Sharon Olds, “Summer Solstice, New York City”

Sharon Olds’ poem, Summer Solstice, New York City, is written almost as a story, with a clear central plot of a man considering suicide, the emergence of defined characters such as the tall cop and the man on the roof, and with a comprehensive setting, detailing time, situation, and place to provide a strong backdrop for the poem. Emerging from this seemingly cohesive narrative structure, however, is a certain duplicity of ideas and images; throughout the poem, Olds frequently compares the natural world to the mechanical world, a past time to the present time, using metaphors and similes to not only highlight the unadulterated earth and world of the past, but also to bring attention to the influence that technology and modernity have had on that world.

Beginning with the title, Olds’ poem is filled with ironic pairings of natural and manufactured images and elements; summer solstice, the longest day of the summer, is an event that reflects the real cycles of nature—the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of the planets, the passing of the months, etc.—whereas New York City is perhaps the epitome of a manufactured, technologically impacted and man-made city. This contrast of natural and unnatural repeats itself throughout the poem. In the first few lines, Olds brings in many manufactured elements—tin, iron, tar, “the huge machinery of the earth,”—to set up the scene of the man about to commit suicide, and in the very next line, in the middle of a description of the very modern cops and their bullet-proof vests, she describes the police’s “suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening.” Her metaphor for these very advanced uniforms is a natural, unadulterated scene, one that can’t be made by man. Later, when Olds describes the safety net being unfolded, she compares it to the way a “sheet is prepared to receive at birth. Again, Olds compares a modern, manufactured, technological advancement of a trampoline, with the most natural thing on earth—childbirth. What is further interesting about this comparison is specifically the way the child is received—through a sheet. A very old-fashioned image, reminiscent of midwives and home births and an older time, without the impingement of the lights and technology of hospitals. Through this image, as well as in her final image of “the campfires lit…at the beginning of the world,” Olds seems to highlight this idea of the simplicity of the past, and in fact though her poem begins with a litter of manufactured, modern elements, it ends with that simple image of the past, the fires of the past, seemingly indicating to us that this is perhaps the direction we should go in to, towards simpler things, and that specifically the central character needed to move in that direction. There are many interpretations for Olds’ heavy use the manufactured in her poem, but there is no doubt that her multiple references to technology, and specifically the placement of these references alongside natural images and events, make for an intriguing poem.

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