Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 554 words.)