‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ is a profoundly moving poem by Sharon Olds that places under the microscope a moment of crisis. The poet uses a variety of imagery and figurative language to illustrate with painstaking emotion all the chaos and empathy that unravels when a man climbs to the top of the building with the intention of jumping off it. What follows is a breathless and poignant poem that captures a moment of human connection found amidst a bustling metropolitan landscape.
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‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ by Sharon Olds illustrates a scene of compassion between strangers as they try to prevent a man’s suicide.
‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ offers a glimpse at a familiar trope in both life and art: a man climbs to the top of a building, and a city mobilizes to talk him down. The speaker narrates the incident as a fellow observer, describing the way the arriving police officers prepare to approach “the man who wanted to die.” As one of the cops starts talking to him, a bustle of activity far below starts to unfold as the police unfold a net to try and break the man’s fall should he jump. A crowd has also gathered in the street staring and is staring up in silence at the man.
As the tension builds, the man suddenly steps down and walks toward the officers — the speaker thinking momentarily that the cops are going to “beat him up” like a mother driven to anger because of fear — but then they all embrace. The poem ends with a solemn and tender moment as the speaker observes the men from a distance, watching the “red, glowing ends” of their cigarettes burn as they share a smoke.
Structure and Form
‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ uses a large variety of imagery and figurative language. There is visual imagery: “he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building” (2); “the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening” (7). Tactile imagery: “the soft, tarry surface” (3). Kinesthetic and visual imagery: “Put one leg over the complex green tin cornice” (4); “The tallest cop approached him directly, / softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking” (16-17).
There are also examples of metaphor: “the huge machinery of the earth” (6); “black shell around his own life” (9). Personification: “the lip of the next world” (18). As well as a lot of similes: “rope like the sign of his bounden duty” (12), “came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building / like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,” (13-14) “stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive a birth.” (22) “as a mother whose child has been / lost will scream at the child when its found,” (31-32) “red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world” (38-40)
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ begins with the speaker describing the unknown man’s decision to ascend the building to jump off of it. Olds is deliberately ambiguous about the reason he wants to die and only offers a vague but still impactful explanation: “he could not stand it” (1). The implication is that this man has reached the final straw of some existential crisis and is now wearied by life.
The paced visual imagery offered in these lines focuses on the different surfaces the man must traverse to reach the top. He walks up the “iron stairs” (2) across the “soft, tarry surface” (3) of the roof and swings “one leg over the complex green tin cornice” (4) of the building’s edge. The laborious detail of such mundane observations reflects the man’s hyperfocus on everything except his coming suicide attempt, as well as building a certain weighted tension in his journey toward the edge.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
The next sentence found in ‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ describes the momentous effort of first responders who arrive to talk the man down. Olds employs a variety of striking kinesthetic imagery and figurative language that emphasizes the urgency of the city’s reaction, comparing the process to some “huge machinery of the earth [beginning] to work for his life” (6).
Here the speaker hones in on the two police officers prepping for their interaction with the man. The mention of the “bullet-proof vest” (8) and “life of his children’s father” (10) touches on the poem’s theme concerning life’s fragility, as well as the invisible bonds that tie us all together.
The second cop takes a different route that leads him “out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building / like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head” (13-14). The simile possibly alludes to either the fontanelle (the “soft spot” babies are born with) or what is known as the crown chakra in yoga traditions (depicted as a gold ring). Adding respectively to the poem’s emphasis on our shared vulnerabilities as humans and the solemnity of the attempt to save the man’s life.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
The speaker of ‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ then starts to describe the way the police officers attempt to lure the man away from the ledge. One of them approaches him “directly, / softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking” (16-17), the diction underscoring his patience and care. Olds uses another striking piece of figurative language in the preceding line to emphasize the man’s precarious position as he listens to the cop, describing his leg as hanging “over the lip of the next world” (18).
Below, the speaker reveals a crowd has gathered but is “silent” (19) as a net is set up to catch the man if he jumps. Olds alludes again to infancy and the beginning of life by drawing a comparison between the safety net and the “sheet [that] is prepared to receive a birth” (22). The metaphor accentuates the collective compassion being offered up to the man, creating a parallel between the nurturing moment of childbirth with a similar one now occurring at the potential ending of his life.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted next to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
‘Summer Solstice, New York City’ ends with the man walking away from the edge toward the cops: “everything stopped / as his body jerked and he “stepped down from the parapet and went toward them” (27-29). It is at this moment the speaker admits to initially thinking that the officers are going to physically attack him, analogizing the violent response to that of a “mother whose child has been / lost will scream at the child when its found” (31-32). Once more reinforcing this elusive familial link between complete strangers that is driven by empathy.
But the men do not “beat him up” (31), and instead, they begin to share a smoke. Olds stresses the intimacy of the scene that unfolds atop the building, isolated as they are from the disarray and anxiety down on the streets below. The imagery of their cigarettes and their “red, glowing ends” (38) conjures up another beautiful bit of figurative language that compares their burning to the “tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world” (39-40). The simile reaffirms the poem’s earnest plea for empathy and human connection.
The poem’s theme centers on the necessity of human connection. Olds uses plenty of imagery and figurative language to reiterate this point, from the way the city brings together this galvanizing effort to stop the man’s suicide to the final scene of the men’s shared cigarettes.
Olds no doubt wrote the poem to highlight her perceived sense of unity that is hidden within the hustle and bustle of urban life. One man’s desperation brings together a whole city and reveals the underlying empathy that brings together complete strangers.
The title obviously indicates the poem takes place in New York, but it also references the time of year with its mention of the summer solstice. The poem takes place on the “longest day of the year,” which happens during the solstice and also underscores the man’s endurance of such a lengthy day.
Throughout the poem, the speaker uses a variety of images and figurative language to spotlight the man’s vulnerability. This example does just that by comparing him to something that is delicate and unprotected but still trying to thrive, a perception that alludes to his decision to step away from the ledge.
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