Sharon Olds’s poem “I Go Back to May 1937” is included in her collection The Gold Cell, published in 1987. Like much of Olds’s poetry, “I Go Back to May 1937” is concerned with exploring the relationship between wife and husband, parents and children. In this poem the speaker travels back to a time just before her parents’ marriage so that she might warn them of the mistake they are about to make. Although the speaker knows her parents will face pain, she cannot stop their union, since to do so would deny her own existence. She wants to live and so these people must be permitted to marry.
Olds has been unwilling to provide information to critics and readers about her personal life, including information about her parents. Many critics search her poems hoping to find some autobiographical truth about her, but Olds has made clear that she is trying to separate her life into two spheres, what she calls “the life of art and the life of life.” Accordingly, it is difficult to know exactly what inspires the content of this poem. Is it the speaker’s own unhappy childhood or is she responding from the experience of a child of divorce? The reader cannot know and is instead forced to find meaning in the words, separate from finding meaning in the poet’s autobiography.
For her readers, Olds’s poems seem very personal, including “I Go Back to May 1937.” Many of her poems are concerned with the speaker’s relationship with her father, as she seeks to understand his alcoholism, his abandonment of his family through divorce, and his painful death. The exploration of her parents’ marriage—beginning as this poem does, just prior to their wedding—presents the essential paradox. The speaker wishes her parents had never married, had never made one another’s lives so miserable. She wishes her own childhood had been spared the torment of her parents’ unhappiness, and yet to eliminate their marriage would be to eliminate the speaker. This paradox gives the poem a unique tension.
In the first line, the speaker refers to “gates” and “colleges.” The plural form of these words signals there are differences between the two adults being described. They are distinctly separate people, each coming from a different background and location. In the second and third lines the man emerges from under an ochre sandstone arch, which creates an earthy image of clay walls, tinted dark yellow or reddish brown, in the reader’s mind. Combine the image of the sandstone arch with the “red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood,” and an image of the southwestern United States emerges. Red ceramic tile roofs are a common architectural feature of Arizona and southern California, as are earthy brown walls. The “glinting” tiles suggest the sun’s glare off the roof, which could also indicate the Southwest, a region known for its sunny, warm climate.
In contrast to the man’s location, the woman stands at a “pillar made of tiny bricks,” her books carried against her hip. A wrought-iron gate is behind her. While the man emerges from his college by passing under an arch, the woman must pass through the gate to begin her new life. The bricks and wrought-iron gate suggest a different location than that of the man’s. The woman’s college may be in the northeastern United States, perhaps New England. Her location, then, would be the opposite of the man’s. And while she emerges with books, he is empty-handed.
These basic differences alert the reader to the divisions that separate the man and woman. They are not only separated by gender, but by location and culture as well. And although he leaves the books of academia behind; she still grasps her books to her body.
The speaker now establishes the man’s and woman’s innocence. She tells her reader that the couple is about to graduate from college, and so the reader imagines the man and woman are young, probably in their early twenties. To reinforce the image of youth and inexperience, the speaker relates, “they are kids, they are dumb.” The speaker also says they would “never hurt anybody.” They are so innocent that the man and woman fail to see that their wedding might someday lead to pain. They see only the movement from their single college days into a new married existence. They are too young to consider their marriage might be a mistake. But the speaker is aware of the disaster awaiting the couple. She writes from the future, having seen the past, and knows that the couple stands on the precipice of a serious action, one that will affect others.
The speaker considers the actions she might take to prevent this tragedy from occurring. She considers stopping the man and the woman. She wants to “go up to them and say Stop.” The capital letter at the beginning of “Stop” suggests the red sign along the road, an absolute message for any driver. The speaker wants the couple’s movement toward marriage to be blocked, and so she adds the imperative “don’t do it” to emphasize her need to stop the marriage. The speaker does not tell them they are...
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