Shoron Olds, 'Poem for the Breasts'
In this poem, Sharon Olds explores an ambivalent but highly personal and intimate relationship—with her breasts. This relationship becomes a means for her to contemplate the loss of her husband, who, the poem indicates, has left her.
She immediately identifies her breasts as offspring, "Like other identical twins," whom a mother can tell apart better than anyone else. Like a mother, she gave birth to them, and carried them, the way one carries babies. They are children now grown "they're forty, wise, generous." And like a mother with children, she identifies with them, but is not identical with them. Here her language becomes almost riddle-like: "I am inside them—in a way, under them, or I carry them, I was alive so long without them./I can't say I am them, though their feeling are almost my feelings…." One might even say that a woman's relationship with her breasts (or perhaps with any part of her body) is a bit of a riddle, in that it there is both identification and distance in the self-survey of her body. In addition, as becomes apparent below, while the woman is protective of her breasts, these are also the nurturing vehicle, so the breasts are at once being nurtured by her motherly feelings towards them and are providers of nurture and sexual excitement. These 'multiple roles' for the breasts illustrate the complexity of her feelings, as well as the different dimensions or layers that the body occupies. This ambivalence might be something anyone who is aging recognizes when the body begins to fail—the body becomes an object of pity and extra needs. (See the poem, "Dear knee).
The poet then introduces the theme of sexuality—her breasts are what link her to the opposite sex. It's almost as though it is only through the breasts that this connection occurs ('some young men loved them the way one would want, oneself, to be loved.').
When confronted with loss, the breasts become biological objects—quite different than the initial introduction of one breast being 'fast to wrinkle her brow, her brain, her quick intelligence." Now the breasts are merely animal-like, 'a pair of soaking sirens' who can't believe that the husband is gone. They have been abandoned, and they have no means of understanding this, any more than a child would understand why a parent might leave, though Olds now calls them 'twin widows.' Their being 'heavy with grief' conjures up a time when they might have been heavy with milk and hence a life-giving force—she takes up this theme again when she calls the breasts 'little nurslings of excitement and plenty" but also the notion of heaviness that comes with the weight of aging (no longer desirable) breasts. And with the hint of aging comes the intimation of mortality—that the husband's leaving is forever, 'for the rest of this life and for the long nothing.' This is where the breasts' biology and lack of consciousness, and therefore also the difference between the speaker's awareness and her body's needs becomes apparent. The breasts 'do not know language' and all that attends it, including the knowledge of mortality. "Christ they are dumb, they do not even/know they are mortal." Ultimately all the grief of these twin widows is recognized as a projection. The body follows its own nature, but the consciousness that has to inhabit the body has to cope with grief and loss.
This poem deals with the complexity of a woman's feeling towards a part of her body that is highly identified with her own history as mother and sexual partner, and also reflects her awareness of aging and mortality. The poem can initiate a discussion about how people relate to their bodies (for example, by drawing on other materials, such as Richard McCann's experience of living with a donor liver) and can also enhance awareness of the body's role as the repository of one's identity and personal history.