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Sharon Olds’ “Rites of Passage” Poem Essay

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Updated: Aug 18th, 2021

In her poem “Rites of Passage”, Sharon Olds describes the children who have gathered for her son’s birthday party.

All boys, most of whom are either six or seven, one would expect to be told about the clowns and balloons, games of tag or hide and seek or other such child-time activities. Olds gives her topic an ironic treatment, though, in her continued comparison of the young children with their older, adult counterparts.

She emphasizes their youth through mention that they are ‘short’, they are ‘in first grade’ and they have ‘smooth jaws and chins’ (3-4). However, throughout these statements, she also continues to call them ‘men’ rather than ‘boys’ and characterizes their actions as being very much like the actions of their elders, “hands in pockets, they stand around” (5). Not completely clear whether she is referring to the characteristics of young boys or older men, Olds relates their actions, “jostling, jockeying for place, small fights / breaking out and calming” (6-7).

If not for the inclusion of the small fights, it would be difficult to determine the age of these ‘men’ as these are characteristics inherent among groups of men of all ages in most settings. It should also be expected that small children gathered together would instantly break into some sort of physically active activity, yet these children “clear their throats a lot, a room of small bankers, / they fold their arms and frown” (10-12). Their conversation is not the carefree conversation one might expect from small children but is instead concerned with violence, which child might be capable of beating up another child. When they finally do settle upon an activity, it is to play war, which itself seems an ironic means of celebrating a child’s life.

There are several similes in the poem that help to characterize it within the world of the adult, continuing to illustrate this seven-year-old’s birthday party as a rite of passage from one stage of life to another. This transition from one point of life to another is the subject of the first simile as Olds compares the dark round birthday cake with the formidable fortifications of a castle turret: “the dark cake, round and heavy as a / turret, behind them on the table” (14-15). Having already presented the boys as a group of older men in characteristic business behavior, this comparison serves to bring into focus the concept that while the speaker’s son is ostensibly the ‘king’ of the castle, it remains to be seen which of the boys will emerge as the proud leader, the true noble at heart. What remains to be seen is how this will be determined.

Rather than being the smallest on the totem pole, these children now recognize that they have passed onto the next rung of the pecking order. The speaker’s son is the focus of the next simile, “my son, / freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks” (15-16). The comparison of the boy with the spice nutmeg calls to mind images of gingerbread cookies and baking in the kitchen with mom. Freckles are often associated with innocence and lack of business-like concern. Thus, the boy emerges from the man-like image that has been presented through the poem, but only for an instant.

Immediately following this information about the son is the third simile in the poem, “chest narrow as the balsa keel of a / model boat” (17-18). Because we, as readers, are still thinking about the innocent freckles and sweet-spicy face, the first impression of a chest like a balsa keel gives us an impression of something light and airy, hollow and delicate.

However, then we are confronted with the reminder of balsa’s most well-known use, the creation of models.

This is followed in our minds with the reason why balsa wood is used for model building. Although it is very lightweight and easy to work, it is also very strong and capable of withstanding tremendous pressure. This sets up the final simile and celebrates the successful passage of the young man.

For the first time, the young boys are cognizant that they are not the smallest people around, as is illustrated through their grown-up actions. As they tussle among each other, trying to determine which one could beat up which other ones, the speaker’s son takes charge of the group and points out that they are now all capable of beating up two-year-olds. In other words, he finds a way to unite the troops together by pointing out that they have all advanced a step in the hierarchy. With this thought on the table, “the other / men agree, they clear their throats / like Generals, they relax and get down to / playing war, celebrating my son’s life” (23-26). The son has emerged as the young king while his friends take up the position of generals after having been troop soldiers, accepting a new responsibility and sense of maturity with this passing of the year.

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