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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

Drawing Lines with Perspective in Sharon Olds’ “When It Comes”

By: William Lehman

 The pronoun “It” reveals something subtle in the perspective shifts of Sharon Olds’ poem “When It Comes.” What this “It” is is not unmentionable, nor is “It” scientifically unknown—the meanings of this pronoun are disclosed in the poem itself—but perhaps the choice to call it “It” conceals a greater literary phenomenon worth exploring. In the case of the poem “When It Comes,” what is concealed here, more so than the thing “It” represents, is Olds’ control over pronouns and perspective: a technique we can use in our own writer’s toolkit for the conscious effect of clearing space or limiting space for our audience. Olds’ shifts in perspective constrict or dilate the space in which an audience member stands, where the confines of an “I” can spread to encompass a “You,” leaving “They” outside the boundaries, until a “We” works to further dilate that circle to encompass, or invite, those who stand outside it.

       First and foremost, “It” signifies something discoverable in the world. A priori or coming before “It” is an existential “I” who can pick that “It” out of the background of the world; in other words, a person. We speak traditionally of an “I” not as an Object, but as a Being, or a Subject: a Subject with qualities, “I am not so old,” and a Subject which effects objects, “I put on my jeans one leg at a time.”

From the basic establishment of an “I” from an “It,” we can establish a “You.” Picture yourself standing on a subway car with only one other person. As long as there is at least that one other person on the train car, there are two people present, and the distance between them comes to define “I” and “You.”

Keeping with this point of perspective, the pronouns “I” and “You” can be interchangeable. If we move from Person A to Person B, the perspectives switch, and “I” becomes “You.” In fiction and nonfiction, this is easy to accomplish: we simply jump between “I’s” as represented by each character through their speech and dialog; “I” of the first-person becomes the “You” of the second-person perspective in a dialog between two people.

       Similarly, in poetry, the “You” can represent either the author herself or an audience member toward whom the author directly speaks. This ambiguity of the second-person perspective allows an author to distance themselves from the writing and allows the audience to take up the role of the pronoun.

       Sharon Olds chose to begin her poem with the pronoun “You.” An immediate ambiguity is present as to whether or not Olds is speaking of herself or speaking towards the audience:

       Even when you're not afraid you might be pregnant,

       it's lovely when it comes, and it's a sexual loveliness. (Lines 1-2)

       We might ask ourselves, is she talking about You/Author or You/Audience? While this feels like personal experience and, therefore, could lead one to believe she is talking to herself, there is enough room within that second-person perspective to place ourselves—especially when we feel we are being spoken to directly.

       The next image in the poem seems to invoke something specific in reference to an experience of the author, and the audience might be led to believe the author is referring to herself:

       and at times, the last steps across the bathroom,

       you make a dazzling trail, the petals

       the flower-girl scatters under the feet of the bride. (Lines 5-7)

       As a literary device in poetry, first- and second-person can be used ambiguously, as if to speak to “You” the reader or “You” the author. And why can’t it be both? It is this plurality of the perspectives which links author and audience; the degree of circumspection allowed by the ambiguities of perspective sometimes has the effect of bringing the reader’s nose right to the page.

       Olds eventually turns to the first-person perspective in the latter half of the poem. This has a direct effect of disconnecting her from others:


       when I watch the delicate show,

       like watching snow, or falling stars,

       I think of men, what could it seem to them (Lines 23-26)

       There is a clear difference here between “I/Author/Woman,” and “Man/Other/Not Self.” Furthermore, we have an “I,” and we have an author; it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to put them together. Yet, there is also a touching on the third-person perspective in her reference to “Men” and "Them”—these “Men” are not a “You” or an “I,” they are a "He/She/They" of the third-person perspective. As soon as that line is drawn, part of the audience stands outside of the circle of perspective.

       But Olds quickly turns to “We,” the first-person plural, in the final lines of the poem, which works to include the author and the audience:

       that we see the blood pour slowly from our sex,

       as if the earth sighed, slightly

       and we felt it, and saw it,

       as if life moaned a little, in wonder, and we were it. (Lines 27-30)

       Here, Olds has drawn her audience together with herself. While one might argue that this poem is only speaking to a female audience, it is interesting to point out that after she mentions “Men,” she brings in the first-person plural, “We,” so that even men get acknowledged here, even men are included in the audience; and, therefore, even the male audience can join in the “we” of the final lines of the poem.

       It is interesting to see how Olds started in the second-person perspective, in an ambiguous internal monologue to herself and her audience, then furthers the ambiguity of the second-person perspective through her use of the first-person perspective in the latter half of the poem, only to draw everyone into the “We” in the final lines. Olds’ poem works double-time to make these distinctions, and as much as her use of pronouns distinguishes or divides individuals into “I,” “You,” “It,” and “We,” the flow of those ideas in the poem marks out a constriction or dilation of Being; instead of placing “I” at one end of the spectrum and “You” at the other, the space allowed by “I” encompasses a space that contains “You” and unifies them. The next step is to encompass a “We” from an “I and You,” which dilates the circle of perspective, spreading it out a little further to catch both “She’s” and “He’s.”

       The way Sharon Olds has used this dilation technique swallows everyone whole by the end of “When It Comes,” turning subjective experience into something communicable, even to those standing at the circumference of the circle. Our own greater awareness of the roles of perspective and pronouns can help us, as writers, bury something neat in our own writing. And it always returns to an awareness that drives intentionality; intention—even breaking the rules on purpose—lends to the depth and mastery of our use of language in fiction, nonfiction, and, in this case, poetry.

“When It Comes”

– Sharon Olds, Blood, Tin, Straw, 1999

Even when you’re not afraid you might be pregnant,

it’s lovely when it comes, and it’s a sexual loveliness,

right along with that radiant throat

and lips, the first hem of it,

and at times, the last steps across the bathroom,

you make a dazzling trail, the petals

the flower-girl scatters under the feet of the bride. And then the colors of it,

sometimes an almost golden red,

or a black vermilion, the drop that leaps

and opens slowly in the water, gel

sac of a galaxy,

the black-violet, lobed pool, calm

as a lake on the back of the moon, it is all

woundless, even the little spot

in jet and crimson spangled tights who

flings her fine tightrope out

to the left and to the right in that luminous arena,

green upper air of the toilet bowl,

she cannot die. There will be an egg in there,

somewhere, minute, winged with massive

uneven pennons of serum, cell that up

close is a huge, sodden, pocked planet,

But it was not anyone yet. Sometimes,

when I watch the delicate show,

like watching snow, or falling stars,

I think of men, what could it seem to them

that we see the blood pour slowly from our sex,

as if the earth sighed, slightly,

and we felt it, and saw it,

as if life moaned a little, in wonder, and we were it.


William Lehman teaches English in Southern Arizona. When he is not writing literary criticism, he is working with poetry, travel sketch, and nonfiction.


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