Sep 06 2010

Sharon Olds: “Back at the Beginning of the World”

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Although Sharon Olds’ poem Summer Solstice, New York City ostensibly describes one dramatic, emotionally charged and wholly anxious scene, the undercurrent of the poem tells of two distinct realities simultaneously running alongside one another. Firstly, there is the space that is occupied by the thoughts of death on everyone’s mind, and secondly there is the sphere of life and human connection that shines through despite the morbidity that threaten to swallow it. Olds evidences these two opposing themes by constructing two technologically disparate arenas in her poem. The first, the one of death, exists within the confines of technology and all of its coldness and distance, while the second, that of life, functions just outside the realm of technology and just within the borders of humanity.

The most glaring way in which Sharon Olds describes the technologically-focused venue of her poem is through distinct choices of diction. For example, by describing a bullet-proof vest as a “black shell” (9), and a safety net as an “implacable grid” (20), Olds implies that the people teeming at the scene of potential suicide are somehow non-human and machine-like. Even more dramatically, by ┬ácomparing the suicidal boy’s shirt to “something / growing in a petri dish at night in the dark in the lab” (26), Olds lends a sense of dislocation and fragmentation to an already eerily sterile scene. On the other hand, Olds portrays the scene of the boy’s salvation with such technologically-unencumbered warmth that the end of the poem leaves the reader thirsting for a cave and a campfire; the cops stand around the born-again man, they all smoke together, and both the participants and the reader escape to the simple, relaxed “beginning of the world” (40).

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