The poem in its entirety paints a tableau in which the subtext and full meaning is betrayed by the minimalist approach of description with imagery drawing its power from its simplicity of language which is also a betrayal of its complex ambiguity.
The place is the waiting room in the offices of a mental health counselor. The very first line provides a simple, but undeniably ambiguous image of the girl whose mother has brought her to see this counselor. There is ambiguity galore in her being compared to terra cotta which contrasts quite sharply with the immediate image that is supplied by the information that she is a farm girl with big feet who sits reading a book with her shoes off.
Another contrast at work: we know she’s got her shoes off because her toes are drawing lines in the rug. We do not know the title of the book she is reading; only that is a paperback about existentialism that she is reading for her class in psychology.
Although the title may elude the reader, the reader given tremendous insight into the possibility of why this girl is taking a psychology class and she has brought a book existentialism with her to the mental health counselor her mother is forcing her to see.
The girl is trying to discover why she feels guilty about being in love. We not only know that she is in love, we know with whom and we get a fairly strong idea of where they met.
Probably in the dorm they share where the object of the girl’s guilty love occupies a room down the hall. That room is presently occupied by another girl. A girl who may herself be uncomfortable with her own lesbianism because the one used to describe her is “quiet.”
Both girls are from the same region of the country, if not necessarily the same town or even state. They both hail from a region where the Baptist churches are plentiful and the religious belief expresses itself through strongly held moral convictions. One of those convictions is that woman was built by God to give herself to man for the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying.
Another of those convictions is that if one girl is in love with another girl, not only it is morally wrong, it is a sign of a mental disorder. A mental disorder that, like most others, can be cured. Starting with help from a professional counselor.