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Sharon Olds' "The Victims"

Updated on October 9, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sharon Olds

Source

Sharon Olds' "The Victims"

When Mother divorced you, we were glad. She took it and
took it in silence, all those years and then
kicked you out, suddenly, and her
kids loved it. Then you were fired, and we
grinned inside, the way people grinned when
Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South
Lawn for the last time. We were tickled
to think of your office taken away,
your secretaries taken away,
your lunches with three double bourbons,
your pencils, your reams of paper. Would they take your
suits back, too, those dark
carcasses hung in your closet, and the black
noses of your shoes with their large pores?
She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it
until we pricked with her for your
annihilation, Father. Now I
pass the bums in doorways, the white
slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their
suits of compressed silt, the stained
flippers of their hands, the underwater
fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the
lanterns lit, and I wonder who took it and
took it from them in silence until they had
given it all away and had nothing
left but this.

Reading of "The Victims"

Commentary

According to noted poetry critic, Helen Vendler, Sharon Olds' poetry is "self- indulgent, sensationalist, and even pornographic."

Olds' poem, " The Victims," consists of 26 uneven lines of free verse with Olds' customary haphazard line breaks. One of her least "pornographic" efforts, the poem is certainly guilty of self-indulgence and sensationalism.

Adult Looking Back

The speaker of the poem is an adult child looking back at the break up of her family when her mother divorced her father. The speaker addresses the father: "When Mother divorced you, we were glad."

The speaker and her siblings are glad because "[the mother] took it and / took it in silence, all those years." What she "took in silence" is left up to the reader to imagine, and that omission is a major flaw that leads the poem astray. No two divorces are alike.

By leaving such an important motive to the imagination of the reader, the speaker weakens the thrust of her accusations against the father. The only hint of the father's misdeeds is that he enjoyed "lunches with three double bourbons."

On the other hand, the mother "had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it / until we pricked with her for your / annihilation." The mother teaches her children to hate their father, perhaps because he had three double bourbons for lunch or so we must assume because no other accusation is leveled against the poor man.

Maybe the father was a cruel alcoholic, who beat the mother and children, but there is no evidence to support that idea. The father was fired from his job, but only after the mother kicked him out: would he have been able to keep his job if he had been a cruel drunk?

So the reader has no evidence that the father was guilty of anything, but the mother taught the kids to hate the father and wish for his death. The mother comes out a less sympathetic character than the father.

Then and Now

The poem breaks into two parts: the first is a description of how the family felt then, and the second part jumps to now: "Now I / pass the bums in doorways." It becomes clear that it is the bums in the doorway who have reminded the speaker of her father getting kicked out of their home and getting fired from his job.

The speaker then speculates about the "bums," about whom she knows absolutely nothing: "I wonder who took it and / took it from them in silence until they had / given it all away and had nothing / left but this."

What an arrogant reaction! Without one whit of evidence that these "bums" did anything to anyone, she assumes that they are like her father, who lost it all because of what he did, but the reader still does not even know what the father did either.

Showcasing Images

This poem, like many of Sharon Olds' poems, offers some masterful descriptions. The father's business suits: "those dark / carcasses hung in your closet, and the black / noses of your shoes with their large pores."

Those unforgettable "bums in doorways": "the white / slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their / suits of compressed silt, the stained / flippers of their hands, the underwater / fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the / lanterns lit."

Would that all of those colorful images resided in a better place. This ugly poem remains questionable and appears to have been created solely for the purpose of showcasing a handful of fascinating images.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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