Sharon Olds

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In "The Possessive," how does the title of the poem relate to the theme?

The title of the poem “The Possessive” relates to the theme in an ironic sense, because this poem is about a mother realizing that she cannot “possess” her daughter and that her daughter does not belong to her.

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This poem is all about a mother who realizes that, at some point, she is going to have to let her daughter go. By letting her go, I mean that she is going to have to allow her daughter to become independent, make her own decisions, and go her own way in life. It is time for the proverbial apron strings to be cut.

The poem's title, "The Possessive," is almost in contradiction to the main theme of the poem, which is the need to let go. In the first line, the poet refers to "my daughter" and then immediately draws attention to the fact that she cannot think of her daughter as a possession or has somebody for whom she has the right to make decisions for.

The title of the poem relates to the theme because it is a mother's natural urge to be possessive over her child. When the child was younger, she relied on her mother for everything, and this poem is about the brutal moment every mother must face when she realizes that her child is no longer reliant on her for anything.

I would argue that the "little spliced ropes" that have been cut refer to more than her daughter's hair—she is referring to all the ties that bond a child to her mother.

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To analyze this question, we first need to clearly identify the themes and understand the meaning of the word used in the title.

The themes of this poem include the mother-daughter relationship and the changes that happen when children become more independent. In this case, that independence is exemplified by the daughter getting a haircut without the mother's permission or influence. The words used to talk about the haircut include "knife grinder," "sharpened," "paper-cuts," "carbon steel," and "blade." The poet alludes to the daughter being of her body, and so the references to knives and cutting can be seen as a representation of both the severing of the umbilical cord and to the idiom to "cut the apron strings." The poem then changes to using the imagery of war: resin helmet, watch fires, enemy, and in the final line, there is reference to an impending war. This imagery indicates that the relationship is going to change to an adversarial one. From the softness in the first stanza when the poet talks about her daughter's "wispy hair like a bellpull" to the penultimate stanza's "great distance," we can see this change.

So, having identified the themes we can move on to the title and how it relates to those themes. The word possessive can be interpreted a number of different ways. The first way is using synonyms like controlling, jealous, protective, and obsessive. We can talk about a relationship being possessive when one person has control over the other or when one person tries to have control over another. This links into the other meaning of the word, related to the term "possessed." We can think of possessed as meaning to be haunted, or entranced, by a mischievous or evil spirit.

The poet plays on the first meaning of the word by painting herself as a possessive mother; in the first line she refers to her daughter "as if I owned her." She also refers to the daughter's hair being "wispy as a frayed bellpull." Here, the mother is alluding to the control that she previously had over her daughter, much like a person controls a bellpull. Throughout the poem, the mother can feel her control over the daughter slipping away, and the poem ends with references to the increasing distance between them.

The poet plays on the second meaning of the word with references to her daughter's eyes: the daughter has "distant fires" in the "resin light" of her eyes. This imagery of the daughter's eyes burning is an allusion to the red eyes that people get when they are said to be possessed. The mother also feels that her daughter is a different person; she says she will "have to find another word" to describe her (other than "daughter").

Another less obvious reference the word "possessive" makes is to the word "self-possessed." This means to be stubborn or confident. This meaning can also refer to the theme of the changing mother-daughter relationship and the ways in which the daughter's character is changing from obedient and docile to headstrong and independent.

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One of the predominant themes examined throughout this poem is a mother's possessive relationship to her adolescent daughter. Sharon Olds begins the poem by writing, "My daughter---as if I owned her." Immediately, the audience is presented with a mother's possessive view of her daughter. The woman's daughter is still a child and the mother views her daughter as her possession. Also, Olds's use of the possessive pronoun "my" is significant throughout the poem and directly relates to its title. The speaker still views her daughter as part of her body, even though she realizes that she must begin thinking differently about her. Throughout the poem, Olds presents an image of a mother recognizing her daughter's impending rebellious nature. The daughter's fiery eyes suggest her inner thoughts of rebellion. The mother still views her daughter as her possession, which will soon change as her daughter gets older. 

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The title of the poem "The Possessive" relates directly to its themes. In this piece Olds explores the emotions of a mother who must allow a daughter to grow up. Part of what that involves is the mother shifting how she thinks of the daughter, and, specifically, in how possessive she is of her daughter. At one point she thinks, " My body. My daughter. I’ll have to find another word." This shows how motherhood blurs with affection. Is the daughter hers like her body—something to be possessed forever, something that she controls completely? Or is the "my" in "my daughter" fundamentally different?

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