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.
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