I Go Back to May 1937

by Sharon Olds

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Lines 1–9 In the first line, the speaker refers to “gates” and “colleges.” The plural form of these words signals there are differences between the two adults being described. They are distinctly separate people, each coming from a different background and location. In the second and third lines the man emerges from under an ochre sandstone arch, which creates an earthy image of clay walls, tinted dark yellow or reddish brown, in the reader’s mind. Combine the image of the sandstone arch with the “red tiles glinting like bent plates of blood,” and an image of the southwestern United States emerges. Red ceramic tile roofs are a common architectural feature of Arizona and southern California, as are earthy brown walls. The “glinting” tiles suggest the sun’s glare off the roof, which could also indicate the Southwest, a region known for its sunny, warm climate.

In contrast to the man’s location, the woman stands at a “pillar made of tiny bricks,” her books carried against her hip. A wrought-iron gate is behind her. While the man emerges from his college by passing under an arch, the woman must pass through the gate to begin her new life. The bricks and wrought-iron gate suggest a different location than that of the man’s. The woman’s college may be in the northeastern United States, perhaps New England. Her location, then, would be the opposite of the man’s. And while she emerges with books, he is empty-handed.

These basic differences alert the reader to the divisions that separate the man and woman. They are not only separated by gender, but by location and culture as well. And although he leaves the books of academia behind; she still grasps her books to her body.

Lines 10–12 The speaker now establishes the man’s and woman’s innocence. She tells her reader that the couple is about to graduate from college, and so the reader imagines the man and woman are young, probably in their early twenties. To reinforce the image of youth and inexperience, the speaker relates, “they are kids, they are dumb.” The speaker also says they would “never hurt anybody.” They are so innocent that the man and woman fail to see that their wedding might someday lead to pain. They see only the movement from their single college days into a new married existence. They are too young to consider their marriage might be a mistake. But the speaker is aware of the disaster awaiting the couple. She writes from the future, having seen the past, and knows that the couple stands on the precipice of a serious action, one that will affect others.

Lines 13–19 The speaker considers the actions she might take to prevent this tragedy from occurring. She considers stopping the man and the woman. She wants to “go up to them and say Stop.” The capital letter at the beginning of “Stop” suggests the red sign along the road, an absolute message for any driver. The speaker wants the couple’s movement toward marriage to be blocked, and so she adds the imperative “don’t do it” to emphasize her need to stop the marriage. The speaker does not tell them they are too young. Instead she says, “she’s the wrong woman,” and “he’s the wrong man.” The speaker warns that because they are wrong for one another, they will do things they cannot imagine. To strengthen her emphasis, the speaker continues, “you are going to do bad things to children.” The reminder here is of the pain an unhappy marriage can cause children. The next lines make clear that not only the...

(This entire section contains 1289 words.)

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children will suffer, but the man and woman will suffer as well “in ways you never heard of.” The reader is informed the misery is going to be particularly extreme, so severe that the man and woman “are going to want to die.” The picture painted in these few lines is one of great unhappiness, a marriage so destructive that the children will carry the scars for a lifetime and the parents will find solace in wishing for death.

Lines 20–25 These lines suggest the depth of the speaker’s anguish. The speaker tells the reader how she would like to have warned the man and woman, how she might have tried to stop their marriage, but that she could not do so. Once again the speaker speaks from the future. She has the omniscience of a god, having seen the end result of this couple’s union. As she did in the first line, the speaker again establishes the time: at graduation in late May. It is another reminder, two-thirds of the way through the poem, of the couple’s youth, of their innocence that day in 1937 when they emerged from college. The woman’s face is “hungry,” ready to seize upon new desires and opportunities, but the blankness of her face also suggests she is unable to comprehend the risk she is taking. The blankness may also suggest the lack of experience with which the woman greets the world; nothing is written upon her brow, and her eyes lack the knowledge that pain will soon bring.

In contrast, the man is described as “arrogant,” a clear allusion to his unwarranted pride, which was emphasized earlier when “he strolled out” and away from his college. The man did not simply “walk,” he “strolled,” suggesting the sort of leisurely walk of a supremely confident individual. The man’s “blind face,” however, tells the reader the man is as limited and unable to see as the woman.

The parallelism and repetition of the lines, “pitiful beautiful untouched body,” suggest the emptiness of the marriage, but these are words that also hint at great loneliness and loss. These bodies have not known great passion and intimacy. The repetition of the lines is separated slightly, just as the man and woman are separated. She is beautiful and he is handsome, but their attractiveness has not brought them together. The speaker sees all these things: their beauty, their aloneness, their loneliness, and their blindness, and she wants to say, “Stop, / don’t do it.”

Lines 26–30 The final lines of the poem relate the speaker’s acceptance of her parents’ fate and of her inability to alter the past. As she tells the reader in line 25, “I don’t do it,” she does not stop her parents from marrying. The speaker acknowledges she wants to live. To prevent the marriage and all the misery that flows from it is to prevent her existence. So, in a final effort, the speaker imagines she can force her parents to love one another. She tries to create a spark and ignite a passion between them by imagining her parents are paper dolls she can force together. The speaker says she will “bang” the two together. The word “bang” suggests the force with which the speaker hits the two together, but also suggests sexual intercourse (in vulgar slang), a meaning that works well for this poem. In lines 22 and 24, the speaker has made clear that passion has left this couple untouched. Now in banging the paper dolls together, the speaker would create intimacy where none has existed. Like “chips of flint” the speaker tries to ignite a flame that will consume the couple and melt them together.

In the last line, the speaker seems to acknowledge and accept the futility of her attempts. She cannot change the past, nor can she force a connection that never existed. With the words, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it,” the speaker signals her resignation. All that remains is to tell the story of this disastrous union.