Rather than celebrating the green earth’s bounty by throwing off robes and cavorting naked under the sun in an epicurean frenzy, the protagonist of Sharon Olds’s “Summer Solstice, New York City” chooses the titular occasion as the day of his suicide attempt. The abundance of sunlight in New York city does not illuminate nature but, especially from the would-be jumper’s height, the minutiae and overwhelming intricacy of the city- really, his resented captor’s- mechanical body. The Pagan associations, those of regeneration stemming from the earth’s greenery, are cruelly subverted and, ultimately, the closest experience in this world is not of an enjoyment of life but a cruel parody of once sacred tradition, a slow, dull death as suggested by the poem’s final image: the pseudo-ritualistic, communal smoking of cigarettes which “burned like the/ tiny campfires we lit at night/ back at the beginning of the world” (ll. 38-40). The speaker’s shift in pronoun: though initially affecting distance from the jumper by referring to him in the third person singular, by the end of the poem, the reader singled out as being a part of the machine as well.
Sharon Olds explicitly identifies New York’s finest as cogs, mere parts of a greater and indifferent order. Lines 6-15 comprise a complex sentence with lines 5-14 detailing the cops’ preparation for the suicidal man’s rescue. In a touching aside, one of the cops apparently values his life enough to protect it with “a black shell around his own life”(l. 9). It is meant to be a testament to his reverence for his role as a father- as well the his strong belief that the man on the roof may be “armed”(l. 11) and, thus dangerous or murderous. In fact, family men or not- a fact that make the predicament and role of this men more tragic-, their personal stories are mere asides and distractions from the insidious part they play. Lines 6 and 15 read together without the aside is “Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life… and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die” (ll. 6-15). The work the cops and the machinery desire to perform seem noble but the diction of the second line evoke mistrust. Only in the suicidal man’s threatening to abandon it, and in turn his role within, does the “huge machinery of the earth” decide it desires him. It was previously indifferent to the man’s malaise. The man wants to be parted by his own hand- perhaps even with dignity- from the machine, which is characterized like a parasite or a predator.
Eventually the man acquiesces to being rescued and some sort of death does occur: “everything stopped” (l. 27). The hope of mature, dignified independence quietly dies. The immediate consequence of his climbing down and away from “the next world” is the same as that of a disobedient child. The speaker is no longer a disembodied viewer that is sensitive to the man’s consciousness but one of the crowd, revealing his trapped humanity: “I thought they were going to/ beat him up, as a mother whose child has been/ lost will scream at the child when it’s found”(ll. 30-33). If readers naively want to believe that this mechanical earth’s maternal instincts would allow its children/citizens to thrive, the final image of collective cigarette smoking should thwart that. The people of this developed society are regressing, their instincts slowly atrophying as they inch closer to the end of the world.