Sunday, May 9, 2010

Essay: Interepreting the poem "On the Subway"

Here is an essay I wrote in fall term 2007 exploring the meaning of Sharon Olds' poem On the Subway. You can Olds' poem here, though you'll have to scroll down because it's the third poem on the page.

I share my essay here with only very minor editing.


My interpretation

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The speaker is on the subway, and she (as I will refer to the speaker) stands across from a boy. She describes the boy as looking “[...]like the inside of the body / exposed.” With the inside of the body exposed he is wounded, and vulnerable. He also wears black shoes that have white on them “[...]like a / set of intentional scars.” These scars have been inflicted on him by all those who are white, a conclusion drawn by the fact that it is white scars on black shoes.
The speaker describes herself and the others like her as living off those in the dark, even to the point of almost taking their food from their mouths. She and others benefit, even if they don’t realize it, from the things this boy and others are deprived of.
She also observes that “He has the / casual cold look of a mugger,[...]” That is, he looks like a mugger, but is not one. He hides his vulnerability under a hard exterior, in an effort to protect himself from her kind. He is convincing enough that the speaker thinks of how easy it would be for him to take her life.
The speaker wears a fur coat. The luxurious fur coat combined with the boy’s painful raw skinless body make a whole creature. Thus, they cannot survive without each other. Just as she takes the food he would eat, “[...]he absorbs the murderous beams of the / nation’s heart,[...]” If she did not take his food and everything else from him, he would not be what he is.
She also wonders which of them is in the other’s power, and I believe that they are both in each other’s power. She has power over him in that she lives off him and reduces him to what he is. And he has power over her in that he makes her afraid. She is afraid of what he might do to her, when she thinks of how easy it would be for him to take her life.
There is a question in the poem that the speaker does not ask: is the light in the right, or the dark? A person’s automatic response to this question is that the light is in the right. But in this case the light thoughtlessly feeds off the dark, which to the best of our knowledge has done nothing wrong in this case. In this poem, the dark is in the right.

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