Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
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 her daughter’s. When she looks at the smile on his face, she recognizes that he had done this not to offend her but because he knows she will be interested. In a strange way, perhaps because, despite the “thick bud of his penis,” he resembles her and her daughter, he expects her to find him appealing. Despite the strangeness of the situation, she does, and she feels affection as well as “uneasy wonder.” The mystery he seems to evoke is the mystery of generation; the sexual organs she is viewing caused her to exist, and her sex has, in turn, created another person. The three of them are related in a way that somehow transcends the awful pain of their relationship. That pain plays little part in this poem and is not referred to explicitly.
The poem concludes with another reference to the title, this time extending its meaning. Olds describes the hospital gown lifting, rising as if on its own, as if it were the father’s soul rising at death to approach the final mysteries.
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