A cup of fine tea: Elizabeth Schultz’s “Options”

Elizabeth Schultz’s “Options” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #10 of Cha)

-This post is written by Tammy Ho, with help from Reid Mitchell.

The narrators in “Options” (the poem is written in the first person plural) seem to demonstrate an almost disturbing matter-of-factness towards their situation. In the opening lines, we learn that they lived among caskets: ‘The coffins were always with us, / hollow trees, black and polished, / resting patiently along the wall’ (L1-L3). One thing to notice in these lines is that they are set in the past tense, the narrators claiming that the coffins ‘were always with us’, as if looking back at their situation. The description of the coffins suggests that they are either made of ebony or some other dark wood, or have been painted their dark colour. Whatever their exact material, the caskets were ‘resting patiently’, as if waiting for something to happen. What were the caskets waiting for? Did the narrators own a funeral home and the coffins were stored, in anticipation of future clients? Or were the speakers morbidly prepared for their own death? Or was their situation more sinister? Or perhaps the entire scene is strictly metaphorical?

The answers to these questions are never provided by the poem. However, as it develops, we do see how integral these tombs-in-waiting have become to the narrators’ lives: ‘Our dining table balanced between them. / We stretched out by them at night’ (L4-L5). There is a kind of mundanity in the way in which the narrators interact with the caskets, using them as part of their daily routine. However, there is also an almost overwhelming feeling of death surrounding them as well. Their dining table is balanced between them, as if they are only one or two meals away from death. Likewise, the narrators seem to practise being corpses every night as they stretch out next to the coffins.

What meaning you take away from the poem probably lies in your interpretation of the next section. As is suggested by the title of the piece, the reader is left with different ‘options’ for interpreting the following lines: ‘Occasionally the elders who owned / them visited that steaming attic. / They said none of us had long, / and gave the coffins a familial pat’ (L6-L9). For us, there are at least two likely but quite different interpretations. In the first, ‘the elders who owned / them’ are perhaps aging relatives to the narrators who are themselves children or a family living in the attic. (This particular image of a family inhabiting an attic is reminiscent of the diary of Anne Frank. The image is also uncannily similar to this story from a Chinese city:“Haunted Shanghai: Crazy People and Thieves”.) These elders seem obsessed with death and occasionally come to visit their own coffins. When they do, they also remind the narrators of the fleeting nature of life, telling them that ‘none of us had long’. ‘Us’ would suggest a sort of universal ‘we’. In the second interpretation, however, ‘us’ takes on a different meaning and refers to the same ‘us’ of the opening line, specifically that of the narrators themselves. The speakers are trapped by the elders who are telling them that they will soon be filling the coffins. In both options, the word ‘steaming’ is an intriguing choice. In the first interpretation, ‘steaming’ takes on a less sinister meaning: perhaps the family is cooking and it is the mist from a boiling pot. Or perhaps they live in a tropical climate and the attic is hot and sweaty. In the second, one can also imagine a tropical climate but the scene feels more claustrophobic and trapped; the imprisoned narrators are sweating in their baking quarters.

The conclusion of the poem also depends on how you see the previous section. The last lines read: ‘Late at night, we disputed fate, rattling / the dice on the floor and catching / their glint on the coffins’ hard lacquer’ (L10-L12). If we take the first interpretation, the narrators would seem to be playing dice to prolong the fate suggested by the elders. Again, perhaps there is a suggestion that we are in a tropical climate, this time an Asian one as lacquer was first developed in China. That the narrators are gambling with death using dice is suggestive; the term ‘roll them bones’ is an expression meaning to cast dice, which reminds us that early dice were made from animal remains. In this interpretation, the death-obsessed ancestors have already died, and the narrators are now looking back at their time spent living among the coffins. In light of the concluding lines, however, this interpretation does not seem as likely as the second. Here, the true meaning of the title “Options” is revealed as the trapped narrators gambled for their lives. Recalling the scene from the grave, they remember that they ‘disputed fate, rattling / the dice’ to decide who would be killed next; their games played ‘late at night’, near the end of their lives. Perhaps the dice are even made from their predecessors’ bones, the word ‘rattle’ suggesting the movements of a skeleton. If there was ambivalence in the narrators’ voice before, it has surely disappeared, being replaced by a sense of desperate bargaining with fate. However, there is only a temporary deal to be struck, and even the winners see the inflexibility of their fate in the ‘glint on the coffins’ hard lacquer’.

Elizabeth Schultz balances academic scholarship on Herman Melville and the environment with writing essays and poems about the people and places she loves. She has published a memoir, Shoreline: Seasons at the Lake; essays in The Nature of Kansas Lands; two collections of poems, Conversations and Her Voice; and a collection of short stories, The Last White-Skin Deer: Hoopa Stories.She writes a regular column, “Senses of Place”, for the Kansas Land Trust newsletter. In 2007, she was a Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and in 2008, she co-organized an international conference in ecocriticism in Beijing.

4 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Elizabeth Schultz’s “Options””

  1. Elizabeth Schultz Says:

    What an evocative interpretation of “Options” Tammy Ho has written! Yes, yes, I believe so fully in asking more questions than there are answers. Let me add the following to the fine cup of tea presented here: “Options” actually emerged from my summer visit to Yangshuo, a river town in southern China, where the weather was indeed steamy. Here, once on a back street and once on a country road, I did indeed see black lacquered family coffins set out in family living quarters. In the latter instance, I heard that the elderly farmer for whom the coffin had been made did indeed spend his nights sleeping in it. His coffin was open, and the light blankets were spread about. I thought, subsequently, of how these coffins, despite their ominous appearance, became as comfortable as family furniture–and, then, of course, of how we may also become comfortable with the inevitability of death itself. We just never know when or how it will arrive–that’s the roll of the di.

  2. t Says:

    More from Elizabeth:

    Your darker interpretation allows that black lacquer to really shine–and there’s no doubt about the fact that we’re all steaming in the same pot. Love these conversations.

  3. Lucy Lu Says:

    I’m really impressed by the way the narrator talks about death (coffin) – instead of an terrified feel death usually brings to us, the narrator demonstrates a calm manner towards the subject, the inevitable. “gave the coffins a familial pat”, how intimate, how easy an act. This brings a Chinese saying to my mind: “hong bai xi shi” or “weddings and funerals”, and also the story of Zhuangzi who sang at his wife’s death. After all, it is a cycle from birth to death; therefore in a sense, both can be celebrated. Great poem and review.

  4. Yamabuki Says:

    The poem reminds of the Buddhist practice of meditating in a graveyard The impermanence of life being the important lesson.

    Tammy seems to have gotten to the core of the poem’s meaning. Still as in dreams, symbols in poems are endless in their meaning.

    For myself I am strongly reminded of the movie Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa. Throughout the movie we hear a coffin maker hammering away, making more and more coffins. As the gamblers in the town kill and are killed in the feud between the two factions, we are reminded of the proximity of death. At one point one of the gamblers says “you can’t be a gambler if you are afraid to die”

    Yet, as in the poem, life goes on. We too live in the midst of death. Mostly it is sanitized and hidden from view, but it’s there all the same. And as if to balance out the hidden nature of death around us, we are constantly bombarded with images of death on the news and in the movies.

    On a more personal level, I recently remarked on death in an email. I said something to the effect that now that I am older, 63 years, I have become somewhat acquainted with death. As if we have become friends of sorts. Not that I have no fear, but rather that death seems more like a doorway back to the spirit world, a way home, rather than a black horror.


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