Study Guide

California Swimming Pool

by Sharon Olds

California Swimming Pool Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Danger is probably not all that the girl sensed that summer, but her inexperience hindered a mature appreciation of her sexuality. Sex, a frequent theme in Olds’s poetry, is often explored, always celebrated. She reveres and respects its power in human lives and rejoices in its power to express absolute love. For Olds, sex is a fundamental and needed language. So for the girl, the message of the hissing knot-hole was undeniable. The mysterious attraction of sex, for Olds, is similarly not to be denied.

The “clouded” air of the dressing rooms and the “shadows” in the pool are also accurate metaphors. The clouds and shadows hid and distorted the objects of the girl’s curiosity; they represent the obstacles that the girl, in her quest for sexual knowledge, would have to confront and overcome. They also could represent her own naïve beliefs, possibly misconceptions, which might have impeded her quest.

The reference to “sacred waters” reinforces the idea of the girls and boys as initiates in an ancient ceremony. “Crocodilopolis” is an allusion to the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, site of some of the best-known ancient Greek temples and a sacred place of worship. This allusion suggests again that what encircled the “great pool” was worship of the sacred power of sexuality and the raw vitality of youth. The summer-long ceremony was a dance for the coming-of-age the youths were experiencing. At this temple of the crocodiles, the youths paid homage to themselves and to the waters of life.

In the popular imagination, crocodiles—direct descendants of prehistoric reptiles—are particularly fierce and terrifying. Their actions are propelled by millions of years of honed instinct. When a crocodile attacks, it is efficient and, to humans, remorseless. Yet these cold-blooded creatures fascinate human beings. They are savage yet awe-inspiring; they are beautiful.

In “California Swimming Pool,” the crocodile becomes a symbol for sex, for its impenetrable mystery and powerful jaws, for its primitive attraction, and for its unspeakable beauty. This symbol vitalizes Olds’s description of a young girl’s first reckonings with her own sexual energy and power. The poem conveys the poet’s awe for the beauty and mysterious power of sex and her deep reverence for the life force in everyone.