Sharon Olds’s The Dead and the Living confronts the major figures in her life who have made it difficult and passionate. In this way her work belongs to the tradition made famous by Sylvia Plath and carried on by many current American women poets. The brutality (and sometimes the wonder) of what she has gone through evokes Plath’s poetry, and her standing up for herself as a woman aligns her with her contemporaries. From a woman’s point of view, she shows how intimate she has been (or has tried to be, as in the beginning of the book where she looks at pictures or considers accounts of torture and murder) with violence. She focuses on those who have been violent, those who have suffered because of them, and those who have inherited a taste for violence, and she never lets her readers forget that violence and death go together. Her self-image—about which she writes much in the book—is often presented in the framework of violence. Beyond this theme, and the theme of love bound up with it, Olds’s versification depends on striking if not elaborated metaphors, which she uses to characterize the people in her poems, and on prosaic rhythms interrupted by line breaks, which tend to be melodramatic rather than syntactically, or even musically, apt.
Of the violent men in her life, Olds pays particular attention to her grandfather and her father. She writes that her grandfather was a cold and brutal man with a glass eye. He had no feeling for others: “My bad grandfather wouldn’t feed us,” she says in “The Eye”; he would sit by the fire in the dark drinking himself into a stupor and sleep with his empty eye socket (his blind soul) facing his wife. His son—the poet’s father—learned from him; in fact, he outdid him as a drunk who withdrew into himself and mistreated his wife and children. Olds is happy when her mother divorces him, and she takes ironic pleasure in “The Ideal Father,” in showing everything he was not that she wanted him to be, especially protective. This irony persists in “Poem to My First Lover,” in which the man tears apart a virgin girl out of fear, and in “Sex Without Love,” in which Don Juan types do what they do to women because nature demands sex, not romance. It is ironic, too, that Olds’s brother should court suicide by violently neglecting himself (“Late Speech with My Brother”). Olds’s young son Gabriel as well does not escape the taint of violence; it is in his view of life. “We could easily kill a two-year-old,” he says at his birthday party to his cohorts, who conduct themselves like self-satisfied officers (“Rite of Passage”). In “The Killer,” he makes believe that he is shooting at everything he sees, while in “Armor” he gluts himself on the displays of armor in a museum; in “Bestiary,” he sees the world, not as a response to feelings but as a machine for his use.
Women have their own way of being violent in Olds’s poems. They do it by repressing their love for the sake of survival. Olds tends to spare them the anger, if not the irony and fascination, she gives to the men. Her grandmother, who did nothing to stop her husband’s brutality, is a flamboyant drinker in old age, and Olds finds this endearing. In “Burn Center,” Olds’s mother burned her with her love because she loved from the distance of her own needs; she may fund a burn center in a hospital, but it is too late to do her daughter any good. Such is the irony that Olds sees in her mother. As for Olds’s sister, in “The Takers” she straddles Olds in bed when they are children and urinates on her, and in “The Elder Sister,” Olds herself escapes some of the violence of growing up in a family like hers by using her sister as a shield against it. Her own daughter, like her son, sometimes reeks of violence, for when she is in a bad mood, she projects the same kind of brooding, black temper that Olds’s father did when the poet was young.
When Olds writes about the victims of violence, she is on safe ground with those she knows, but not so with those she does not. She seems to think that by presenting the victims of persecution and revolution in a kind of objective detail, she will make readers feel what they have gone through, and readers will believe that she herself feels it and will, like her (or so she implies), rise up against such horror. She is, however, only looking at pictures or regarding the events secondhand. (The only exception is “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” for her she substitutes herself and her own son for the mother and son who are being tortured in front of each other’s eyes, and so her empathy is real and the reader can respond in kind.) In these poems (the first section of part 1, “Poems for the Dead”), Olds might have taken a lesson from W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poet in it is looking at a painting, and he acknowledges and uses this remoteness by focusing on how unnoteworthy suffering is to those who are not experiencing it.
It is much easier to believe in Olds’s...
(The entire section is 2064 words.)