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Sharon Olds’ poem I go back to May 1937 is a beautiful as well as savage story in which the narrator presumably the poet muses over her parents graduation. At it’s outset the poem seems to be a beautiful and even sentimental piece of work where the narrator fondly imagines the time when her parents graduated and went on to get married, however as the poem progresses we see that the poet quiet savagely expresses her desire to go back in time and prevent her parents from ever marrying. The volatile nature of the imagery used along with the level of complexity hidden with the poem serves to draw in the readers and show the true nature of the emotional turmoil that the narrator experiences.
The first line of the poem introduces its two main characters; “I see them standing at the gates of their colleges.” (1). With this act of envisioning her parents in her mind’s eye, the narrator establishes the time and place in which the poem begins. By using the diction “formal” to refer to the gates the poet maintains the feeling of structure or of order at this point of the character’s lives, it is a comfortable feeling which she soon goes on to completely destroy. Olds then further introduces the father of the narrator in the lines. “I see my father strolling out/under the ochre sandstone arch, the ” (2-3). These lines produce an image of a young man strolling through the sandstone arch of his college ready to take on life and its challenges. By employing the diction “strolls,” Olds begins to set up the image of the father as bold and confident young man. It is at this point that Olds plants the first seeds of doubt. At first glance the father seems to be a confident young man, with an optimistic future ahead of him. However, in the lines “red tiles glinting like bent/plates of blood behind his head” something truly foreboding emerges. This sudden image of bright red blood, with the man’s head superimposed over it provides an image so startling and terrifying that it is an abrupt and sharp contrast to the image of a bright and cheerful graduation day.
Olds then goes on to further introduce the narrators mother. “I see my mother with a few light books at her hip/standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the”(5-7). From these lines it is clearly seen that like in the case of the father where the surroundings played a role in the characterization of the person presented the environment in which the mother is presented plays a role in her characterization. While the father strolled through a solid, redstone arch, the mother stands in place, “a few light books at her hip,” next to a pillar composed instead of a myriad of small, delicate pieces. She is not strolling boldly into her future, but rather lingering outside the gates, not so ready to leave her old life behind. She stands holding onto books which can be considered as remnants of her old life in college. These lines portray the mother as a delicate, complex and emotional human being. The next two lines “wrought iron gate still open behind her, its/ sword tips black in the may air”(8-9) bring forth the more sinister and darker connotations that the mothers characterization holds. The fact that the wrought iron gates are still open behind her shows that the threshold through which she has passed to enter her new life is still standing open for her, however it is described featuring “sword tips black in the may air”. This provides an image of a gate standing open but with sword tips stopping anyone from re-entering, which means that once the mother has decided to move on, she cannot reclaim the life she had on the other side of those gates. The fact that the sword tips are black provides a sinister setting for the otherwise joyous graduation day.
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Like the first few lines of the poem the next few lines also have a positive start as shown in the line “they are about to graduate, they are about to get married”(10), this line produces a positive image as it speaks of graduation from college and then marriage both being occasions of celebration. However immediately after that line the narrator says “they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are innocent, they would never hurt anybody.” These lines seem to be foreshadowing serious problems that have risen due to the marriage of the mother and the father. They also serve to completely destroy the sense of joy and happiness that was developed in the line “they are about to graduate, they are about to get married”.
Olds now takes the poem from its slow paced descent away from the optimistic account on which it began into a steep dive into something horrifying. The entire poem sharply turns on a single line: “I want to go up to them and say Stop.” (13). This line is very important as it is where the narrator for the first time clearly expresses her wish to stop her parents from getting married. It serves to purpose of removing any sense of hope or happiness that remains in the poem. After this point the poem quickly descends into what can only be described as frantic pleas by the narrator in her vision of the past, almost begging her parents to not get married. Her series of pleas end on the rather ominous line “You are going to want to die.”(19). This end to the series of rapid-fire and frantic produces an air of terrible finality. The narrator wishes she could warn them, she wants so badly to prevent their suffering and hers, but she cannot. Here we see cruel irony, she knows what will happen, because she has lived it, but cannot prevent anything from happening. “I want to go / up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it.” (19-20). But she cannot as it is all a distant memory, the events of which transpired even before she was born. Olds has placed the narrator in a place without possibility of escape, infusing the poem with a sense of tragic helplessness.
Over the next few lines it is seen that while the narrator is helplessly trying to prevent her parents marriage, she does not directly blame them for the suffering they face as a result of the marriage. We see that like in the introduction of the parents Olds portrays the mother and father in different lights. The mother’s face is “hungry, pretty [and] blank”(21). She is hungry for all the experiences of life she has not yet been through, and for love and compassion from the narrator’s father. Olds refers to her face as “blank,” which seems to imply innocence on the part of this young woman; age, care, and immeasurable suffering have not yet left their marks on this face. The young man who is to become the narrator’s father Olds describes as “arrogant, handsome, and blind”(23). He is arrogant, sure of himself and confident. The use of the diction “blind” to describe the father can mean that he like the mother does not foresee the pain he will endure, or will inflict. Olds’ image of confidence and arrogance associated with the father seems to imply that perhaps he will be the one to do the hurting to be done in his marriage with the young woman in the poem. Both of their “pitiful beautiful untouched”(22,24) bodies are an image that further emphasises upon their youth, their hope and their innocence that is all to be lost.
In conclusion, it is evident that the poem I go back to May 1937 is a vibrant, unique and savage account of innocence lost. Olds use of rich imagery and diction beautifully conveys to the readers an account of the emotional suffering the narrator undergoes as a result of the mistake made by her parents. However she does not blame the parents directly as they were also mere victims of the marriage.
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