Sharon Olds’ poem “Late Poem to My Father” exposes the profound effect that childhood trauma can have on someone, even in adulthood. The speaker of the poem invokes sadness and pity in the reader by reflecting on the traumatic childhood of her father, and establishes a cause and effect relationship between the abuse he endured as a child and the dependence he develops on alcohol as an adult. The idea of emotional retardation caused by childhood experiences is not uncommon, especially in our modern world of prevalent substance abuse, dysfunctional families, and child abuse.
However, Olds’ poem is a moving testament to this tragic loss of innocence due to the powerful imagery she weaves throughout the first half of the poem. In addition, Olds skillfully uses figurative language and deliberate line breaks throughout the poem to develop the dismal sorrow her speaker feels while reflecting on the childhood of her father. The poem opens with the speaker experiencing an epiphany while contemplating on her father’s childhood, and later in the poem we learn that this contemplation is more specifically focused on the causes of her father’s dependence on alcohol. In the first seven lines of the poem she uses descriptive details to establish a dark, foreboding image of the setting.
For example, in lines two and three she describes the house with “unlit rooms” and a “hot fireplace”. She goes on to portray her father as “a boy of seven, helpless, smart,…” which reinforces his innocence in this imagery of darkness. It is interesting to note how the speaker distinguishes these details, yet in lines three and six, she refers to her father’s father only as “the man”. She intentionally refers to him in this flat way so as to convey to the reader that he is unworthy of any characterization. She also omits characterization in line six when she writes, “there were things the man did near you,” purposely emphasizing “things” with no other explanation. This leads to the assumption that some actions are too abominable to convey in words, thus leaving us with a vast array of uncomfortable possibilities to consider. The description of the “sweet apples picked at their peak…rotted and rotted,” in lines nine and ten establishes a comparison between her father’s loss of innocence, and the ripe fruit being left to waste.
In line eleven she writes, “past the cellar door the creek ran and ran” which is a contrast to the apples being trapped within the cellar (like the child in the house), and the creek being on the outside, where the idea of escape exists. The silent actions of the apples and the creek are parallel to each other as well. The realization the speaker comes upon during her pondering is stated in lines twelve and thirteen, “something was not given to you, or something was taken from you that you were born with,”. This line is crucial because not only does it present the overall theme of the poem, but also the line breaks are placed after “something was” in each line, which presents the idea more vividly to the reader.
This placement of line breaks is prevalent throughout the poem, and often Olds ends a line in mid-sentence to draw emphasis to the particular image or action she wants acknowledged. Another good example of this is in line seventeen when the line ends after “the poison to help you” and the next line continues with “drop down unconscious”. It is possible she is conveying to the reader that her father truly viewed the alcohol as a means of “help”, but in the next line she uncovers what its actual purpose served. Olds goes beyond literal imagery with her use of figurative language, namely metaphors, to introduce key ideas in a more dramatic manner.
The most significant example of this is in lines twenty-two through twenty-five in which she writes, “the tiny bones inside his soul twisted in greenstick fractures, the small tendons that hold the heart in place snapped.” This metaphor is used to unveil the emotional damage done to the speaker’s father as a result of the child abuse. It is one of the most striking lines in the entire poem due to the sympathy it solicits from the reader. Other examples of metaphorical language include the comparison of alcohol to “oily medicine” and “poison”. Also, in line eight the father’s father is described as “the mold by which you were made”. These metaphors deepen our understanding of the speaker’s ideas by making comparisons that are relative to our own thoughts and experiences. In conclusion, this poem is a reminiscence of forgiveness addressed from the speaker to her father.
She has come to the realization that her father’s shortcomings, namely alcoholism, were coping mechanisms acquired from his painful past. This revelation seems to set the speaker free, as if she has been searching for the answers, and suddenly it becomes clear. Many times in our lives, we need justification for the pain that others, especially loved ones, inflict upon us. There has to be rhyme and reason, or else how do we cope? The speaker finds her justification by establishing the cause and effect relationship between the childhood abuse and the adulthood substance abuse.
It is also interesting to note that many children of abuse and alcoholism end up repeating history with their own children. Will history repeat itself with the speaker of the poem? Olds answers this question in the last four lines of the poem, when she writes, “When I love you now, I like to think I am giving my love directly to that boy in the fiery room, as if it could reach him in time.”. This indicates to us that the speaker does, indeed, love her father and forgives him for the pain he caused her. She understands his mistakes, and will not likely repeat them. This forgiveness is her means of coming to terms with her pain, something her father was never able to accomplish.