Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

The many faces of Olds’s relationship to her father are represented in over fifty poems in The Father and in many other poems by Olds published before and after. One of her fortes is poetry about relationships—she has written numerous poems about, for instance, her son, her daughter, her husband, and her elder sister. Curiously, although Olds’s mother is occasionally mentioned in her poetry, her father seems to be, by far, her most animating subject. This must be due, in part, to Olds’s implied model of conception, in which personhood originates in a single sperm (with the father) while the mother presumably serves as a sort of incubator. Thus, Olds the author/poet is authored by her father, making her connection to him uniquely significant.

Putting dozens of poems in a nutshell, Olds appears to be entranced with the idea of “the father” but rather disappointed with the actual model allotted her. The moments of tenderness between them primarily take place without mutual conscious intention—as in the many poems in which Olds treats her dying and unconscious father with tenderness. He is matter, revered for having cast her into the world, connected by the mystery of biology, and valued as such despite failing by the usual measures of fatherhood: According to other poems, for instance, he was an alcoholic, thrown out of the house by Olds’s mother to a chorus of cheers from the children. Olds’s treatment of her father as more matter than person achieves succinct expression in “The Dead Body,” where she refers to him as “this man who had so little consciousness, who was/ 90% his body.”

In “The Feelings,” the idealized concept of “the father” supersedes the actual relationship to the dead man in the room. That he has stopped breathing seems to make it easier for Olds to treat him as more of a concept than a person of mostly unpleasant traits. Furthermore, the father’s absence of personhood as defined by an interesting set of conscious characteristics—“personality”—makes him interesting in only two ways: as a piece of matter and as Olds’s father. In that sense, Olds is similar to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s character Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), who, while lamenting “goldengrove unleaving” (the leaves falling in autumn), is unconsciously lamenting her own mortality. Olds does not describe a person worth caring for because of positive attributes; therefore, her father is worth caring about only in the way that any death is significant or in the sense that this death strikes home as a reminder of Olds’s own mortality—the death of her “author” foreshadows her own death.

The poem ends on a note of heroic stoicism. The author has stared death in the face—her father’s and, vicariously, her own—has admitted the laws of this earth, and continues on. At first, “The Feelings” seems to be about a unique and intimate relationship between Olds and her father. Their closeness contrasts with the alien presence of the hospital personnel. Since Olds’s father lacks a necessary personhood to qualify as “other,” however, this poem takes on a more solipsistic note. In the end, it is Olds alone who faces the bittersweet world. Her only intimate connection to the rest of humanity is that everyone lives under the same law of mortality.

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