The collection from which this poem comes concerns the death of Olds’s father from cancer, and it details her evolving relationship with the cold, alcoholic man who so hurt her and her family when she was a child. The father’s death occurs about halfway through the collection; the poems following his death describe how their relationship continues to grow and deepen even after he has died. “The Lifting” is set not long before he dies, and it incorporates elements that are typical of Olds’s work, particularly in her awareness of her father’s sexuality and her linkage of that awareness to her own being and that of her daughter.
The poem begins with the shocking statement that her father suddenly lifts his nightgown, exposing himself to her. In this action, he violates a powerful taboo between fathers and daughters, and the tension of that taboo permeates the entire poem. The action is made still more complex by the poet’s use of the word “nightie,” a word for a woman’s garment, and a rather playful word at that. Soon, the reader realizes that the setting is a hospital and the nightie is a hospital gown.
The speaker looks away when her father lifts the gown, but he calls her name to make her look. He wants to show her how much weight he has lost. The folds of loose skin tell her how near he is to death. Immediately, she goes beyond the shock of his gesture to notice that his hips look like hers and that his pelvis resembles...
(The entire section is 442 words.)