Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1903
A preponderance of historical evidence has demonstrated that the relaxation or removal of restraints on artistic expression is not necessarily a move to creative freedom. To take advantage of the verbal license afforded to modern writers requires, at a minimum, a degree of maturity that recognizes the cheap, obvious, and tired nature of most erotica. To use this freedom really effectively, a writer must be able to integrate the erotic impulse with the total personality of its progenitor. From the beginning of her life as a poet, Sharon Olds has brought a facility for graphic description to an exploration of her intense emotional responses to her father, her family, and her relationships with the men in her life, effectively establishing a gulf between the critics who have felt that her efforts at “poeticizing sex” were too often composed of “emptily familiar four-letter words” and those who see her writing about the physical as a singular strength in which “the body becomes a sacred text to be learned.” Her sixth collection, Blood, Tin, Straw, carries her concerns with the skin as an extension of the soul even further into the realm of the senses, while continuing to demonstrate a mature sensibility that operates beyond the need to indulge the still sensationalist shock power of erotic consciousness.
The absence of an exploitative agenda is a paramount feature of Olds’s poetry, while her fascination with both the psychology of arousal and the body’s physical response to more than physical stimulation has produced what reviewer Janet McCann has accurately identified as “an invasive form of psychological realism.” The insertion of the self directly into her poems as an unavoidable component, plus the scale of her involvement with the fullest range of erotic experience, inevitably results in some degree of unevenness in Olds’s work. However, to say, as Ken Tucker asserts in a generally negative review, that her “autobiographical themes, expressed in language alternately artless and ornate, are beginning to show some strain” is to imply an impossible level of achievement that no writer can realistically maintain. Not every poem, even from that of a master such as Irish poet Seamus Heaney, can be a “masterpiece,” and to focus on the perceived failure of some poems, particularly those examining the most personal parts of human behavior, is to miss the exceptional accomplishment of Olds’s best writing. In addition, the subjective taste of a reader is likely to be a crucial component of judgment when considering the functions of the body. An individual’s aversion to the exploration of biological detail, no matter how artfully expressed—when “artful” is itself a matter of contention—further complicates matters of aesthetic evaluation. There may also be a degree of subconscious bias on the part of some readers when confronted with poems that depend on the facts of maternity, a subject in which feminist theory is far from unified and which some male reviewers might still find disconcerting. What matters most in Blood, Tin, Straw is not femininity or maternity but poetry, and the strongest poems in the volume are arguably at least the equal of the ones in earlier books, which were honored with several prestigious awards.
In a characteristically forthright fashion, Olds has stated, “My senses are very important to me. I want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell.” The title of the collection is taken from the poem “Culture and Religion,” and while it refers directly to the materials composing the Land of Oz characters, it is more generally an emblem of the elemental components of Olds’s cosmos, which is expanded in the book’s five parts to include Fire and Light. In accordance with the symbolic import of the four elements of the ancient world, each of these fundamental facets of human and natural life operates both as tangible essence and as psychological projection. The poems are located under separate headings, but they function primarily as amalgams of these entities, incorporating the sensory observations that Olds values to produce an ethos of exceptional intensity. This is appropriate as Olds has commented that she is “just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex,” subjects which are as basic as the elements that structure the book and which can bear the pressure of the extremely close scrutiny that her careful observation accrues.
The relationship between the circumstances of Olds’s life and the shape of her poems is understandably complex, and, as Olds has remarked, “the difference between the paper world and the flesh world is so great that I don’t think we could put ourselves in our poems even if we wanted to.” In addition, Olds initially wrote the poems that appear in Blood, Tin, Straw between 1987 and 1989 and worked on them after the publication of The Wellspring (1996), suggesting that the directly personal nature of the poetry is not just a matter of instinct or inclination but a matter of specific intention. To assume that they are merely confessional or diaristic reproductions is to deny the craft that informs their composition and provides their power. One source of this power is the voice that Olds has developed, not an artificial construct alternately “artless and ornate” but a gripping kind of vernacular bluntness combined with a fiery eloquence that conveys the immediacy of the experience, as in “Animal Music”:
My eyes were closed,
I was in the flesh, I felt that I was
the blaze of the pressed, closed eye,
I lifted my lids an instant and shut them and had
gathered a glimpse of him, which glowed now
inside my eyelids, it was navy-blue of skin,
its lashes and lips a murked, straw-fire
gold, I sang to that image of him
Olds sets many of the poems in a recollective past that seems to place them as a part of a historical record, contributing to the authenticity of the experience, while the vividness of the language—“blaze,” “glowed,” “straw”-fire—pulls them into an ongoing present tense that makes the poetic action feel spontaneous.
For the reader who prefers a degree of separation between the artist transmuting experience into a refined artifact and the final form of the work itself, Olds’s poetry can present some real problems. Although there are many poems that cover other subjects, Blood, Tin, Straw is undeniably a personal memoir of a sexualized life. Olds has said that she writes individual poems, not an ordered book of poetry. However, in assembling the book for publication, the placement of the individual works makes a significant statement about intention. The first poem, “The Promise,” is a declaration of the crucial role of the physical in her life; “The Gift,” which follows, dwells on the physical self as a measure of identity; while “Animal Music” is a paean to ecstatic transcendence as a function of a supreme physicality. The force of the physical experience gives the poems a feeling of necessity, as if its intensity required a language comparable in passion. Through the book, with no diminution in intensity, poems such as “19,” “The Spouses Waking Up in the Hotel Mirror,” “You Kindly,” “These Days,” and others continue the concentration on the body’s responses to stimuli of every sort, not excluding the capacity of the mind to augment the signals. As Olds has commented, “I don’t think that sex has been written about a lot in poetry,” which is understandable considering all the dimensions of risk involved, but what carries Olds’s work way beyond the pornographic is her further qualification: “I think that love is almost the hardest thing to write about. Not a general state of love, but a particular love for a particular person.”
This is the goal of the sexual explorations in Blood, Tin, Straw. The poems are meant to be archives of intimacy, the dense thicket of their language an analogue for the closeness of the characters. Tucker has complained about “five collections of almost identically shaped poems,” as if the outward shape were the determining factor for the inner content, when a reading of the poems in this collection reveals a variance in tone, mood, subject, style, and voice that belies the superficial similarities in visual appearance. Nevertheless, the solid blocks of type, with line following line in a steady progression down the page, are designed to convey the compact, tightly bound, person to person exchange of skin and spirit that defines and distinguishes “a particular love for a particular person.” In “Sometimes,” Olds delineates this condition of intimacy:
it seems it may never end, you grow
directionless, you have fallen into
some center of pleasure, you can no longer
leave and come back, you come again
without having left, you are no longer,
ever, driving wildly toward it,
you are it, one who does this, as if you could
lose everything else, here—
The “here” of this poem is a physical situation, a moment of mutual gratification and also a point of refuge, a secure place in psychic space where, as Olds puts it in “Outdoor Shower,” a person can know “the world as heaven, your body at the edge of it.”
The push toward this condition of being, which Olds insistently suggests requires a helping partner, is more than a mere pursuit of pleasure. Throughout her other collections and in poems such as “Aspic and Buttermilk” or “After Punishment Was Done with Me,” the violence, pain, and brutality of life within and beyond a family are pervasive and inescapable in Blood, Tin, Straw.
In a distressing counterpart to the depths of satisfaction and continuing illumination of the poems that attempt to convey “a particular love,” Olds begins “What Is the Earth?” by declaring, “The earth is a homeless person.” She offers image after image of “the homeless” within the poem and concludes by envisioning “a god of homelessness,” presiding over a universe where “the gutter of the earth’s orbit is a circle/ of hell, the circle of the homeless.” The burden of this poem, and of darker poems in other books, is of a terrible isolation that might find some consolation, such as in “The Native”:
I touch him,
wander on him, hold to him, and move
on and hold to him, I feel I am home again.
There is an almost aching sincerity in passages such as this one, and it takes a deft, sure touch to handle this mode without lapsing into sentimentality. Olds is not always successful in maintaining the mood, and there are moments in other poems that do not entirely achieve the effect that the author intends. By operating with a kind of protective restraint, by reaching for only what is easily grasped, by staying on the safe side of propriety, by withholding the rampant self, which Tucker decries when he says she “spends too much time taking her own emotional temperature,” Olds might have produced a more manageable book. On the other hand, she would have made a much less interesting and invigorating one. As she has said, “The opportunities for offense and failure are always aplenty. They lie all around us,” but to write a poem true to “experience—especially important experience, experience we care about, moving and powerful experience—then it is worth trying.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (October 1, 1999): 339.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (November 14, 1999): 29.
Publishers Weekly 246 (September 27, 1999): 98.
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