My First Weeks by Sharon Olds

My First Weeks is a free verse poem. It is written in one solid block of text without breaks for stanzas and is 37 lines long. The lines vary in length but are not less than four, and do not exceed 12 words long. The poem is in first person, told by a narrator recounting her first weeks of life, before she was born, and then right after. The backbone of this piece is a number of images described so well they become visually engaging, and a universality of human experience. Whether the reader’s own experience was as tender as the speakers or not, each of us was born and (more than likely) cannot recall our first weeks. Olds creates an experience for her narrator, gives her the memories of this time that we would all like to remember. This allows the reader to place themselves in her life and feel the warmth she describes. You can read the full poem here.

 

Summary of My First Weeks

This piece progresses rationally through time. It begins at the beginning, the narrator is still within the womb and describes her own birth. What it was like to come into the “cold illuminated air” and breathe. She is handled in the hospital, “washed off, wrapped,” and nurses from her mother. She describes the pleasure that comes from the warmth of her mother’s skin, and the milk she provides as well as the intense desire for more, and the denial of that pleasure as she is put on a feeding schedule. They seek to build up the narrator’s character through this denial. The speaker refers to the nursing as “heaven” something that she is always going to have, something to remember “behind those nights / of tap water.” She has “known heaven” and will always remember it.

 

My First Weeks Analysis

Lines 1- 8

The first two and a half lines of this poem introduce the memories that the first person narrator is going to be relaying. The speaker, when she wonders about the meaning of her life,

…what I’m like, underneath,

she thinks about her first two weeks. When she was still within the womb and “drenched” with only happiness, life starts simply but becomes more complicated, as the poem describes.

The next six lines describe her birth. This gives the reader a perspective on this important even that is very uncommon, from the child being born.

The speaker describes how the wall that held her in the womb opened “like liquid.” Just as is the most common in births, her head slides through first followed by her legs. She describes herself as taking action as well, she is not just being ferried along, but she “pushed off.” She is able to control herself minimally. It is at this point that she is pushed out into the cold, certainly a change from being within the womb. She also breathes for the first time.

 

Lines 8-14

The doctors and nurses handle her now, she is wrapped up and washed. She falls asleep and is then passed to her mother. Her first real memory of the world is her mother’s breast pressed against her. The speaker, and by default, Olds herself, is giving a vivid description of something that is normally considered very personal. For many, the act of breastfeeding is something of a taboo not to be practiced in public. Here though, it is being relayed by someone who is not old enough to realize this, or be embarrassed about the act.

She describes how the breast feels against her, “hard and full.” She feeds, and then sleeps. The next line shows a pattern of this child’s life.

…Sleep.

Milk. Heat.

A simple and warm beginning to life. Something that anyone reading this piece would be able to understand the desire for.

The reader now gets more details about what her day to day life is going to consist of in her first two weeks. She describes how every day her mother holds her, and waves her hand for her to her big sister on the street. It is up to the child’s mother to help her create her relationships in her life.

 

Lines 14-23

Her memories of her first two weeks continue to increase and get even more vivid. She can remember seeing her sister down on the street waving back at her. She remembers her sisters excitement and how she

waved her cone back at me so

hard the ice cream flew through the air…

While it is implausible that this speaker could remember these events, the reader does not question it in the moment.

Other than this distinctive memory, the child’s life appears to be simple. Everyday she did the same things, sleeping and nursing. This seems to go on for a number of days but then things become a little more complicated, as life does.

…Paradise

had its laws

She was on a schedule, she was only allowed to nurse every four hours and when it was time, her life was paradise. So much so it seems that she forgets all the the intervening time in which she cried for milk.

 

Lines 24-31

After the two weeks are up in the hospital she is taken home where a nurse, and her mother, take care of her. She gets water from the nurse, every four hours, which she shrieks for. They leave her in the mean time, allow her to cry until she stops on her own. This, as the speaker states, is an attempt to build up her character.

While it makes her life harder and more difficult, it is for the best and she seems to understand that. She learns to stop crying, to give up.

 

Lines 31-37

The next lines that make up the conclusion of the poem, give an even broader take on the life of this child. She describes her life as glorious, she lays her legs and arms out and feels the happiness of being this age without any requirements placed upon her. It is this emotion and memory that the speaker is going to be pulling from for the rest of her life. It would,

…always be there, behind those nights

Even when she is older, the age she is now, and even further in the future, she can draw happiness and peace from remembering what her life used to be like. She will remember when she had unlimited milk (every four hours). Her life was kept solely by “cream” and “flame” or the heat of their closeness. This is what the speaker refers to as “heaven.” A paradise she will never forget and can always mentally return to. She has “known heaven” and will forever have that.

 

About Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is a contemporary poet who was born in 1942 in San Fransisco. She grew up in California and attended Stanford University and Columbia where she earned her Ph.D. Her first book of poems, Satan Says, was published in 1980. Her poetry is known for its intense emotion and personal depictions, especially when it comes to family life and global events.

She has won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.

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