The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“California Swimming Pool” is a short poem in free verse. It is made up of five long, descriptive sentences, which form one stanza. In it, the poet evokes the mood—the sounds, the sights, the atmosphere, and the intrigue—of summer afternoons at a public swimming pool.

The scene is described from a young girl’s perspective, most likely a girl approaching puberty. She speaks informally in the first person, remembering the scene, using the conversational “you” to describe the place and what she did and saw there. Sharon Olds often describes personal experiences in her poems; in fact, many of her poems are clearly autobiographical. Thus, the speaker, who is actually an adult looking back on herself as a girl, is probably indistinguishable from the poet herself.

The first two sentences set the scene. Around the pool, the poet recalls, the dead leaves “lay like dried-out turtle shells,” and the air was filled with summer insects: “sated” mosquitoes and yellow jackets. The bright sun and intense heat of a California summer are easily evoked. The leaves were “scorched and crisp,” and mosquitoes hung in the air. As the poet describes it, not only does the weather seem oppressive but also the mood, which borders on the sinister: The dead leaves have “points sharp as wasps’ stingers,” and the mosquitoes are compared to sharks. Even the yellow jackets, usually harmless if annoying, “moved when you moved,” in a...

(The entire section is 538 words.)