Sharon Olds Poems
Simultaneous Rites of Passage for Mother and Son
In “Rites of Passage” Sharon Olds honestly portrays her own struggles with understanding manhood and attempting to overcome her contempt for conventional modes of masculinity by alternating between visions of her son as a baby and the children at the party as men. From associating her objective observations of her son’s male friends with the memory of giving birth to her son and observing that his hands are as “thin and cool as the day they guided him out of [her],” Olds displays the obstacle to come to terms with the images presented before her, which is the core of her poem. This struggle is prescribed by the time the poem was written, in the early 1980’s as a part of The Dead and the Living published in 1984. In the 1980’s, feminism had experienced an unprecedented degree of progress in terms of women’s sexual awareness and openness, and their openness about wifehood and motherhood (Yalom Chapter 10). At a time when peoples’ worst fears about the extent of the sexual revolution were being confirmed and women also felt freer to discuss their perspectives on motherhood, myth met with reality (Yalom 375). Responses to studies and polls showed that women were becoming less content with taking on traditional roles of stay at home mother, and far more women than ever before were working outside of the home (Yalom 371); long-standing myths about womanhood and gender roles were being questioned by such influential writings as Dialects of Sex, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and mythologies were being exposed in writings such as“Diving Into the Wreck” and “She Unnames Them” soon to follow (Yalom 370-72). Perceiving that she must tackle and hopefully overcome her disdain for conventional manhood in order to prevent such stigmatization in impairing her own children’s judgment, Olds describes a form of “rite of passage” that she encounters simultaneously with her son. As he comes a year closer to being a man, Olds attempts to dispel her adult male prejudice by trying to understand the behavior of the boys. The poem seems to conclude in ambivalence as she contends that the “men,” “get down to playing war, celebrating [her] son’s life” which occurs a few lines after she describes her son’s birth and the present “freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks.”Her “rite of passage” involves the realization that her son will be a man, in spite of her anxieties, and that he may possess masculine traits that she feels at odds with. Her reproach of masculine aggression impels the anxiety of this poem as well. Her anxiety is apparent when she immediately sees the boys as“short men, men in the first grade with smooth jaws and chins” and becomes more pronounced when the boys are not only men, but also evoke stereotypical ideas through their behaviors such as “hands in pockets, jostling, jockeying for place.” The notions that characterize her view of men are present in her observations of the way they “clear their throats a lot, [like] a room of small bankers, [and] they fold their arms and frown.” While the descriptions of their behaviors are faithful representations, there is conspicuous sardonicism in her serious manner of comparing them to bankers. However, even as she does so and subtly mocks their competition to be older than one another—with the seven year olds feeling superior to the six year olds—she sympathizes with them when she observes them “seeing themselves tiny in the other’s pupils.” Olds describes the cake in order to add gravity to the birthday party and to elaborate on her “bankers” metaphor. The comparison of the “midnight cake,” with a “turret” causes something that is usually representative of child-like candor, such as a birthday cake, to seem heavier and more consequential. There is an element of darkness attributed to the cake from the word “midnight;” although it is probably chocolate and, therefore, dark in color, it seems ominous and shrouded in fear and also conveys an idea of crossing from one measure of time to the next. As a result, the birthday party becomes more fraught with meaning, like a pivotal rite of passage. The imagery of this heavy turret-like structure behind the boys and above their heads on the table also causes one to imagine a large building structure behind these boys that are like business-men, making the metaphor more encompassing, as if it eclipses the party and her thoughts. Therefore, as something as usually inconsequential as a cake takes on far grater importance in this poem, Olds displays both her fears of her son growing older and also her tendency to associate the objects that accompany his maturation with powerful symbols of conventional manhood. In the same manner that the cake eclipses the party with its darkness and gravity, Olds’ fixation on her son becoming a man eclipses her ability to identify with the “small bankers.” Throughout the poem, Olds interchanges the naivete of the children’s words with her vision of them as grown men and she also interchanges realistic depictions of their youthful appearances with their references to violence used in order to prove their strength and assert their egos; ultimately this signifies the inevitability of her son’s maturation into a man and the sacrilegious process she finds this to be. Although they are “short men” with “smooth jaws and chins,” there are abruptly after they arrive “small fights breaking out and calming.” She shows a similarly indiscriminate notion held—and observed—about all men when she describes how a “seven says to a six,” “I could beat you up.” The way she refers to the boys by calling them their age demonstrates not only that she feels that many men have similar traits and are indistinguishable, (which is why she poses them as such generalizations), but also her fixation on the age of the children. The fact that the little boy tells the younger one that he could beat him up shows the naivete of youth in his casual manner in announcing this, yet this near-innocence contrasts ironically with the violence contained in the words, which shows her criticism of the early-developed sense of violence in boys. Along with this, it exposes the partial reality of the common conception of boys or men as aggressive, which speaks tellingly of the power of myth to become reality, and further instills her need to stop this from happening, starting with herself. Her emotional and sentimental investment in this is apparent when she describes her son and subsequently presents his response to this previous squabble. Olds describes her son in a way that portrays his youth as sacred, through the description of his “freckles like specks of nutmeg,” his“chest narrow as the balsa keel of a model boat” and his hands thin like the day he was born. The description of his freckles comes across as sweet and conveys a sense of child-like mutability as does describing his chest as narrow as a children’s toy boat, particularly since boats sail by. In mentioning his hands when he was born, she longs for the unscathed innocence of an infant compared with his presently influenced mind. After these images, she describes his response in an objective sentence that still exudes critical irony in the words “We could easily kill a two-year-old, he says in his clear voice.” While this still carries with it a similarly small degree of naivete as she portrayed in the characterization of the seven-year-old who could beat up the six-year-old, it is placed more staggeringly within the poem, as she depicts the words and those of a leader, as the “host” of all of the “men.” The fact that his voice is clear suggests no shame in the sentence, which is confirmed when the “other men agree, [and] they clear their throats like Generals.” This is said simply and without her emotional responses included, showing her belief of the brutality of men, further emphasized by the metaphor of “generals.” The plainness of Olds’ description, even in spite of the metaphors, displays her contempt for this “masculine” quality and her inability to change it, based upon her observations of its prevalence. Olds’ perspective as this party as a rite of passage for herself as well as her son is completed by the more open tone of the last two lines. These lines appear after her son speaks, in which she subtly portrays herself as sobered certain truths about boyhood and manhood. While her contempt was mainly for the other boys, her son’s words make her more fully aware of the ways young boys think. Since she knows her son more personally and observes him in this context, she comes to a more full understanding of the interactions between young boys and men, and how their interactions do not necessarily define them. As a result, Olds sees how myths endure and stereotypes prevail for good reason, yet that they are not useful once they take on discriminatory and reproachful nature in people who believe them. As Olds observes this from hearing what her son says, she does not completely relinquish her contempt for these masculine conventions or completely understand why men, but her identifying with the boys who feel small in the others’ pupils and with her son fitting in by making an even more extreme point than their first one, she sees that the myths prevail because of social pressures. Therefore, there is no complete shift in thought or attitude, but the words “get down to playing war, celebrating my son’s life”show slightly more acceptance while they still display her opposition and perplexity. Beforehand, the boys were more vilified in the word “Generals,” but now the game is vilified in the word “war.” Also, while she used metaphors earlier to describe them as bankers and generals, she importantly says“playing” war, showing that it is not necessarily their innate natures. The tension is still very present, especially in the fact that she equates “playing war” directly with “celebrating her son’s life,” showing a parallel between war and manhood. This is both sardonic and serious, and where her criticism of the situation is clear, it is the constructs, rather than the boys, that she criticizes more strongly. The incoherence of “playing war” and “celebrating” a life reveal that Olds cannot entirely understand masculinity and that the conventional ways in which it is manifested presents opposition to her values and beliefs. “Rite of Passage” represents not only her fear and disapprobation of many aspects of manhood, but also her attempts to comprehend these aspects, in order to dispel the conceptions that preside over her perspective. Through the blunt and simple description of her observations, Olds discloses her desire to understand men so that she can disbelieve damaging stereotypes. Olds, Sharon. “Rite of Passage.” Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. New York: Knopf, 2004. 27. Print. Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.
Analysis of “I Go Back to May 1937”
Sharon Olds is renowned for keeping her readers on their toes and changing the direction of her poems drastically and without warning (Galens). This remains especially true in her poem “I Go Back to May 1937”. Olds’ brash style ensures that her message is clearly delivered but her original and sometimes unexpected use of imagery keeps that delivery fresh and entertaining. “I Go Back to May 1937” is about a girl imagining her parents in a time before she was born when they were graduating college. In retrospect she understands the extent in which they have changed since “they [were] dumb, all they know is they are /innocent, they would never hurt anybody” (lines 11-12). The reader contemplates warning them of the misery they will incur in the future and break up their wedding relationship before it begins but she cannot do this because it would terminate her own life in the process. Resigning to acceptance, the speaker in the poem decides nothing can be done to change what has already happened. Through the use of powerful diction and shocking imagery, Olds employs a unique stylistic approach to illustrate the time-old truth that one can never change the past.Olds begins her poem with a tone of impartial reminiscence, describing her father as “strolling out/ under the ochre sandstone arch” (line 2-3) in front of the gates of his college. Her father is portrayed with confidence, walking to face his future head on without any fear or reservation, the kind of beginning one would find in an optimistic coming of age tale. Olds’ tone takes a drastic twist when she describes “the red tiles glinting like bent/plates of blood behind his head” (lines 4-5). The bold use of diction when describing something simple like the campus architecture is painting a gruesome portrait of the speaker’s father to foreshadow the events to come. The speaker’s mother is described in much the same manner: “I see my mother with a few light books at her hip standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its sword-tips black in the May air” (lines 5-9). In clear juxtaposition to the speaker’s father, her mother is not confidently walking to her future. She is stationary in front of an open gate. She sees her past and her future but she doesn’t know if she is ready to transition between the two yet. She isn’t standing behind a study solid “sandstone arch” like the speaker’s father but a delicately constructed pillar made of tiny bricks consisting of myriad different pieces which could be a metaphor of her complexity of emotion about this critical juncture in her life and uncertain future (Metzger).The next few lines are the critical point in the paper. The speaker verbalizes her feelings about the future union of her parents; they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody. I want to go up to them and say Stop, don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman, he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things (lines 10-15)The speaker has a special role in this poem; she is omnipotent in the sense she can see and judge this couple, her future parents, because she sees their past and the decisions that led them to make the mistakes along the way. She sees this graduation, this marriage, as being on the cliff’s edge. The beginning of a long fall down through pain and misery has its roots here in this decision. Olds capitalizes the word “Stop” in line thirteen to add emphasis. This suggests an absolute stop needed to prevent injury or harm, much like the capital stop on a stop sign on the streets (Galens).After establishing the innocence of her parents, the speaker transitions to an unyielded warning to them about the cruel reality that their future beholds; you cannot imagine you would ever do, you are going to do bad things to children, you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of, you are going to want to die. I want to go up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it (lines 16-20)The speaker is extremely decisive in how she feels about the marriage, describing it as the bearer of great sorrow and unhappiness. The speaker is enraged not only at the couple for allowing the relationship to grow into the monster that it became, but at herself for not being able to step in when she knows without a doubt what it is to become. The speaker is stuck with options that only bring more problems. The speaker’s rage subsides when she realizes the hopelessness of the situation while exploring the couple in the next few lines; her hungry pretty face turning to me, her pitiful beautiful untouched body, his arrogant handsome face turning to me, his pitiful beautiful untouched body, but I don’t do it. I want to live” (Olds 20).Olds’ use of diction is paramount to understanding the message she is trying to send here. She describes the faces of the lovers with a renewed sense or resolve. The woman’s face is “hungry,” showing the desire for new opportunities and life decisions to be made, not always with careful contemplation. This is coupled with the man’s “arrogant” face, emphasizing the sheer extent in which they don’t know the repercussions of the choices they are making and if the reasons for making these choices are the correct ones (Metzger). Olds employs syntax here to give the reader insight into the fact that their relationship is missing passion and love. Olds repeats the phrase “pitiful beautiful untouched body” but separates them with the description of the man’s face. Olds wants the reader to know that although they are getting married, they are still separate and far from a single union (Galens). The speaker shows her resentment and helplessness again here at the end, when she says that although she knows they have these problems, that the marriage isn’t going to work out, and the couple will hurt a lot of people along the way, she remains silent to preserve her own future life. It isn’t until the final few lines that the speaker finally gives into the hopeless situation and deals with the hand she was dealt; I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it” (Olds 25)The paper dolls resemble her childish last-ditch effort to play out an optimistic ending she knows will never come to fruition. The dolls are something she can control; she has their future in her hands, just like she has her own. She accepts that the past for her parents can’t be changed; she accepts that the present for her is a result of that, but finally decides to do something about the future. She knows that she cannot create the fire, that passion, that love by “bang[ing] them together at the hips” (line 27). She accepts that she is powerless in the affairs of her parents even though the consequences affect her own life drastically. She no longer hopes to change their ways or prevent future pain. There is a paradigm shift at the end when the speaker liberates herself not by solving all the unsolvable problems as before, but rather disregarding them all together, choosing rather to see them in a different light instead.Works CitedMetzger, Sheri E. “Critical Essay on ‘I Go Back to May 1937’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.Olds, Sharon. “I Go Back to May 1937.” Poetry Foundation. N.p.. Web. 29 Oct 2012.
Youth and Old Age: Poetic Techniques in “35-10”
All humans face the struggle of aging. With the passage of time, one must grow old and eventually perish. Aging is something we fear, as it brings on a variety of physical, psychological, and socially constructed ailments. Often there is the idea that youth can be preserved or passed on to a person’s offspring, but vicariously living through one’s child can be detrimental to one’s confidence. In Sharon Olds’ poem, “35/10”, the speaker is a mother who observes her daughter and notes changes happening to both of them. Many of these changes seem to happen in tandem – as the daughter grows in a certain way, her mother metamorphizes in another fashion. However, there is a negative sense surrounding the physical changes that the mother experiences, which becomes apparent throughout the poem. Olds uses tactile, visual, and olfactory imagery in order to create a contrast between the ages of the mother and her daughter and reinforce the speaker’s idea that youth is more physically desirable than old age.
Tactile imagery peppers “35-10” and its use furthers the speaker’s idea that aging makes a person less attractive. The first use of tactile imagery to emphasize a contrast between the speaker and her daughter occurs when the speaker describes her daughter’s “dark, silken hair” and her own “grey, gleaming head” (Olds 1-3). Her daughter’s hair, being silken to the touch, creates an image of health, youth, and beauty. The speaker’s grey hair is not given tactility, as if it is not something that is touched, which gives the sense that an aged person is one that no one desires to make physical contact with. Thus, the speaker does not only describe her hair, but creates the idea that her daughter’s youth makes her more desirable than herself. Another use of tactile imagery to emphasize the daughter’s relative youthfulness occurs when the speaker describes how the “the fold in [her] neck [clarifies] as the fine bones of her [daughter’s] hips sharpen” (4-5). The tactile imagery in this example is again stronger in the daughter’s case – pointiness is something that can be felt very tangibly, while the clarification of a wrinkle in the mother’s neck is something that is not as physically explicit. The honing of the daughter’s hips is a much stronger tactile image, and thus seems to invite touch more than the fold in the mother’s neck. Finally, the speaker creates an image of the daughter’s fertility, in likening it to “a purse of eggs, round and/firm as hard-boiled yolks” (13-14). This further use of a solid adjective such as “firm” to describe the eggs adds a substantiality to youth, something that is not given to age or motherhood in this poem.
Conversely, when the speaker describes her own fertility, she says that her “ last chances to bear a child/are falling through [her] body” (11-12). The motion of the eggs falling through her body is something that happens passively rather than something that is touched or experienced by another, such as the firmness of her daughter’s fertility, again amplifying the speaker’s idea of aging making a person less covetable. Olds also uses visual imagery in order to emphasize a contrast between youth and senescence. An example occurs when the speaker describes her daughter’s hair as “dark”, and her own as “grey” and “silver” (3-4). Often, dark hair is associated with youth and beauty, while grey hair is something that becomes more evident as one ages. The speaker mentions her hair colour twice in the span of two lines, thus relaying the importance of her greyness as something linked to her identity. Through these contrasting images, the speaker emphasizes the divide between herself and her daughter because of the differences in their physical state. Next, the author uses a visual and tactile combination of imagery to reveal that her “skin shows its dry pitting”, while her daughter is like a “pale flower” (10). Though the “dry pitting” of the mother’s skin seems like a tactile image, it is not felt; rather, it “shows” itself – further reinforcing the idea that an elderly person is unsavoury to touch (8-9). Furthermore, the rather grotesque description of the mother’s skin in comparison to the image of her daughter being as delicate and smooth as a flower is telling of the contrast between young and old, serving to denounce age.
Finally, olfactory imagery is employed to further clarify the speakers rueful idea that youth is more appealing than age. The speaker describes “brushing her [daughter’s] tangled/fragrant hair” as part of an evening ritual (15-16). In noting the scent of her daughter’s hair, the speaker acknowledges an allure wafting from her daughter.The speaker of the poem does not describe her scent, denying herself olfactory characteristics. Thus, she does not consider herself alluring. The mention of the tangled texture of her daughter’s hair also serves to convey that it is something to be touched and felt. There is no one who brushes through the hair – further implying that in her age she believes has become someone less worthy of physical affection. Old’s “35/10” contains a raw, honest account of how age can alter a mother not only physically, but in the way she views herself in relation to others.
Throughout the poem, the speaker expresses her idea that old age makes a person less appealing by making observations about herself and her daughter with the use of tactile, visual, and olfactory imagery. The piece explores the relationship between parent and offspring, probing the often untouched line between a mother’s pride in her child and the self-pity and envy that arises as her daughter inevitably begins to eclipse her.