The Waiting

Olds, Sharon

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Taylor, Nancy
  • Date of entry: Dec-31-1996


A daughter sits with her dying father during the day, thinking about their relationship, keeping him company as he tries to swallow a little coffee, holding the cup for him to spit into. At night he sleeps with his wife; the next morning he sits again in his chair and looks out at the dawn and seems to be waiting for his daughter once again.


As the first poem in The Father, "The Waiting" sets up several ideas and images that will recur in the book. The dying of the father and the father-daughter relationship, past and present, are the book's main subjects. The father's inability to swallow and his spitting into the cup will, in later poems, become images implying the horrors attending his death.

The narrator's description of her father as statue-like, implying he is more a thing than a person, someone hard, stony, is echoed in later poems; yet statues by their very nature are creations that last. In the lines in which the father lets the kiss come to him--he does not go to it--the narrator sets the stage for other poems that will describe the father's inability or unwillingness to love his daughter while she was growing up. The use of "burnished" previews the use in other poems of many words relating to light and to yellow, the color of cirrhosis, and suggests, as well, something tarnished.

The narrator, describing herself as "his child" and "his daughter," imagines the day they will spend together, notes that he will sleep with his wife, and foresees that he will be sitting the next morning facing the water, as though facing the earth without form, and void, darkness on the face of it. These Biblical lines describe him as a "night- / watchman of matter" rather than as the Creator, but they imply his role as creator of the narrator, an image that will recur in other poems. Olds' black humor, evident in her reference to the graveyard shift, is matched by the poem's sad, musing, and self-deprecating tone.

The last lines' wording- -"as if / waiting for his daughter"--points to the narrator's uncertainty about the role she can or wants to play in her father's life/death and to her uneasiness about the nature of their relationship, issues that will be mirrored in many of the book's subsequent poems (see in this database The Pulling, Waste Sonata, Beyond Harm, The Dead Body).

Primary Source

The Father



Place Published

New York