Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

The collection in which this poem appears is divided into two sections: “Poems for the Dead” and “Poems for the Living.” “Poems for the Dead,” in turn, is divided into the sections “Public” and “Private.” Of the nine “Public” poems, the piece about Marilyn Monroe depends the most on understanding her iconic significance in American culture. Monroe’s fame came from a series of motion pictures in the 1950’s, films that made her the most famous actress of her era. Her film roles and her modeling presented her very explicitly as a sex symbol, and her image became immediately recognizable to an enormous public. Her fame was further magnified by her marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, a later marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, and rumored affairs with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Her suicide by drug overdose at age thirty-six sealed her legendary status, preserving her life story as a myth combining innocence and sexuality with the tragedy of premature death.

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Like Elvis Presley, Monroe has grown in legendary status since her death. More than two hundred books about her are in print, and her legend has attracted treatments from authors Gloria Steinem and Joyce Carol Oates and artist Andy Warhol, whose lithograph of Monroe is as famous as those of Campbell’s soup cans. It is against this legendary or iconic status that Olds’s simple poem needs to be read.

“The Death of Marilyn Monroe” seems to echo the well-known song “Candle in the Wind,” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Both works emphasize the difference between legend and human being, made more pronounced and poignant by the physical realities of her death. While John’s song laments that the sensationalizing newspapers seized upon the fact that Monroe’s body was discovered “in the nude,” Olds’s poem describes her famous breasts “flattened by gravity,” a phrase that suggests how her mortality literally brings her down to earth.

While the quiet simplicity of the poem contrasts with the shrill cultural industries that market and exploit Monroe’s image, Olds subtly continues Monroe’s role as a woman looked at by men, a woman whose body has the power to change those who gaze upon it. The poem restores her dignity, but it does not free her from the gendered context of woman as body and woman as object to be viewed by the male gaze. This is not to say that the ambulance men are represented as lascivious or leering; they are not. Yet just as the living Monroe suffered from being turned into a visual image, being nothing more than her body, so too does the dead Monroe become literally all body, divorced from spirit.

On the night of her death, the men go for their after-work drink, but, significantly, “they could not meet/ each other’s eyes.” Their sense of shame is concentrated in the eyes, concentrated on what they have seen. For one of the men, the sight of the dead Monroe transforms how his wife looks and turns death into a place where Marilyn Monroe awaits him. Another experiences pains, nightmare, depression, and impotence. That the sight of the dead Monroe unmans him, so to speak, suggests the larger theme of how individual sexuality is shaped by cultural myths. The death of the legendary figure makes the ordinary world seem strange and insubstantial. At least two of the men seem alienated from their familiar world by their contact with Monroe’s body: Some of the vitality that has flowed from her seems drained from them as well.

The third man, who is listening to an ordinary woman breathing, is more complex. Like the other two, he seems alienated from the real world by seeing a legendary figure revealed as all too human. However, the language suggests that the public death may have led him to appreciate the miracle of his (and his wife’s) private, ordinary life. From the icon who is transformed by cultural myth to a complex of images and significations to the life breath of an ordinary woman is a long passage. Yet this poem attempts to navigate that passage, showing, as elegies generally do, how the encounter with death intensifies the poignancy of life by reminding the reader of its preciousness and its fleeting quality.

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