Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Olds is known for her frank discussions of sex and sexuality, and poems such as “First Sex,” which appears in The Gold Cell, illustrate that she sees sexual issues as inextricably tied to other issues related to the human condition. She says, “I’m just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex. I don’t see why not.” “First Sex” focuses, as the title implies, on the speaker’s first sexual experience. It begins with the speaker’s confession, “I knew little, and what I knew/ I did not believe—they had lied to me,” then goes on to describe in vivid detail a sexual encounter. “First Sex” embodies both the excitement of sex and the youth of its characters in phrases such as “his face cocked back as if in terror” and “sweat/ jumping out of his pores like sudden/ trails.” As is the case with many of Olds’s poems about sex, “First Sex” is a poem with a punch line, for in the end the speaker proclaims, “I signed on for the duration.”

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After the first printing of The Gold Cell, Olds revised several poems. These revisions seem to be designed to clarify images or reflect the poet’s further thinking about an issue. The most significant revisions occur in the poem called “What if God” in which she modifies an entire metaphor. Between the original and final versions of the poem, Olds clarifies the mother’s role, changing the lines “when my mother/ came into my bed” to “when my mother/ came into my room, at night, to lie down on me/ and pray and cry” and “like a/ tongue of lava from the top of the mountain” to “like lava from the top of the mountain.” Olds says that she made these revisions because readers were interpreting the poem as a piece about the sexual abuse of a female child by her mother, a reading she had not intended. She says that she had not realized her metaphor could be read so literally but that when readers pointed the reading out to her she felt it important to clarify the image.

The revision of the metaphor necessitated a revision of the entire poem, and changes that occur toward the end are perhaps more significant than the changes to the original metaphor. In the first version, the speaker asks, “did He/ wash His hands of me as I washed my/ hands of Him,” but in the final version she says, “He/ washed his hands of me as I washed my/ hands of Him.” In the first version there is a possibility for hope that God has not abandoned the child, but in the final version that hope is eradicated. In the next two lines, the speaker asks (in both versions), “Is there a God in the house?/ Is there a God in the house?” In the first version of the poem, in which the possibility of heavenly intervention to help the child exists, these are hopeful cries, but in the second version, in which there is no hope of such intervention, they are the futile cries of a helpless child. While Olds removes the disturbing images of the sexual abuse of a child from the poem, the final version is ultimately more hopeless than the original.

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