In this short poem, Plath describes a dull purple color rushing to a spot on a washed-out, pale body. The color of the contusion is contrasted with the body's paleness.
In the second stanza, she describes a pit of rock being sucked at endlessly by rushing seawater. In the action of this "one hollow" lies "the whole sea's pivot."
The third stanza again describes the contusion, as a "doom mark" that is the "size of a fly" as it crawls down a wall.
The last stanza contains three short phrases - the heart "shuts," the sea retreats, and the mirrors are covered with sheets.
It is not surprising to realize that Plath wrote this poem eleven days before she committed suicide, considering that it is so bleak, hopeless, and bereft of any vitality. Though one of her shortest poems, it is also one of her most evocative.
The titular contusion could refer to a bruise on a living body or on a corpse, but as this poem is often read in conjunction with "Edge," which was written a day later and contained the opening lines "The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment," it is safe to surmise that she is probably talking about a corpse here. Earlier poems in her oeuvre, such as "Cut" and "Kindness," spoke of bright blood gushing and flowing, but "Contusion" suggests a lack of blood – the body is all "washed out," and is pallid, lifeless. The sense seems to be that death has finally claimed Plath, and there is nothing exciting or vivid about it.
One critic noted the allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest, writing that the first stanza "evokes The Tempest only to emphasize the absence of any sea-change. The drab repetition of 'color' indicates that nothing magical or transformative has happened on this occasion. Death, here as in other late poems, has now become an ending associated with defeat, rather than the necessary route to glorious rebirth." There is no struggle, and no attempt to seek rebirth or regeneration, as is the case in many of her other poems. Even the similarly bleak "Tulips" ends on a hopeful note, and "Ariel" depicts the frenzied rider bursting into the bright morning sun like a phoenix. Death here has lost its romantic sheen or any sense of greater possibility. It is only static.
The three statements at the end of the poem – "The heart shuts, / The sea slides back / The mirrors are sheeted" – are uttered in quick, terse, sentences that give the impression of being cold and detached. They are all images of closure and endings. Plath was growing progressively closer to ending her own life, the reasons for which are manifold but centered mainly around her failed marriage and difficulty in navigating a patriarchal literary world. These closures are haunting both in themselves and in relation to her other works. The mirror of "Mirror" marked the passage of time in its reflection, but is here sheeted, never to reflect any more passage of time. As a "heart shuts," all passion and energy, so abundant even in her other suicide-centered poems, is gone.
Another critic, Pamela Annas, discusses "Contusion" in relation to "Cut," in terms of how they both approach physical pain. She suggests that "what gives meaning to the normal is the abnormal." The four stanzas of this poem contain apocalyptic images that do not easily relate to one another – a bruise, a fly on a wall, and the sea sucking at rocks. Their primary similarity is that each serves as a centralized point, a vortex, a focus. Each is a small point of a larger canvas, and yet this small point suggests the greater truth of the whole. The contusion speaks of death more effectively than the rest of the corpse does. The fly suggests that a small mark can contain profound meaning; it is the one spot of the entire wall that we see. And the sea imagery is most effective of all in implying cohesion, for "what the speaker of Plath's poems sees in these moments of perception, looking into water, looking into mirrors, is not so much chaos as reversed and chilling logic." In the tumult of the seapit is the truth of the entire sea.
Finally, "Contusion"'s poetic techniques serve to reinforce her bleak message and evocation of death. Plath utilizes a collection of repetitive morphemes (the smallest grammatical units of speech), alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds), and assonance (a close juxtaposition of sounds, especially vowels) in the first stanza of the poem. Critic Paul Mitchell writes that while she had used those techniques before, such as in a poem like "Ode for Ted," the intention earlier had been to reinforce the poetic voice; they were used in traditional ways for more traditional subject matter. Here, in "Contusion," she uses loose poetic rhythms and disconnected signifiers (moving from the body to the sea) to suggest a nonexistent logicality. Alliteration does not reinforce the poem's meaning, but "instead, illustrates a voice whose signification is under collapse." Mitchell's work demonstrates Plath's singular talent; she was not just a "confessional poet" who created tragic works to excise her personal demons, but a talented poet well-versed in poetic technique. The ugly irony of this poem is that such brilliance was used to convey a world with no more potential for brilliance.