Being a confessional poet, Olds is apt to morphing her personal experiences into brilliant poetry. "Rites of Passage" is no exception as she uses heavy ironic tone, and terse yet meaningful word choice to depict a mother's objective observation during her first grade son's birthday party. Resulting from Olds' unique style, one is able to look beyond the celebratory fashion of a typical first grader's birthday, and maintain the level of socio-political criticism that she displays. Olds instigates this poem's mounting war with small squabbles between the children present. One sniffling, chocolate frosting-covered face queries "How old are you? Six. I'm seven.
So?" (line 8, p 774). Using a typical conflict among pre-pubescent males parallels world leaders and makes evident how ridiculous the basis of wars can be. Substantially domineering countries can threaten those who are weaker with their massive stockpiles while the pecking order of all nations persists. This "can you top it?" attitude that Olds infuses into her poem displays her use of childish tomfoolery which is analogous with the leaders of this World. Further proven with the line "I could beat you / up, a seven says to a six" (line 12), Olds expresses how truly juvenile and foolish world conflicts can be. Olds furthers the imagery of this living room battle with her comparison of the birthday cake to a turret (line 16); a gun tower on a fort or battleship.
In conveying that a traditional element in the birthday party experience (cake) compares to one of war, Olds once again displays her unique and ironic imagery through word choice. In Line 15, Olds throws an innocent curveball into her poetic rostrum. "My son, / freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks," is displaying a guiltless and innocent sentiment of youth. Freckles like specks of nutmeg fills this reader's mind with images of cherubic and pure youth creating "seasonal" self-portraits in Mrs. Vogel's art class in first grade. When Olds's on, the peacemaker in this war, takes notice of the building tension, he relieves it with a semi-serious joke.
He stands up and proudly proclaims, "We could easily kill a two-year-old" (line 22). This is quite possibly a direct link to alliances between countries. Small quarrels between countries regardless of supremacy and strength are apparent and inevitable. However, if one observant peacemaker is present, it is possible that the nations will coalesce solely for the destruction of the common enemy. Networking the idea of war and childish acts is once again pounded into our minds through her symbolic imagery through word choice. The close of the poem reads, "they clear their throats / like Generals, they relax and get down to / playing war, celebrating my son's life" (line 24).
This line is paralleling the United Nations. They all gather in a building, in this case a living room, to celebrate their freedom. Glorifying their country through petty attributes, (as one does through a trivial testament of age, line 8), but in reality, there is immense tension between the nations, or the minds of first graders. Olds, in using her imagery-filled and paralleling word choice, allows this story to be entirely from the mother's point of view. The young boys act serious and aggressive, like 'bankers', as she states in the poem. As the small men scrap, quarrel, and compete with one another, the mother sees the living room suddenly turn into a hostile territory.
The word usage directly turns the atmosphere and attitude to an objectively critical location.