The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

“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.

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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 threatening manner implying the futility of escape.

In fact, for the poet, there was no escape. A ritual, common and irresistible, unfolded daily, and the boys and girls of summer were participants in the ceremony. The site for the ritual, the “great pool” around which “everything circled,” is described as if it were in an ancient temple, its water “blue and/ glittering as the sacred waters at Crocodilopolis.” Furthermore, there was even the ritual of mock sacrifice when “the boys came from underwater . . ./ to pull you down.” The swimming pool in which the children played becomes in the poet’s memory a sacred place where the youngsters performed their own rites of passage, marking their entrances into adulthood.

That transformation naturally included the girl’s first knowledge of sex—an awareness of her own sexual feelings and a curiosity about the sexuality of others. That is why “the true center was the/ dressing rooms,” because behind the splintered pine wall “were boys, actually/ naked there in air clouded as the/ shadows at the bottom of the pool.” As part of her initiation into adulthood, the girl seeks sexual knowledge. The reader is reminded, however, that she suspected the quest was dangerous: The bottom of the pool was “where the crocodiles/ glistened in their slick skins.” Boys—and the power of sexuality—are like crocodiles, fascinating yet threatening, even deadly.

Nevertheless, the urge to sacrifice herself for sexual knowledge was hard to resist—temptation (in the form of a knothole in the pine wall), says the poet, “hissed at me” all summer. Thus, the poem ends with an allusion to Eve’s temptation by the serpent and the girl (not yet a woman) considering the invitation to partake of the forbidden fruit: “come see, come see, come eat and be eaten.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

In “California Swimming Pool,” the poet’s vantage point in time and maturity lends an irony to this description of the summertime experience of a girl on the threshold of sexual awakening. The poet speaks in the past tense; she has had time to reflect on her experiences. In other words, the speaker (and perhaps the reader) fondly recalls as well as painfully relives what will happen—what did happen—in the weeks or months after the summer scene this poem describes. The girl in the poem, however, is still an innocent, no matter how attuned she has become to the forbidden pleasures and hidden dangers of sex and boys.

“California Swimming Pool” is packed so full of concrete language that it has the richness and density of a copiously arranged still life. Olds does not rely on rhyme or strict meter to give her poem unity and form; she uses related images to “hinge” the four sentences together. The dead leaves “like dried-out turtle shells,” with “points sharp as wasps’ stingers” and the “sated” mosquitoes “like sharks” are similes that suggest not only the summer climate but also the peril later clearly associated with the boys. These images create an aura of danger and prepare the reader for the later comparisons, which are bolder.

The central metaphor describes the boys as crocodiles, coming from underwater “to pull you down” and lying in shadows at the bottom of the pool “in their slick skins.” The references to predators—mosquitoes, wasps, sharks, and finally crocodiles—unify the poem and reinforce the sense of unknown danger the poet then felt about her attraction to the opposite sex.

The combined effect of these images is to transform the swimming pool into a magical, almost mythical place of sacred waters and fabulous beasts. The place at the center of the fable, however, is described in literal terms: The dressing rooms are familiar, with their “smell of chlorine” and their “cold concrete.” It is almost as if the fantasy of the pool fades to stark reality in the dressing rooms, where “boys, actually naked” were for the girl a temptation all too real.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103

Dillon, Brian. “’Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go.’” The Literary Review 37 (Fall, 1993): 108-119.

Kirsch, Adam. “The Exhibitionist.” The New Republic 221 (December 27, 1999): 38.

Lesser, Rika. “Knows Father Best.” The Nation 255 (December 14, 1992): 748-750.

McGiveron, Rafeeq. “Olds’s ’Sex Without Love.’” The Explicator 58 (Fall, 1999): 60.

“Sharon Olds.” The Writer 114 (April, 2001): 66.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Tucker, Ken. “Family Ties.” The New York Times Book Review 104 (November 14, 1999): 29.

Wineapple, Brenda. “I Have Done This Thing.” Poetry 185 (December, 2004): 232-237.

Zeider, Lisa. Review of The Father, by Sharon Olds. The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, 14.

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