The Mystery of Life and Death In the 1995 movie Breather, William Wallace presents life’s uncertainties and how we should live each day when he affirms, “Every man dies. Not every man really lives. ” Sharon Oldie’s poem, “Summer Solstice, New York City,” is an ideal representation of this quotation and the questions that we have about how to live our day-to-day lives. This brief poem is about a man who is standing on a rooftop contemplating suicide and the New York City policemen who are attempting to save his life.
At first, a brief summary is all that the reader sees in the story, but upon peer analysis, the fragility of life shines through. With each detail, or lack thereof, Olds reveals her views on the uncertainties of this life. The Summer Solstice is known as the longest day of the year, and in placing the setting on the Summer Solstice, Olds presents the reader with a lengthy period of time. In the first line, when Olds says that “he could not stand it” (1) anymore, it presents the concept of a long day, or in the case of the man, a long life and a long time coming.
We do not know what has been happening in the man’s life, but whatever it is has led him to desire to commit suicide. The man on the rooftops identity remains a complete mystery throughout the entirety of the poem. There is no physical description of the man; the descriptions in the story are of his actions. The lack of description of the man allows readers to apply the man’s actions and the story to themselves, rather than merely reading a poem and remaining on the outside.
We barely know anything of the man’s story except that “by the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it” (1). The question remains: What could the man not stand anymore? Some of us may have felt his pain before and are able to fully relate to feeling suicidal, while others understand the concept of being increasingly upset with someone or something. In her word choice, Olds invites the reader to identify with the man and his struggle, whatever our identification with the matter may be.
As the man is standing on the roof, he is poised between life and his immediate death. When the man reaches the edge of the roof, without hesitation, he “putts] one leg over the complex green tin cornice” (4). Hesitation begins to rush over him once he puts his leg over the edge. As “the man’s leg [hangs] over the lip of the next oral” (18), the readers are given strong imagery of how quickly one’s life can change. One half of his body is pointed toward life, while the other half of his body is on the side of death; any quick movement in each direction could determine the man’s life.
This description compares to our lives directly; any action that we take could determine our lives forever. This mystery of death is what attracts all of the people below; they are prepared for the worst. The people “[gather] in the street, silent” (19) as “the cops came in their suits blue-gray’ (7); they watch as the “hairy net with its implacable grid was unfolded near the curb and spread out and stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at birth” (20-22). The scene that is described here is one of waiting on the possibility of death.
The policemen are working to prevent what could happen, while the bystanders are awaiting a finale, watching the man balance they are merely interested in the aspect of danger and the fear of someone dangling at such a high altitude with no obvious desire to walk away from the edge. The people standing down below are attempting to place themselves into the mind of the an up on the rooftop understand why he is standing on the edge of the building and why he has not yet Jumped. We are left guessing as to what brings the man to spare his life. Was he actually suicidal?
Did the policemen convince him not to take his own life? We are never told the reasons for the man’s not Jumping from the building; we only know that “everything stopped as his body Jerked and he stepped down from the parapet and went toward them” (27-29). We are presented with so few details so that we are able to compare the actions of the man to our own previous experiences or actions. The Nan’s actions were Just as possible as those which he did not take. The outcome could have been different, and the purpose of the story would remain the same.
Life is uncertain, and the line between life and death is extremely thin. As the Summer Solstice marked the official beginning of summer, ancient civilizations used this opportunity to celebrate by throwing festivals and enjoying the day together (Dunlap Patch). At these celebrations, participants would have a bonfire to celebrate the sun and its rays and power (Dunlap Patch). These celebrations connect directly with the ending of the poem, when the policemen have adhered around the man and continue to smoke cigarettes that “burned like the tiny campfires we lit at night back at the beginning of the world” (38-40).
Though the ending of the poem can be interpreted in various ways, the relationship between “Summer Solstice, New York City’ and the holiday for which the poem is named is clear to the reader after further analysis. The comparison between life and death has been depicted in various ways throughout literature and all areas of the arts because audiences are drawn to the mysteries behind the characters. We long for the unknown, as it opens a door to our imagination and creativity. We already have an ending to the story in our heads before the characters can present us with a resolution.
By using omission of details, Olds allows us to interpret the poem individually to determine our own views of the world and of our lives. Works Cited Breather. Dir. Mel Gibson. Peer. Mel Gibson. Paramount Pictures, 1995. Film. Cassia, Ron. “Summer Solstice: A Brief History of a Midsummer’s Traditions. ” Dunlap Patch. N. P. , 21 Jan. 2011. Web. 24 Gag. 2013.. Olds, Sharon. “Summer Solstice, New York City. ” Making Literature Matter. 5th deed. Deed. John Schlitz and John Clifford. Boston: Bedford, 2012. 21-22.