The Poems

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Sharon Olds is among the most highly regarded contemporary American poets. Her work has been described as “haunting” and “striking,” and the novelist Michael Ondaatje has said that it is “pure fire in the hands.” Like the poet’s earlier books Satan Says (1980) and The Dead and the Living (1984), Olds’s third collection, The Gold Cell, makes aspects of everyday life—news items, childhood, family, and sexuality—its subject matter. Olds tells her audiences at poetry readings that she did not publish her poetry until late in life (she was thirty-seven years old when her first book was published) because she did not know whether she wanted to make her work public. She also says that when she decided to publish, she considered using a pseudonym. This hesitation to publish may have had something to do with Olds’s tendency to blur the lines between the public and the private, for it is never quite clear where she draws the line between what she calls “the paper world and the flesh world.”

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As a result, many of Olds’s readers view her books as “poetic memoirs,” comparing her to confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Historically, American poets have argued that to assume too much of a connection between a poem’s speaker and its writer is to commit a “biographical fallacy,” though some contemporary American poets, perhaps influenced by a growing tendency in the United States to view public exposure of the private self as emotionally healthy and socially productive, admit to writing highly autobiographical pieces (Linda McCarriston, for example). Olds has been unwilling to publicly discuss the connections between her private life and her poetry, though, so readers must encounter Olds’s poems on more universal grounds, taking them as one poet’s attempt to see the world clearly and to represent it accurately. In an interview with Patricia Kirkpatrick, Olds says, “We need to know how bad we are, and how good we are, what we are really like, how destructive we are, and that all this often shows up in families.” When Olds writes about the difficult aspects of human nature, then, she invites her readers to confront those realities with her, to know that these are the circumstances not only of individual lives but also of life in general.

Olds has been described as a poet of the landscape of time, and The Gold Cell traverses that landscape. The book has four parts: The first part is concerned with the relationship of the poet to the world in which she lives, the second focuses on childhood, the third deals with life beyond childhood, and the fourth is about the relationships between parents and children. Among the most frequently discussed poems in the first section are “On the Subway” and “The Girl.” In their own ways, these two poems are at once disturbing and redemptive. In “On the Subway,” the speaker encounters a black man on the subway and is forced to acknowledge her own racist assumptions. She says, “white skin makes my life, this/ life he could break so easily, the way I/ think his back is being broken.” “The Girl” is about a twelve-year-old girl who is raped and left for dead, then must go on with her life: “she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the/ shredded pom-poms in her fists,” knowing “what all of us want never to know.”

“I Go Back to May 1937,” in part 2 of The Gold Cell, is about the speaker’s desire to communicate with her parents before their marriage to warn them, “you are going to do things/ you cannot imagine you would ever do,/ you are going to do bad things to children,/ you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,/ you are going to want to die.” Initially, the speaker, who has the 20/20 vision of hindsight, wishes she could collapse time in order to influence her life and the lives of her parents; she wants to save herself and her parents by warning them that they are going to make terrible mistakes. In the end, however, the poem declares, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” In the course of the poem, the speaker—clearly a writer—decides to speak about her life, to answer it in her own words rather than wish it away. This poem’s primary goal is to tell about the world as the poet sees it. Olds says that the poet has only what she knows and that the poet’s unique experiences are central to her work. The question both the reader and the poet must ask is, “What can this poem tell?”

The title of the book is directly connected to the overriding themes in The Gold Cell. The book’s cover art, which illustrates the title, is an adaptation of figure 14 from The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (1959). The figure is a gold ball surrounded by a snake, and Jung identifies it as an “Indian picture of Shiva-bindu, the unexpected point.” Jung explains, “The god rests in the point. Hence, the snake signifies extension, the mother of Becoming, the creation of the world of forms.” The Hindu god Shiva is the primordial state and the snake encircles that state, indicating both the containment and the continuity of creation and life. Therefore, all life forms connect, and life itself connects with the concept of god and with its own beginnings or source. This reference to creation, and particularly to the feminine aspects of creation, plays itself out in virtually every poem in the book; each of the poems works to examine and elucidate both life’s cyclical nature (the connection of every moment to the previous and to the next) and the connections among lives.

Forms and Devices

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In The Gold Cell, as in most of Olds’s work, the metaphor represents the poet’s vision and thinking. In interviews, Olds expresses concern with seeing accurately; her poems reveal her commitment to this goal, for their vision is unflinching. Part of what Olds wants readers to see has to do with the connections between endings and beginnings. “Summer Solstice, New York City” has as its narrative core the story of a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a building and his interactions with the people who convince him not to jump. However, the poem’s metaphors reveal one of its philosophical points: that life’s beginning and its end are inextricably tied. That tie becomes apparent when the title, in which the summer solstice represents birth and renewal, comes together with the poem’s first image: a suicidal man walking across the roof of a building, then standing with “one leg over the complex green tin cornice.” Within the poem, Olds describes the bulletproof vest one “cop” puts on as a “black shell around his own life,/ life of his children’s father,” an image that illustrates that the police officer, in the middle of his life, is aware of the impact his death would have on the lives of his children who have just begun their lives. Olds describes the net meant to catch the man if he does jump as a sheet “prepared to receive at a birth” and the burning ends of the cigarettes that the man and the police officers smoke as “tiny campfires we lit at night/ back at the beginning of the world.” Though the man finally chooses life, the poem is about the possibility of his death. When Olds ends by connecting the image of the men smoking and the image of campfires at the beginning of the world, she implies that there is a connection between the beginning of all time and the beginning created when the man chooses not to jump. One life, the poem seems to imply, can represent all life.

In “Alcatraz,” the prison, famous for its remote location and for its reputation as inescapable, becomes a metaphor for a child’s shame and for the intense power parents have over their children’s sense of self. The connections between humans and other animals and between the manufactured and natural worlds are established as the metaphor deepens; the prison becomes “white as a white/ shark in the shark-rich Bay,” and its bars are like the shark’s “milk-white ribs.” The child sees herself as a shameful creature who will be swallowed whole by the prison shark. She believes she will be trapped there forever with “men” like her “who had/ spilled their milk one time too many,/ not been able to curb their thoughts.” “Alcatraz” draws a connection not only between the child’s life and that of other animals but also between the female child and the adult men who inhabit the prison when the speaker proclaims, “When I was a girl, I knew I was a man/ because they might send me to Alcatraz/ and only men went to Alcatraz.”

If the metaphor reveals to readers the way Olds sees and thinks, then the poetic line helps readers hear how she speaks. Like most American poets writing in free verse during the latter half of the twentieth century, Olds has expressed great concern for the poetic line. Olds is known for her run-on sentences broken into lines and for lines that end in articles and conjunctions. In the Kirkpatrick interview, she publicly analyzes her use of the poetic line in The Gold Cell: “As for ending lines on of the, I think I did that too much in The Gold Cell, so much that the poems as written lack the musical form I hear in them.” In spite of the poet’s criticism of her own work, the lines as she writes them serve an important function. In “Looking at My Father,” for instance, the second sentence spans sixteen-and-a-half lines. There are, in those sixteen lines, fifteen commas, two semicolons, and one colon. The combination of a run-on construction and lines that end in articles and conjunctions lends a breathlessness to the poem that expresses the difficult moment when a child both recognizes the failings of her father and acknowledges her connection to and affection for him.

The Gold Cell

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The work of Sharon Olds is at once narrative and lyrical. Her gifts include a daring imagination for both subject and figures of speech and a sure sense of rhythm. This rhythmic sense gives momentum to the story elements in her poems, while the often-dazzling metaphors release the emotional values—the lyrical element. The Gold Cell, her third collection, solidifies her position as one of the major poetic voices to emerge in the 1980’s. Following upon her startling debut with Satan Says (1980) and the widely acclaimed Lamont prizewinner The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell might have been a disappointment. It is, however, unquestionably a success.

This collection is focused on the issue of identity: the poet’s first of all and, by extension, the reader’s. Each of the four sections elaborates one of the key ways in which human beings find their identity. The first sequence in The Gold Cell contains poems about the speaker’s relationship to the troublesome conditions of the world in which she lives. The reader finds here an urban self looking at a world filled with disasters, one who questions the social and personal meanings of the events and her responses to them. The self is defined as a sensibility that notices as only a single individual can notice and feels as only a single individual can feel.

The speaker witnesses a suicide, has a confrontation with a black youth in a subway car, records the discovery of an abandoned newborn, and imagines the trauma of a twelve-year-old girl who witnesses the rape of her friend and is brutally treated herself. In these poems and others, Olds gives the reader a series of harrowing portraits: tragedies usually brought to us through the news media rather than by the accident of personal proximity. Still, she makes them personal by her determination to move into the skin of the victim or perpetrator in order to register fully the impact of the tragedy on her own responding instrument. Who is she? She is the woman who pays attention to these events and feels this way about them. As significant aspects of her environment, these events help to define her.

The second group of poems identifies the self as the child of its parents. Olds links together the complex knots of emotion felt as the maturing daughter of this mother, this father, this couple. She defines herself as the inevitable sum of an eccentric genetic equation, seeing her imposing physicality as an inheritance from her father. More often, the analysis is in terms of conflicting emotions: the difficulty of loving the ones who hurt you, the ones you would not be like if you could help it. Olds’s openness in these poems is frightening. There must be a pain returned upon the parents in such memories as are found here. The caring is in the intense scrutiny, the trust that such scathing directness can be beneficial and even healing.

“Saturn” opens with the lines:

He lay on the couch night after night,mouth open, the darkness of the roomfilling his mouth, and no one knewmy father was eating his children. . . .

The metaphor is carried out in horrifying detail. In the father’s indifferent evening slumbers, the children’s limbs are consumed one by one: “He took/ my brother’s head between his lips/ and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.” His passive absence is felt as an indulgence, an appetite, a cannibalistic betrayal. The poem complicates this reaction with some rationalizing forgiveness, but its center is in this reaction: what it felt like to be the child of this unconscious, snoring father.

In this way, through a powerful evocation of childhood scenes and moods, Olds unfolds an identity shaped by the parental household. The poems are both hostile and loving, true in each dimension because of the presence of the other. Moreover, Olds balances the re-creation of what-it-was-like-then with the registering of how-I-understand-it-now. The thoroughness and penetration of her investigation is admirable, though many readers will squirm. “Looking at My Father” and “Why My Mother Made Me” should not be missed, but surely they will sting.

Olds’s third defining perspective is the sexual self. The opening poems of this section constitute a sequence in themselves. “California Swimming Pool” defines, in a ritual setting for young adolescents, the growth of sexual awareness. It is followed by “First Boyfriend,” “First Sex,” and “First Love,” poems notable for their authentic detail and their sharable emotions. The speaker here is never shy, never an awkward experimenter, but a young woman eager and soon comfortable with her own sexuality, an actor defining herself through sexual behavior and pleasure.

These and other poems in section 3 of The Gold Cell will offend the prudish. Their eroticism will be labeled as pornographic by a narrow spectrum of readers. Yet, at the same time, they are examples of the kind of poem that Olds manages better than anyone else. There is never a hint of the reader being teased or manipulated, only a patient search for the right words and images to share an earthy woman’s sense of who she is. These poems are unusual not because they treat sex from a woman’s perspective, but because the voice is neither long-suffering, coy, seductive, nor outlandishly and threateningly aggressive. Olds’s treatment of female sexuality escapes the traditional stereotypes as well as the contemporary ones; everywhere, there is a sense of health, of sought and deserved satisfactions.

The self-awareness reflected in these poems, a heightened version of that found throughout the collection, is also likely to be shocking at first, comforting and inspiring after the reader begins to accept what Sharon Olds has to offer. Poems such as “Still Life” and “I Cannot Forget the Woman in the Mirror” are Olds’s most direct and obvious portraits of herself as a partner in lovemaking. In “This,” she asserts that the individual body is the center of each person’s identity. The risk here is one of egomania, but once again Olds’s artistic sense and her trust that openness will win the reader over prevail. Her self-portraits are less invitations to voyeurs than lessons in coming to terms with what and who one is.

Finally, and perhaps predictably, Olds creates a section of poems defining herself as a parent. The poems here are among the most tender and most accessible in the collection. Few of them carry the edge of hostility or challenge found in so much of her work. Injury, sickness, and death are frequent subjects in this section; nevertheless, there is an optimistic tone that fights through the parental anxieties. As one might expect, Olds’s poems about her son and her daughter become ways of finding herself. Nevertheless, the impressions of the children are so strong, the consciousness holding the impressions so much more selfless, that the poet’s characteristic reflexive quality is muted. Olds will reach her widest audience with poems such as these, though they have less to make them distinct and memorable than the poems in the earlier sections. An exception is the childbirth poem, “The Moment the Two Worlds Meet,” which is among the most memorable works in the book.

In “The Quest,” a poem about finding the daughter after thinking her lost for an hour, Olds employs the phrase “gold cell” which she has taken to title the collection:

I sit with her awhile and then Igo to the corner store for orange juice for herlips, tongue, palate, throat,stomach, blood, every gold cell of her body.

The image, truly a generative one for the whole book, itself refers to generation: to the basic unit of making, nourishing, identifying, being. It is “gold” for its beauty, its value, its alchemical significance. The central significant fact of being, the locus of unique identity that is each person’s gift found over and over again—this is the center and circumference of Olds’s vision.

The separate recurrence of the words “gold” and “cell” throughout the book give the title a special power and a heightened lucidity by the time one reaches the poems in the final section. “Gold” appears in “Summer Solstice,” “When,” “What If God,” “First Sex,” “A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself,” and “This.” It is variously connected to grace, a reborn sun, the body’s sexual juices, and the yolk of an egg:

was He a squirrel, reaching down through thehole she broke in my shell, squirrel with Hisarm in the yolk of my soul up to the elbow,stirring, stirring the gold? . . .

This passage, from “What If God,” links the various associations that “gold” has and suggests the connection to “cell,” the other half of the title image.

The various occurrences of “cell” as center, prison, defining limitation, biological sign or microcosm of self complete the network of associations that adheres to Olds’s title. “In the Cell,” “Alcatraz,” “201 Upper Terrace, San Francisco,” and “Greed and Aggression” are key poems in Olds’s delineating of her book’s ideational grid.

As a crafter of poetry, Olds has some questionable habits, one of which is to defy the convention of avoiding weak line endings. Over and over again, she places function words—articles and prepositions—under emphasis by breaking lines after them. In most cases, however, her practice is justified by the way in which such line breaks push the reader forward for the syntactical completeness that has been held off. Pushing the reader forward, also, is the effect of Olds’s skill with rhythms and with her strategies for developing narrative material. Once the reader accepts certain mannerisms, Olds’s power as a writer with a unique metaphorical imagination takes over.

In The Gold Cell, this constant metaphorical inventiveness enlivens every poem. There is always an element of expectation and surprise linked to Olds’s virtuosity with figures of speech. Occasionally, wild connections may cause confusion or chagrin, but more often Olds is able to carry readers over the leaps her imagination takes.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of this collection is that in it Olds sounds like no one else. She makes her reading of life accessible and memorable in a highly distinctive voice. Given her themes, her celebration of individuation, it is important for her work to have its own stamp. The controlling image of The Gold Cell is like the seal on an envelope, the signature or sign of the voice and personality enclosed. Profound and powerful, it is truly a book of life.

Form and Content

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Sharon Olds’s third collection, The Gold Cell, is an extension and refinement of the strikingly singular woman’s voice that she introduced in Satan Says (1980) and developed in The Dead and the Living (1983). Her first book of poems was not published until she was nearly forty, and the extended time that the poems remained in a formative process in her mind accounts for the candor and confidence that she projected in an unusually accomplished initial publication. Writing with energetic conviction in a mode she describes as “apparently personal poetry,” Olds addressed subjects that had been previously approached tentatively or through indirection, covering areas of experience seemingly unavailable to men and often avoided by women. In poetry about her family, her body, and the hovering menace of the postmodern world—the essential subjects of her work—Olds dispensed with the conventional practice of shielding her thoughts behind elaborate conceits or cautious similes, and as critic Suzanne Matson puts it, “reclaims the power to speak for her own body.”

The vivid, often uncommonly explicit language that Olds employed in descriptive passages about human sensory capacity in her first two books remains as an identifying characteristic of her style in The Gold Cell, while the impact of what Matson calls “the delightful voluptuous arrogance” of Olds’s voice is deepened by a stronger linkage between physical sensation and the psychological consequences of closely examining the forces of sexual feeling and response. The immediacy achieved by poems that frequently begin with a directness of address, inviting and drawing the reader into the poet’s realm, is maintained by such first lines as “When I saw my blood on your leg,” “I lie on my back,” or “As I stand with.” The recollection or nearly literal re-creation of moments of intensely personal interaction with people identified as the poet’s father, mother, children, and intimate male friends continues the “spectrum of loyalty and betrayal” across which Olds’s work ranges.

The Gold Cell, like her earlier books, is divided into sections that concentrate the poet’s attention in an area of particular importance. The Dead and the Living used specific headings such as “Public,” “Private,” “The Family,” and “The Men,” while The Gold Cell, following Olds’s aim to stress the “partly metaphorical” rather than the “completely literal,” is organized by parts that join poems with similar concentrations of interest. The first part includes poems that reflect Olds’s troubled observations about the contemporary world, especially the “unreal city,” as objectified by her well-known poem “On the Subway” that places the poet and a young black man in a matrix of influence and repulsion. In this section, Olds mixes commentary with an often acid wit, with “Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor” and “The Solution” offering characteristically explicit description with sardonic suggestions about public and private versions of desire. The very serious and unsettling poem “The Girl” utilizes a propulsive, rhythmic structure to evoke the horror of assault and the impressive resilience of the human spirit.

The second part includes poems that continue Olds’s careful, probing exploration of her relationship with her parents and focus on what may be the dominant concern of her work: her extremely complex, evolving understanding of the manner in which her father has figured in her life. Starting with the poem “Saturn”—which envisions a father as a ruler, controller (as a devourer akin to the Roman god of the title “eating his children”), and possessor of his children’s life—Olds records her fear, fascination, and uncertain fondness for her father, examining need, necessity, and a growing knowledge about how she has been formed by their interaction. These poems anticipate the even deeper discussions in her next book, The Father (1992), in which “scrupulously honest” poetry records her reactions to her father’s death from cancer and her grief, gratitude, and perplexity about his life and hers.

Part 3 reaches back to Olds’s youth and young womanhood and to the men she knew in a time of awakening to sexual possibility, a period of expanding horizons in which she discovered the power of revelation in mutual erotic exploration. Part 4 completes a cycle of growth and maturity as she focuses her attention on her own children, a moving away from a preoccupation with the self that paradoxically reveals the self through an illuminating alteration of position.

Context

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Donald Hall has said that “the poem exists to say the unsayable.” His primary focus is on the poet’s desire to confront and surpass the barriers inherent in language itself, but in a larger sense, he is addressing all the limits that conventional expectations place on artistic endeavor. For Olds, the “unsayable” has meant the entire cosmos of experience of a woman’s life, including all the areas seemingly forbidden by the weight of centuries of customs designed by patriarchal social systems. Her work has been guided by the principle that there is nothing so sacred about a woman that it is beyond examination and nothing so supposedly obscene that it should be kept beneath a cover. Like Walt Whitman, whom she sees as spiritual kin in “Nurse Whitman,” she “sings the body electric”—a subject that has been controlled through history by male prerogatives and choices. As Suzanne Matson points out, there is a “phallocentrically created special ‘dirty’ vocabulary for the private use of men,” a select language to reinforce the “tradition of articulate male power over the mute female body.” Olds does not diminish the power inherent in the physical self but attempts to give women equal access to its energy-delivering, generative forces through the instrument of a language.

Without disparaging the psychic struggles presented by the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Olds has repeatedly emphasized her admiration for Muriel Rukeyser (as in “Solitary,” from Satan Says), whose lines “I’d rather be Muriel/ Than be dead and be Ariel” suggest the possibilities of resistive strength and individual pride as weapons against depression and discouragement. In her poetry, Olds assumes an equality or balancing of strengths and fears in her considerations of gender. She finds the greatest fulfillment in collaborative activity, as in “Greed and Aggression,” in which she defines renewal as “I take you as if/ consuming you while you take me as if/ consuming me.” She has staunchly resisted the term “confessional” for her poems, explaining that “confession is a telling, publicly or privately, of a wrong that one has done, which one regrets,” and she believes that the concept of regret is an impediment to the kind of open inquiry that reveals aspects of human nature which might permit the formation of a humane morality for shaping behavior.

Similarly, her evolving sequence of poems about her father have not been written to judge or condemn, but to probe an extremely complex relationship, to work toward a more complete understanding of both parties, and in terms of feminine experience, to establish a dialogue with what Matson calls “a controlling male force” which must be addressed on the poet’s (that is, woman’s) terms rather than on his. The figure of “Our Father” as a cultural icon, an overwhelming presence combining theological, historical, and domestic patriarchal elements, is deconstructed in Olds’s poetry. Two human beings are placed in a situation where individual need overcomes political privilege, where love and understanding lead to an individual’s growth that respects but is not tied to gender.

Bibliography

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Franks, Elizabeth. “The Poet Stripped Bare.” Mirabella 4 (December, 1992): 62-65. A profile and appreciation combined with an interview. Emphasizes the sensual nature of Olds’s poetry and her life as a mother, scholar, and artist.

Matson, Suzanne. “Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds.” American Poetry Review 18, no. 6 (November/December, 1989): 35-41. Matson lucidly explicates Olds’s poems about her father in The Gold Cell and places them in the context of feminist considerations of patriarchal power and its effects on women.

Olds, Sharon. Interview by Laurel Blossom. Poets & Writers Magazine 21, no. 5 (September/October, 1993): 30-37. A candid, revealing, and often pointed discussion of Olds’s influences, attitudes, poetics, and ambitions.

Wright, Carol. Review of The Dead and the Living. Iowa Review 15, no. 1 (Winter, 1985): 151-161. A consideration of Olds’s writing prior to the composition of The Gold Cell, showing how some of the poet’s essential concerns were presented in her earlier books.

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