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
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...
(The entire section is 2,102 words.)