The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Sharon Olds’s “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is a brief free-verse poem consisting of five grammatical sentences arranged into twenty-six lines and divided into four verse paragraphs. Only the title identifies the deceased of the poem as famous actress Marilyn Monroe. The poem concentrates on “the ambulance men” who transported her corpse. The second sentence indicates the focus of the poem: “These men were never the same.” The remainder of the poem describes how the lives of the three paramedics were altered by their encounter with the dead celebrity: One becomes depressed and impotent; one grows alienated from his job and changes his thoughts on mortality; one finds his attitude toward his wife subtly altered.

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The poem works by implication, developing a tension between the fame of the ostensible titular subject and the effects on ordinary people who encountered her shortly after death. The poem is not an elegy in the formal sense of a sustained meditation on grave subjects occasioned by a death, nor is it in elegiac meter or in the form of the English pastoral elegy. Nevertheless, the poem is a brief meditation on mortality, sexuality, and celebrity, and it draws its inspiration from an encounter with death. Thus, the term elegy seems justified in categorizing the poem, as long as one qualifies it as a contemporary, free-verse elegy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

The language of “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is deliberately plain and straightforward. Figurative language is rare (her body is described with the simile “heavy as iron”), the diction is familiar, everyday spoken English, and the sentences are frankly prosaic. While some of these elements are typical of Olds, others are not. Indeed, Olds’s poetry is known for its vivid figurative language and powerful, even sometimes gaudy, imagery. Here she intentionally strives for an “ordinary” register, to use a word important to the poem. This ordinariness forms a deliberate contrast with the sensationalism that characterized press coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s death and that has indeed characterized the growth of her posthumous legend. Olds has a different story to tell.

The first verse paragraph is essentially descriptive. It uses tactile and visual imagery to depict the physical interaction of the ambulance men and Monroe’s body. The inertness of her body is conveyed by the ways in which the men manipulate her, closing her eyes and tying her arms down on a stretcher. Yet two subjunctive or conditional phrases complicate the apparently straightforward description. The men free a caught piece of hair “as if it mattered,” and they carry her body “as if it were she.” This phrasing calls attention to the transformation of death: She can no longer feel; she is no longer the person associated with her famous name.

Similar spare diction characterizes the enumeration of the fates of the ambulance men. In just a few phrases each, Olds identifies the melancholy transformations the dead celebrity works on the men who encounter her. Here, as in all free verse, line breaks are important. Some lines end with a natural pause created by the end of a grammatical phrase: “and one found himself standing at night/ in the doorway to a room of sleep.” Most of the line breaks interrupt grammatical phrases, making the poem slower and more somber. The line breaks in the third verse paragraph seem especially unusual. The first break emphasizes with the literal arrangement of the words on the page the “turning” or conversion the men experience: “Their lives took/ a turn.” The breaks between “not” and “like” and “looked” and “different” emphasize the strangeness of the feelings with which the men are left.

The final lines of the poem provide a wonderful illustration of how repetition and line breaks can communicate emotion. The descriptive image is simple: One of the men finds himself awake at night looking in on his sleeping wife breathing. However, the repetition and line breaks charge this simple act with feeling: “listening to a/ woman breathing, just an ordinary/ woman/ breathing.” Repeating both “woman” and “breathing,” and giving each word a line to itself, calls attention to the issues of gender and mortality in the poem. The man’s wife is breathing in an ordinary way, unlike the body of Marilyn Monroe, which was not sentient or, indeed, ordinary. And yet, literally stripped of her glamour, Monroe in death reaches toward an ordinariness that perhaps her troubled and famous life led her to crave. As was the case throughout her career, Monroe was a figure watched and observed by men.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 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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Themes