The Dead and the Living Essay - Critical Essays

Sharon Olds

The Dead and the Living

Knowingly embracing such grand themes might be considered foolish on one hand, courageous on the other. Upon finishing THE DEAD AND THE LIVING, one is struck by the book’s passion, its control, its artfulness--its courage to confront its intimidating subjects and themes.

A series of poems based upon photographs, “Part One: Poems for the Dead,” presents a haunting panorama of anonymous victims painted in bold strokes: two Chinese men awaiting execution in 1905; a starving Russian peasant girl in 1921; a starving Yerevanian child in 1921; a madonna-like portrait of a Rhodesian mother and child who have been beaten to death; and young Iranian dissidents awaiting death by hanging. Olds offers these appalling, chilling mementos so that we might carry them in the wallet of memory as reminders of our hideous potential as humans. The personal poems of “Part One” reflect on the deaths of grandparents and friends, miscarriage, and an abortion. The portraits in this section, though more personal in subject matter, are no less sharply drawn.

“Part Two: Poems for the Living,” divided in sections entitled “Family,” “Men,” and “Children,” contains poems exploring the writer’s acute awareness of her multiple roles as child, lover, spouse, parent, and friend to the people who inhabit her daily life.

At forty-three, Olds--whose first collection, SATAN SAYS, won the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award and received high critical acclaim--writes with an intuition and depth often acquired by writers only in their later years. These are remarkable poems, and this is a remarkable book by a writer who reveals so much about what it means to be human. We should continue to listen for Sharon Old’s voice, for it sings with clarity and vision--and courage.