that is left is the “memorial mold”. My footnotes tell me that “mold” is Emily’s way of describing a photograph – of which her father did not yet have one of her unlike the rest of the family – but the word implies more than a molded memorial, such as a cast bust of someone. Rather, it also implies ‘mould’ as in the topsoil or the ground where someone is buried which then also implies the image of a gravestone, but also “mold” as in decay and time past as well as the mold that gathers on our emotions when we for too long take for granted something we should have paid closer care to, such as the memory of a friend who left home long ago – perhaps to sail across the “Oceans” but never returned and only now, as we stand at their grave, do we understand how much we miss them and how much we loved them.
In the final line she again uses the image of the bird which she commonly uses in her poems to describe faith, such as in “Once more, my now bewildered Dove“. But this image of a bird also implies the emotional state of the person standing at the “memorial mold” as their longing flies out across the abyss of death (she commonly refers to death with winter imagery; here it’s “snow”) to connect to the person on a spiritual level, perhaps to ask for forgiveness for having forgotten them or not loving them enough when they were still alive and back home in their “Land”.
Thus she moves the poem from the purely physical level, as with “water”, to the spiritual sphere which transcends both life and death and consists chiefly of our emotional state. And by using images which connect to each other: “water” is to the “Oceans” and upon the oceans people are “transport” (both physically and emotionally) and the people are transported to “battles told” and this telling brings back news of the dead whom we build a “memorial mold” at which we stand as our prayers are like “Birds” who fly over frozen wastes of death (“snow”) towards heaven in hopes that the dearly departed will hear our prayers and be comforted by our grief and our remembrances. And it is in this contentedness which gives us hope that we are not truly lacking anything or anyone, we are all connected for all eternity, but sometimes that connection is physical, sometimes it is spiritual and emotional.
This is a spectacular poem and is in the running for my favorite.