15. Develop a general definition of sexual identity.

Section 2 > Exercise 9 > Sexual Identity

Clinical Correlate # 12 Breast Problems

Sexual identity is first and foremost a matter of how one identifies oneself as a sexual being. In the previous short story, the author laments the absolute absence of a sexual identity. Read the poem by Sharon Olds, which explores, among other things, the way in which one's intimate relationships are tied up with one's sexual identity. Then answer the questions on the below.

Poem for the Breasts
by Sharon Olds

Like other identical twins
They can be better told apart in adulthood
One is fast to wrinkle her brow, her brain, her quick intelligence
The other, dreams inside a constellation, freckles of Orion
They were born when I was thirteen
They rose up half out of my chest
Now they are forty, wise, generous
I am inside them, in a way, under them
Or I carry them
I was alive so long without them
I can’t say I envy them, though their feelings are almost my feelings
As with someone one deeply loves
They seem to me like a gift that I have to give
That boys were said to worship their categoriac being,
Almost starve for it, did not escape me.
And some men loved them the way one would want oneself to be loved
All year they have been calling to my husband,
Singing to him, like a pair of soaking sirens on a scaled rock,
They cannot believe he could leave them
It isn’t vanity
They themselves were made of promise
And so they believed in the word
Sometimes now I hold them a moment,
One in each hand, twin widows heavy with grief
They were a gift to me
And then they were ours
Like little nurslings of excitement and plenty
And now it is summer again, late summer
The very week he moved out
Didn’t he whisper to them, "Wait here for me one year"?
No he said, "God be with you. God by with you. God by,
For the rest of this life and for the long nothing."
And they do not know language. They are waiting for him.
My Christ, they are dumb. They do not even know they are mortal.
Sweet, I guess. Refreshing to live with.
Beings without the knowledge of death.
Creatures of ignorant suffering.

Sharon Olds, "Poem for the beasts," published in Ploughshares with permission.
(Sharon Olds' most recent book is Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 A.A. Knopf)

Discussion questions

1. What is the relationship of the woman to her breasts?

2. What kind of personalities does she ascribe to her breasts?

3. Remember how in comparing the anatomy text with Haydn Carruth's poem, "The woman's genitals", we made a distinction between the body as object and subject? Is Olds objectifying her breasts, in other words, does she treat them as though they belonged to someone else? Or are the breasts subjects, in other words, extensions of the self? If you need help in justifying your answer, proceed to the following questions.

4. What is the actual subject matter of the poem? Is there a hierarchy of consciousness in the poem's protagonists (the poet and her breasts) What is the effect of the different levels of awareness--the poet's, who has intellectual knowledge of her husband's leaving, and the breasts', who have no such knowledge? What is the speaker's self-image, defined in terms of her sexuality? What is the role of sexuality in shaping her identity?

3. Are you comfortable with this poem? Does the way the woman talks about her breasts teach you anything about how people relate to different parts of their body? How might this knowledge apply in clinical medicine? Imagine a scenario where such understanding might be relevant.

Annotation: Poem for the Breasts