“The Feelings” is a forty-one-line poem in free verse, artistically recounting the poet’s feelings immediately following her father’s death. It is highly personal and familial, as are many of Sharon Olds’s poems. Written in the first person and past tense, the experience seems fixed, inevitable, available to retrospective analysis. The poem begins in a hospital room, the poet watching as an intern “listened” to her father’s stopped heart, and concludes with the poet contemplating the meaning of life the following morning as her husband lies atop her. The “feelings” include physical sensations—such as her father’s “faintly moist” face and hair “like a wolf’s”—and emotional and philosophical reactions to the father’s death.
Inasmuch as it recounts her reaction to her father’s death and moves her beyond that death, “The Feelings” may be considered an elegy. However, unlike traditional elegies such as John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais,” or Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” there is no recounting of the wonderful qualities of the deceased or sorrow at the loss of this positive force in the world. Olds’s father apparently deserved no such praise (a conclusion bolstered by references to him in other Olds poems). Nor was he a figure to arouse intense hatred, as is found, for instance, in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” He was more of a nonentity, whose claim to attention is that he was the poet’s father.
The poem moves through a series of relationships. In the first six lines, Olds’s intimate relationship to her father contrasts with the alien presence of the intern. The poet, realizing her father is dead, stares at the intern “as if he or I/ were wild, were from some other world.” The loss of her father seems to threaten the poet’s identity and makes her unnaturally wary of others. The alienation of poet and intern broadens in lines 7 to 17 to include “everyone else in the room,” presumably other hospital personnel, who mistakenly—according to the poem—believe in the Christian God and who believe that the body on the bed is only a “shell” from which the spirit has departed; the poet alone knows her father is “entirely gone.”
In lines 18 to 21, Olds imagines herself, in the Eskimo tradition, letting her father float away in the “death canoe”; in lines 29 to 34, she imagines herself accompanying him to the crematorium and touching his ashes to her tongue, but in reality she walks out of the hospital room and does not attend him. Lines 34 to 41 add an interesting postscript, in which Olds returns to a living relationship. The poet is under her husband’s body the next morning, which crushes her “sweetly,” holding her “hard to this world.” This sensual image is likened to a fruit, with tears coming out “like juice and sugar.” This image is then tied back to the death of her father as the fruit’s “skin thins and breaks and rips.” The last two lines suggest recognition, if not acceptance, of this immutable mortal destiny: “there are/ laws on this earth and we live by them.”
Forms and Devices
In a strong juxtaposition of contrasts, this poem is at once sensual and philosophical, concrete and abstract. The father’s silent heart, the poet’s wet face, their dry lips, and the weight of the husband’s body all locate the poem firmly in the physical world. The dissonance between the poet’s atheism and the Christian beliefs of other people in the “death chamber,” as well as the conclusion—“there are/ laws on this earth and we live by them”—make this poem a philosophical disquisition.
Another forceful contrast is the relationship between death, with her father, and life, with her husband (the latter also associated with procreation). The paradox of juxtaposed life and death appears succinctly in the image of the fruit, which is crushed “sweetly,” where tears are like juice and sugar, and where they come out to be tasted only as “the skin thins and breaks and rips.” In some ways, this “contrarieties of life” paradox is similar to the paradox in John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where “in the very temple of Delight/ Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”
In another contrasting juxtaposition, Olds shares a physical intimacy with both dead father and living husband. She “held hard” to her father’s foot, “felt the dryness of his lips under/ [her] lips,” and “felt his hair rush through [her] fingers.” She imagines herself at the crematorium, touching “his ashes in their warmth” and bringing her “finger to [her] tongue.” This intimacy with the dead father provides continuity and contrast with the image of her “husband’s body on [her]/ crushing [her] sweetly.” Ironically, the live husband does not demonstrate any more life than the dead father: In this poem, he is just a sweet, crushing weight. However, these two bodies are not the focus of the poem; as springboards for the poet’s ruminations, they serve their purpose silently.
All these paradoxes enhance the sense of mystery about death and its meaning, which in turn illustrates the paradox of life itself: It is a sweet fruit and a fragile container that, at some moment, will inevitably burst into death (“tears” and “sugar”). The extensive use of paradox appropriately conveys the wide, even irreconcilable, range of the feelings expressed in the poem.
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