Sharon Olds’ poem, “I Go Back to May 1937” is a work that is rife with imagery, at the same time beautiful and savage. It is an initially deceptive one; the imagery Olds employs through the course of the poem grows increasingly intense, even violent, belying its innocuous and even sentimental beginnings. It is this volatile nature of her imagery, as well as the sheer level of complexity hidden within it that allows “I Go Back to May 1937” to so engage the reader, and capture his attention.
At its outset, this poem could simply be one reflecting upon the narrators parents, their early years, their falling in love. The first image Olds presents the reader is an auspicious and respectable one: a college graduation. Leaving college to face the world on one’s own is a truly monumental and generally joyous occasion, and it is with this reputable event that the poem begins. It is likely narrated by a girl or boy, or perhaps young man or woman; she (she will be referred to as such, for simplicity’s sake, and because the author is female) seems to be musing over her parents’ graduation, how their lives in school ended and potentially how their lives together began.
The first line of the poem introduces indirectly its two chief characters: “I see them standing at the gates of their colleges.” (ll. 1). With this simple, direct act of seeing, or envisioning her parents in her mind’s eye, the narrator at once establishes the time and place in which the poem begins. By referring to the gates as “formal,” Olds maintains the feeling of structure, of order at this point of the characters’ lives – a comfortable feeling which she soon goes on to shatter completely.
Olds then further introduces the first character in the poem. “I see my father strolling out / under the ochre sandstone arch, the / red tiles glinting” (ll. 2-4). The reader is now presented with the image of a young man leaving his college behind, strolling out through this formal, solid stone arch into his future. He is sure, steadfast, like the arch through which he calmly and confidently strolls. It is no coincidence that Olds chose to use the word “strolls” over some other form of walking. The narrator’s father didn’t skip; he didn’t saunter; he didn’t perambulate. By employing the word “strolls,” Olds begins to set up the image of the father as confident and sure of himself. However, this is only the beginning of her construction of this notion; she tends to it carefully throughout the piece.
Next, the reader is introduced to the narrator’s mother:
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought iron gate still open behind her
Olds presents the reader with the visage of a young woman. She is leaving college as well – its gates stand open behind her. However, there is none of the bold, steadfast surety of the father character here. The image of the narrator’s mother is of someone perhaps much more delicate. As in the father’s introduction, the surroundings seem to play a role in the characterization of the person presented; where the father strolled through a solid, redstone arch, the mother stands in place, “a few light books at her hip,” next to a pillar composed instead of a myriad of small, delicate pieces. She is not strolling surely and boldly into her future, but rather lingering outside the gates, as if posing for a photograph after her graduation, not so ready to leave her old life behind. She stands holding books, remnants of her past which she has taken away with her. If the father carries anything, the reader isn’t told of it. The pillar by which she stands, like the stone-tiled arch, seems to be indicative of the character’s nature. It is made up of “tiny bricks,” implying less an image of strength and steadfastness than one of delicacy and complexity.
Each of these descriptions of the narrator’s parents seems innocent and unassuming enough at first glance. They seem to simply be two college graduates setting off into their new life, assumeably to begin their relationship and to produce the very narrator of the poem. They may differ in personality to a degree, based upon an analysis of the imagery of their surroundings, but the poem’s promising and overly positive beginning seems to foretell a not-unhappy future for the two characters.
However, this safe, certain impression changes rapidly when the full description of the narrator’s parents is taken into account. It is at the end of the description of the father when the poem and its meaning takes its first, unsettling pivot. The father, cool and confident, is strolling boldly through the aforementioned solid and austere archway. This in itself does not raise any doubts as to the intended direction of the poem. However, it is in Olds’ continued description of the arch that so startles the reader:
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head
It is at this point that Olds sews the first seeds of doubt, the first misgivings so carefully crafted. Until now, the father seems to be a confident young man, with an optimistic future ahead of him. However, when the reader is presented a closer look at this young man, at the arch behind him, he is shown a close-up of something truly foreboding. The tiles of this arch glint like “bent plates of blood behind his head.” (ll. 4-5). This sudden image of bright red blood, with the man’s head superimposed over something so startling and frightening is an abrupt and sharp contrast to the image of a bright, hopeful graduation day.
The same seed of doubt is planted within the description of the mother character, though not so violently. Her description, and the description of her surroundings suggests a young woman who is at once delicate, complex, and perhaps timid. Unlike the father, she does not so readily stroll away from her old life. However, Olds presents the reader with (depending on his awareness) another half-subconscious misgiving. The threshold through which she has passed into her new life, while still standing open behind her, is described featuring “sword tips black in the May air.” (ll. 9). This image of a gate standing open, but with such a forbidding feature as sharp points, or sword tips, implies that this gate will not stand long open behind her; when she leaves, she will be leaving something behind that there is no reclaiming. The black, sinister appearance of these sword tips only adds further to the feeling of doubt Olds works into the reader: ivy infiltrating the widening chinks in the secure, hopeful feeling first given the reader, perhaps mirroring the narrator’s own loss of faith.
After the initial description of the parents, the first inklings of doubt have already formed in an aware reader’s mind. With this in mind, the context in which the next few lines are viewed is quite different from that which their meaning at face value would intend: “They are about to graduate, they are about to get married, / they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are / innocent, they would never hurt anybody.” (ll. 1-12). Olds’ statement that these “kids” are about to graduate, to get married is innocuous enough. It is when she proceeds to say that they are kids, dumb and innocent, it seems almost out of place. Why include this for any reason other than to set the reader up for some future fault on the part of the parent figures, almost to serve as an excuse in advance for some crime not yet committed?
It is with the next line that any remnant of the poem’s initial sense of hope and its joy of youth is stripped away. The narrator, seeing this scene in her minds eye, wishes she could go back to this fateful day and prevent the events that led to her parents’ marriage from ever transpiring:
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it – she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. (ll. 16-22).
There is no more hope here, none of the usual joy that surrounds a marriage, and it is because the narrator knows better. She has seen what will become of these two innocent young people. Olds takes the poem from its slow descent away from the promising and optimistic account where it began into a gut-wrenching dive into something horrifying. The entire poem pivots 360 on one line: “I want to go up to them and say Stop.” (ll. 13). This is when Olds removes any shadow of a doubt – no good will come of this.
The narrator wishes she could go back in time, prevent her parents from ever marrying, ever even giving her life; she lists a series of what can best be described as frantic pleas, as she beseeches her parents not to continue on down the path they have started upon. Olds utilizes a simple, rapid series of lines which reveals the narrator’s desperation more effectively than could any amount of prosy speech. The narrator pleads with her parents in this vision of the past, telling them “you are going to do bad things to children.” (ll. 17). Presumably, the children she means are herself, and perhaps any siblings she may have. “You are going to suffer in ways you never heard of.” (ll. 18). How could they know what was in store? Olds makes certain that the reader knows they could not; they were kids, “all they knew is they were innocent.” (ll. 11-12). The last of these beseeching, knowing pleas is the most powerful and final of them all: “You are going to want to die.” (ll. 19). This end to the series of rapid-fire and frantic forewarnings seems to ring in the mind of the reader with an air of terrible finality, like the tolling of a bell. The narrator wishes she could warn them, wants so badly to prevent their suffering and hers, but cannot. Therein lies the irony: she knows what will happen, because she has lived it, but cannot prevent anything. “I want to go / up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it.” (ll. 19-20). Of course she cannot; it is all a distant memory, one that transpired even before she was born. Olds has placed the narrator in a place without possibility of escape, infusing the poem with a sense of tragic helplessness that at least disturbs the reader, if not moving him.
As the narrator elaborates upon how she wishes she could save her parents, save herself from the future that is now her reality, Olds’ imagery further impresses upon the reader a sense of the unknowing innocence of the youthful parent characters:
I want to go
up to them in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body… (ll. 22-25).
This description of the parents is one that Olds has designed to elicit further sympathy and compassion for the characters in the poem, as well as the narrator. Again, Olds portrays the mother and father characters in a different light. The mother’s face is hungry, pretty, and blank. She is hungry for all the experiences of life she has not yet been through, and for love and compassion from the narrator’s father. Olds refers to her face as “blank,” which seems to imply innocence on the part of this young woman; age, care, and immeasurable suffering have not yet left their marks on this face. The young man who is to become the narrator’s father Olds describes as arrogant, handsome, and blind. He is arrogant, sure of himself and confident, as he was strolling from the gates of his campus, that great, austere, bloody stone arch. He is further described as blind; he, like the young woman he will come to marry, does not foresee the pain he will endure, or will inflict. Olds’ image of blood, of confidence and arrogance associated with the father seems to imply that perhaps he will be the one to do more of the hurting to be done in his marriage with the young woman in the poem; he will be the one to mar that blank, hungry, pretty face. Both of their “pitiful beautiful untouched” bodies are an image that further expounds upon their youth, their hope, their innocence that is all to be lost: more tragedy.
To the observant reader, it quickly becomes evident that Olds “I Go Back to May 1937” is a poem that conceals staggering amounts of detail and meaning within its images and seemingly simplistic text. These great volumes of complexity, meticulously crafted by Olds, lie hidden within the poem, just beneath the surface of the imagery it is so rife with and beckon the reader to read deeper and deeper into the poem to attain its full meaning. It is this imagery, and Olds’ loving cultivation of detail that draws the reader into the text, and makes “I Go Back to May 1937” such a unique and vibrant account of innocence lost.