The Father

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787

The Father is a devastating book, consisting of poems almost too painful to read. Moreover, one must read them all: This is not a collection for browsing, shot through with random epiphanies for the dilettante poetry reader with a pile of collections beside an armchair. This series is an organic...

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The Father is a devastating book, consisting of poems almost too painful to read. Moreover, one must read them all: This is not a collection for browsing, shot through with random epiphanies for the dilettante poetry reader with a pile of collections beside an armchair. This series is an organic whole, each poem drawing its power from the others and from its position in the series, despite the fact that many of them were first published separately in such venues as The New Yorker, Poetry, and Antaeus.

Sharon Olds’ poetry is known for its candor and its lyric intensity. Earlier collections, including Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), and The Gold Cell (1987), demonstrate a daring that is more an invasive form of psychological realism than it is a confessional mode. Olds’s poems function as psychodramas that lure the reader in to play parts in the family story he or she would avoid or sentimentalize or gloss over in any way possible. The previous collections are more heterogeneous, though, and allow the reader more respite from the realities of death and loss.

The poems of this book narrate the death of the poet’s father (and the reader must surely be able to say she is speaking directly of her own father’s death, because the distinction between speaker and poet is dissolved in the dedication). The chain of events is retold in minute detail, from the final days in the hospital through the death and funeral to the voice of the introjected father years later speaking to his daughter in dream and reverie. The reader is spared nothing but is given the particulars of hospital life, details of the subtle changes that encroaching death brings, nuances of relationships that are revealed in a gesture, word, or touch. What comes forth most strongly is the physical, the importance of the body in all relationships. The series of poems is a familial love story, leaving the bereaved poet (and the reader) with only the consolation that the earth provides, that of memory and familial continuity. In the last poem, “My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead,” the introjected father says,

Of course I love
your breasts—did you see me looking up
from within your daughter’s face, as she nursed?
I love your bony shoulders and you know I
love your hair, thick and live
as earth.

The daughter accepts that her father is now a part of her, existing in her flesh and nerves. As he explains at the end of the poem, this kind of material continuity will have to suffice.

…I am matter,
your father, I made you, when I say now that I love you
I mean look down at your hand, move it,
that action is matter’s love, for human
love go elsewhere.

It seems fair to begin at the end in discussing this book, for this is what Olds does: The father’s death serves as a lens through which the lifelong relationship between father and daughter is viewed and interpreted. There are only two important figures in the book, the father and the daughter. Other figures appear—the father’s wife, usually referred to as “his wife,” and, peripherally, the poet’s daughter, seen as a continuation of the father. The intense focus, however, is on the father and the daughter as he disappears into her: his words taken in by her ears, his smell by her nose, his changing image by her eyes. Finally, he is wholly there, contained inside her.

His death is a kind of unbirth, and the imagery that surrounds it is physical and sexual. The equation of death is made explicit in the second poem, “Nullipara,” and then carried throughout the book. “Nullipara” would mean “she who gives birth to nothing.” The poem concludes, “He knows he will live in me/ after he is dead, I will carry him like a mother./ I do not know if I will ever deliver.” The death-birth imagery becomes more sensual as the poems progress. In fact, what stands out most in this collection is the uncompromising presence of the physical, from the beginning to the end of this narrative of dying. The father is the body of the father, inhabited or uninhabited. Others take comfort in religion, but the daughter cannot. “The Feelings” describes the scene in which the death becomes officially recognized when “the intern listened to the stopped heart.” The woman is estranged from the others in the room, who are able to accept the dualism of traditional religious belief while she alone is a materialist:

…everyone else in the room believed in the Christian God,
they called my father the shell on the bed, I was the
only one there who knew
he was entirely gone, the only one
there to say goodbye to his body
that was all he was

She transfers the cycle of birth-ripeness-decay to herself at the end of the poem, where she compares herself to “some soft thing, some fruit” under her husband’s body the next morning. She cannot escape from living, loving, grief and dying. The conclusion is an acceptance of the laws of nature:

Yes the tears came
out like juice and sugar from the fruit—
the skin thins and breaks and rips, there are
laws on this earth and we live by them.

The harshness of natural law is not the only motif of these poems. It is counterbalanced by the images of light, which cluster around the figure of the father through the scenes of his dying. These images give the impression of a dying man surrounded with light, emanating light: a saint. There is irony in the sanctifying, as it is clear that during his life the father’s relationship with his daughter was flawed. He apparently did not know how to speak with her or accept her, and thus it is only after he is dead that she can feel accepted by him. The situation calls to mind another, better-known set of poems dominated by the death of the father: those of Sylvia Plath. Plath’s poem “Daddy” in particular establishes a communication between the living daughter and the dead father, a “black telephone” that she in the poem is desperately trying to disconnect, because his voice is calling her to her death. Olds’s father’s message is mixed, but much of it is a call to life, instructions on how to participate in life fully.

It is his dying that translates Olds’s father, that makes him into a kind of holy and healing text. That this luminosity is physical is constantly underscored, but its mystery constantly intrigues and troubles the reader by suggesting interpretations that are specifically ruled out by the poems. For example, in the “The Last Day” the hospital personnel turn the father toward the window, and

The daylight was shining into his mouth.
I could see a flake, upright, a limbless
figure, on his tongue, shudder with each breath.

The physical acquires metaphysical suggestions through the mysterious exactness of the image, bringing to mind the medieval beliefs about how the soul exits from the body—although the reader is told repeatedly in one way or another that the father’s soul is composed of body. Instead of a traditional dualistic philosophy, these poems seem to suggest that the physical transcends itself through love, so that the body becomes a sacred text to be learned, so to speak, by heart.

The style of these poems contributes to their mythic luminousness. The simple names of the poems narrate and universalize. Titles (in the order of appearance) include “The Waiting,” “The Pulling,” “The Lumens,” “His Stillness,” “Last Words,” “His Smell,” “The Dead Body,” “The Urn,” “His Ashes,” “One Year,” and “My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead.” The images are strung together in sentences often connected by commas, giving a sense of seamlessness to each poem and to the whole. Falling rhythms predominate in these free-verse poems. The trochaic foot is found more frequently than usual; the word “father” itself is a trochee. There is little masking; the “I” is always present, a natural voice, and some poems begin with this direct “I”: “I wish I could wash my father’s face.…”; “I wanted to be there when my father died.…” The poems contain very few proper names; the father is referred to by his relationship to the speaker, not by his name, and the wife is called “his wife” although the father uses her name. There are few allusions, and there are fewer similes and metaphors than one would expect. The paucity of tropes makes each comparison Olds does use stand out, as when she describes her father’s last three breaths as being “lined up like a woman’s last three eggs.” Olds’s style has the overall effect of primal simplicity. Each detail is of equal value in this loving leave-taking.

Sharon Olds is a poet without a school, her individual vision taking the reader places he or she would rather not go but profits immeasurably from visiting. One strangely attractive poem, “The Underlife,” illustrates the fierce pull of these poems. The poet spots a rat in the subway pit. “I see a section of grey rail de-/ tach itself.…” Her initial reaction is repulsion, but then she thinks of her son’s mice and investigates the rat, which is “small, ash-grey,/ silvery, filth-fluffy.” The rat’s strangeness is gentled through association with his tamer, smaller brothers, and he becomes almost beautiful: “You can see/ light through the ears.” Later, in a very similar scene, she sees “an amber lozenge in the sheet’s pattern/ begin to move,” and the movement turns out to be that of a cockroach. She addresses roach and rat as familiars, claiming that she knows their deathworld and the immutability of natural law. Their response is direct, immediate, physical:

And the
roach and rat turn to me
with that swivelling turn of natural animals, and they
say to me We are not educators,
we come to you from him.

The poem, like so many others in the collection, has a spooky rightness to it. One could say that these poems are of the roach and rat, who speak for and of the underlife, that they are natural animals, that they come through her from him.

Sources for Further Study

American Health. XI, July, 1992, p. 100.

Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 30.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, April 15, 1992, p. 1498.

Boston Globe. October 4, 1992, p. 37.

Library Journal. CXVII, April 15, 1992, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1992, p. 15.

The Nation. CCLV, December 14, 1992, p. 748.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 6, 1992, p. 57.

Salmagundi. No. 97, Winter, 1993, p. 169.

Washington Times. July 19, 1992, p. B8.

The Father

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315

Almost too painful to read, Sharon Olds’s THE FATHER describes the death of her father from cancer, the events directly following, and her learning to live with his loss. The book’s power comes from its combination of the intensely physical with the mythic. The reader cannot escape these poems; from the first few lines, they are weighted with a Greek necessity. The minute details of hospital care and practical arrangements for cremation and funeral are woven into the universal tragedy of the loss of the loved one.

Both the mythic and the physical are evident in the titles: “His Smell,” “The Dead Body,” “Death,” “The Feelings,” “The Urn,” “The Underlife,” “The Ferryer.” The two primary participants, daughter and dying father, are caught in various postures which provide insight both into the father-daughter relationship and into this inevitable human scene. Other figures, the father’s wife and the poet’s daughter, for instance, appear, but basically this is a drama of two people. This kind of writing seems to work from the premise that accurate description of the particulars of pain brings transcendence, and so it does, to a certain extent, in the last few poems. But the release she achieves is not traditional or easy. In the last poem, “My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead,” the father accepts the daughter, all of her, body and mind, with “matter’s love”: “. . . when I say now that I love you/ I mean look down at your hand, move it,/ that action is matter’s love, for human/ love go elsewhere.”

Sources for Further Study

American Health. XI, July, 1992, p. 100.

Belles Lettres. VIII, Fall, 1992, p. 30.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, April 15, 1992, p. 1498.

Boston Globe. October 4, 1992, p. 37.

Library Journal. CXVII, April 15, 1992, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1992, p. 15.

The Nation. CCLV, December 14, 1992, p. 748.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 6, 1992, p. 57.

Salmagundi. No. 97, Winter, 1993, p. 169.

Washington Times. July 19, 1992, p. B8.

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