Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3681
Sharon Olds’s signature poems are autobiographical lyrics, many of them charged with eroticism, violence, or both. She writes frequently about her sadistic father; her victimized mother; her unhappy sister and brother; her loving, lusty husband; and her son and daughter. The best of these poems are fluid, startling in their immediacy, and filled with remarks on the genitals of her family members. Her sometimes perversely comic poems about her beastly father conjure up a contemporary version of Sylvia Plath’s famous poem “Daddy.” However, Olds’s obsessive poems about her father—who, according to one poem, tied her to a chair and denied her food—are more blatantly autobiographical than Plath’s. In the course of her several collections, Olds’s family members evolve into flesh-and-blood characters whose significance lies in their particularity rather than their universality.
In Satan Says, Olds sets forth the themes that dominate her later work. The book is divided into four sections: “Daughter,” “Woman,” “Mother,” and “Journey.” All four sections assume a self-consciously female perspective. In the first section, the poet explores her own identity as defined by relationships with her parents and sister. In the second section, she writes mostly about her sexual coming of age and her relationship with her husband. The third section contains poems about her children and about the literally creative act of giving birth; there are also four related, third-person poems about “young mothers.” The final section, “Journey,” contains poems about all the different relationships explored in the book’s first three parts.
The title poem beginning the collection announces the poet’s aim in writing so explicitly about her family: “I’m trying to say what happened to us/ in the lost past.” The poems in all of her books dwell at length on “what happened to us”—the poet and the people most important to her. Olds’s poetry is about one woman’s connections—physical, sexual, emotional—with family members and lovers of the past and present.
Sometimes Olds celebrates her connections, as a woman, with the whole world. Among the most high-spirited poems in the book, for example, is “The Language of the Brag.” In this zesty feminist manifesto about childbirth, the poet proudly elbows aside Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and proclaims that the most important accomplishment is “this giving birth, this glistening verb,/ and I am putting my proud American boast/ right here with the others.” The last poem, “Prayer,” celebrates womanhood in a more personal way. It identifies sex and childbirth as “the central meanings” in the poet’s life. After an alternating consideration of these two acts, the poet entreats herself: “let me not forget:/ each action, each word/ taking its beginning from these.” For Olds, determining her own identity always involves the recognition of the body and the powerful bonds characterizing intimate relationships of all kinds.
The poet’s bond with her father is especially significant in Satan Says and in her later volumes. In “Love Fossil,” for example, the father is a dinosaur—“massive, meaty, made of raw steak,/ he nibbled and guzzled, his jaw dripping weeds and bourbon,/ super sleazy extinct beast my heart dug for.” In “That Year,” he is the brute whom the poet’s mother divorces so “there were no more/ tyings by the wrist to the chair,/ no more denial of food/ or the forcing of foods.” The father in these poems is a riveting presence, a source of terror whom the poet’s imagination has transformed into an object of sexual desire.
This transformation is seen clearly in one of the “Woman” poems, “The Sisters of Sexual Treasure,” where the speaker describes her sister’s and her own insatiable lust after they left home: “The men’s bodies/ were like our father’s body! The massive/ hocks, flanks, thighs, elegant/ knees, long tapered calves—.” Such incestuous eroticism is simultaneously reverent and irreverent. The poet is both bad daughter and passionate woman, a self defined by the men who remind her of her father. However, in recognizing this, in writing out the immoral fantasies of the “lost past,” she assumes a surprising amount of power. She, not her lovers or her father, is in control. This is female lust, not patriarchal oppression, on a rampage.
Throughout her first three books, Olds conveys feelings of love through forthright descriptions of sex. She relishes men, their bodies, their ability to satisfy women sexually. Her depiction of sex as a means of healing and triumphing is one way she combats the memories of an unhappy childhood. In “First Night,” she describes losing her virginity in terms of a biblical migration: “The inhabitants of my body began to/ get up in the dark, pack, and move.” The poem reveals the extreme importance Olds places on sexual revelation: “By dawn the migrations were completed. The last/ edge of the blood bond dried,/ and like a newborn animal about to be imprinted/ I opened my eyes and saw your face.”
The Dead and the Living
In The Dead and the Living, Olds continues to explore female sexuality, motherhood, and relationships with family members. Like her first book, this one is divided into thematic sections. The twenty poems in “Part One: Poems for the Dead” are divided into nine that are “public” and eleven that are “private.” In “Part Two: Poems for the Living,” the first fifteen poems are grouped as “The Family,” the next eight as “Men,” and the last nineteen as “The Children.” The large number of poems about children shows Olds’s growing interest in chronicling her children’s young lives as well as her own life as a mother.
The “public” poems at the book’s beginning deal with social issues and people outside the poet’s immediate family. Among them are several poems based on photographs of strangers suffering, as well as a poem titled “The Death of Marilyn Monroe.” These works signal an expanded focus for Olds, but they lack the cohesion and force of the “private” poems that return to the drama of her personal history. Although the latter poems deal with the same relationships that were central to Satan Says, they are more gracefully executed than those in the earlier volume. In “Miscarriage,” for example, Olds recollects the realization, with her husband, “that we could/ botch something, you and I. All wrapped in/ purple it floated away, like a messenger/ put to death for bearing bad news.” The poem not only brings together Olds’s recurring themes of love, sex, and motherhood but also contains an element of mature reflection, tempered sadness. This maturity, seen in glimpses in Satan Says, flowers more fully in The Dead and the Living.
In this book, Olds continues to write memorable poems about her father. In “Fate,” she declares, “Finally I just gave up and became my father,/ his greased, defeated face shining toward/ anyone I looked at.” She pictures herself taking on all of his characteristics—even “his sad/ sex dangling on his thigh, his stomach/ swollen and empty.” The poem, which is surprisingly triumphant, shows how much the speaker has internalized her father and how much she believes his life has shaped her own: “I saw the whole world shining/ with the ecstasy of his grief, and I/ myself, he, I, shined.” Another poem, “My Father’s Breasts,” evokes in eleven lines the speaker’s enduring love for her father. Appropriating the feminine image of breasts on her father’s behalf, she remembers his chest as if she had spent “hours, years, in that smell of black pepper and/ turned earth.” The love and nostalgia in this poem are a stark counterpoint to the anger in “The Ideal Father,” which portrays a father “who passed out, the one who would not/ speak for a week, slapped the glasses off a/ small girl’s face.” The multiple portraits of the father reveal an aggressive yet vulnerable man—and an equally aggressive, vulnerable daughter struggling to resolve, and perhaps exorcize, her passion for the man at the center of her life.
In the poems concluding The Dead and the Living, Olds turns her sometimes alarmingly steady gaze on her young son and daughter. In “Six-Year-Old Boy,” she writes of her son as he sleeps on the back seat of the car, “his wiry limbs limp and supple/ except where his hard-on lifts his pajamas like the/ earth above the shoot of a bulb.” In “Pajamas,” she describes the little girl’s pajamas on the floor: “You can almost see the hard/ halves of her young buttocks, the precise/ stem-mark of her sex.” The speaker’s evident fascination with her children’s emerging sexuality—and her willingness to transform the subject into verse—may seem exploitative to some. Many readers, however, have been impressed by her willingness to explore a maternal eroticism not often articulated in verse.
After a series of alternating poems about her son and her daughter, the book ends with “The Couple,” which portrays the children asleep in the back seat of a car. Though “enemies,/ rulers of separate countries,” the two now look like a child bride and groom in the Middle Ages, who find unity only in sleep, “in the solitary/ power of the dream—the dream of ruling the world.” Even this poem, which is not overtly sexual in its portrayal of the children, forces the reader to acknowledge the sexuality lurking in their young, sleeping bodies.
The Gold Cell
In her third collection, The Gold Cell, Olds continues to write confessional, sometimes erotic poems about her family. Like the first two books, this one is divided into sections. The first part, similar to the beginning of The Dead and the Living, contains poems about public scenes and atrocities, including rape (“The Girl”) and a baby found in a litter basket (“The Abandoned Newborn”). The second part contains poems about the poet’s childhood in San Francisco and about her father and mother. The third section consists of poems about sexuality, including “This,” which describes the centrality of the speaker’s body to her identity, and the witty “Topography,” which describes lovemaking in terms of two maps pressed to each other. The last section returns to the subjects of childbirth and the poet’s children.
In addition to its serious, “public” poems, the first section contains several audacious works—“The Pope’s Penis,” “Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor,” and “The Solution.” The first two of these poems hover between shock effect and subversive humor. Olds seems to delight in freely discussing penises; they are the totems of her verse. In “The Solution,” a four-paragraph prose poem, she creates a darkly comic vision of sexuality gone wild. Single people go to huge “Sex Centers” in search of the ideal mate. Things get out of control; the whole country lines up for sexual gratification “in a huge wide belt like the Milky Way, and since they had to name it they named it, they called it the American Way.” Olds’s punning punch line neatly distills a wry social commentary. She mocks momentarily the overwhelming urge for sex that she celebrates so earnestly in other poems.
The family poems in the second section are among Olds’s most graphic work. She metaphorically describes her father’s cruel treatment of her brother in “Saturn,” recollects her mother’s incestuous behavior in “What if God,” describes finding her father smeared with blood when she was thirteen in “History: Thirteen,” and remembers terrifying childhood drives with her father in “San Francisco.” The section’s last three poems, however, are loving tributes to her parents; in these, Olds moves beyond rage, fear, and eroticism toward reconciliation and acceptance.
The third section’s poems about female love and sexuality begin with a young girl’s perspective, move through remembrances of a young lover who died in a car crash, and end with several poems about mature love and sex. These poems are also graphic, sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant, but always written with force and conviction. Olds is at her most confident and sympathetic when writing about lovemaking. As in the concluding poem in Satan Says, sex remains one of the “central meanings” in her life and writing.
The poems concluding The Gold Cell are full of love and heightened awareness of the little things making up the poet’s shared life with her son and daughter. In “When My Son Is Sick,” “Gerbil Funeral,” and “Liddy’s Orange,” Olds celebrates the homely, often unsung moments of a happy family’s days together. The helpless love expressed in many of these poems contrasts with detailed imagery and sweetness of mood. Olds at least temporarily leaves eroticism behind and portrays her children as vessels of purity and goodness that she wishes fiercely to protect. Given her own traumatic childhood, the possessive love Olds expresses for her children carries a special poignancy, lending a strain of dark beauty to her powerful verse.
The Father is perhaps Olds’s riskiest volume in a high-risk career. Its narrow focus allows the reader little relief from a subject that is at once unpleasant and treated with frankness. The individual poems, as they accumulate, tell the story of a daughter’s witnessing of her father’s fatal bout with cancer. At the same time, they detail memories of an abusive relationship. The loving act of writing the poems involves a transformation of childhood pain and hatred into a vigil of chaotic emotions and finally to a transcendence of the old psychic scars.
Like several of Olds’s books, The Wellspring is a carefully devised sequence, almost a novel in verse. It tells of a woman’s transit from birth through childhood, sexual awakening, maternity and parenthood, and mature conjugal relationship. As ever, emotional and physical accuracy make these poems soar and sting. Olds presents a wider range of tones and feelings than in The Father, and the best poems in the collection are among the best she has ever done, though perhaps too many a bit below the level of intensity that her readers have grown to expect. The meticulously shaped arc of experience conveyed in the sequence is compelling and rich in wisdom.
Blood, Tin, Straw
Blood, Tin, Straw reveals Olds writing with undiminished power as she moves further into middle age. Perhaps time’s urgency has added even more heat to a style and imagination already characterized by heat waves of shock. Here her candor of sex and flesh are still present, but she has added to it a new strength and lyricism of metaphor and image. She seems to embrace the entire universe, from the microscopic to cosmic events like shooting stars or volcanic eruptions. The title, alluding to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, is provocative. It grows out of Olds’s observation that Dorothy and her comrades are attacked with what they are made of: “what they/ were made of was to be used against them.” So, too, are people all attacked, suggests Olds, when the very things they are made of (their flesh, their instincts) are not given due acknowledgment and respect by their society. So, too, is her poetry sometimes attacked for what it is made of. Her lyrical gifts ablaze, Olds continues to walk the thematic path and take the daring stances that have made her a major poetic force for more than two decades.
Strike Sparks, a collection of poems from Satan Says; The Dead and the Living; The Gold Cell; The Father; The Wellspring; Blood, Tin, Straw; and The Unswept Room, shows the circle of Olds’s career, from the poems of sisterhood and motherhood in Satan Says to unfinished family business in The Unswept Room.
In “Indictment of Senior Officers,” two sisters meet at night and do not talk of the two “generals” who discipline them. As an adult, the speaker feels a soldier’s protective rage but is as helpless as “someone sent to the front lines/ without training/ or a weapon” when she thinks of the marks from the physical abuse her sister has received at the hands of her physician husband and the scars from her operations.
“Ideographs,” “Photograph of the Girl,” and “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921” are based on snapshots of tragedy, the first showing a man awaiting execution by hanging in China, 1905. Olds describes the complicated position of his body on the scaffold and the way his eyes beseech viewers to save him. In the second poem, a Russian girl is shown sitting on the ground in the drought of 1921. She grows thinner each day and is destined to starve to death that winter, along with millions of other Russians. ”. . . Hunger and puberty/ are taking her together . . . ,” however, and there is still the promise of fertility in her as “the ovaries let out her first eggs,/ golden as drops of grain.” In the third poem based on a photograph, we see the contrast of “the blazing white shirts of the white men” with “the dark glowing skin of the women and/ men going to jail. . . .” This racial tension is continued in “On the Subway,” in which the speaker and “the young man . . . face each other.” She is struck by his “huge” feet and the way he wears the color red, visceral “. . . like the inside of the body/ exposed. . . .” The speaker thinks of the ease with which the young man could rob her and the way that she exploits him through white privilege. She thinks of the way he absorbs racism, “. . . as black cotton/ absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. . . .”
This act of witnessing, though less immediate, is also shown in “I Go Back to May 1937,” in which the speaker sees her parents at the colleges they attended, about to graduate and get married. She wants to warn them that they should not, that they are wrong for each other and will do bad things to their children that they are too innocent to imagine at the time. She concludes by saying that they can do what they are going to do and that she will tell about it. In “After Thirty-seven Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood,” the speaker forgives and comforts her mother while she cries, the “water cracking from [her] eyes like moisture from/ stones under heavy pressure . . . ,” scarcely knowing what she said or who she would be now that she has let go of her anger. Reconciliation with parents is a dominant theme in poems from The Father, with Olds recognizing her father’s dignity in “His Stillness” and realizing how it is beginning to “wake” in her. She also faces her anger at her father in “I Wanted to Be There When My Father Died”: Olds does not want to pay her last respects; rather, she wants to see her father die because she hates him, although she also admits to loving him but fearing him greatly.
Observations of children growing older are featured in poems from The Wellspring. In “My Son the Man,” Olds compares the broadening shoulders of her son to those of the magician Harry Houdini and her memories of her son “. . . press[ing] up through [her] like a/ sealed trunk through the ice of the Hudson” and how he “snapped the padlock, unsnaked the chains,/ appeared in [her] arms. . . .” Her daughter’s shoulders in “First Formal” are also formidable but more ethereal, “made of some extra-visible element.”
The fierce loyalty felt for children is also reflected in “The Promise,” with Olds and her husband discussing euthanasia over dinner, her telling him that he does not know her if he thinks she will not kill him, claiming that she would attack any lion that had him in its jaws and “if the ropes/ binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.” In “The Window,” this fierceness is reflected in a daughter who confronts her mother after visiting a concentration camp: “. . . I am mad at you, she whispers.” She is “O.K.” with her mother saying in a poem that she is a survivor but not that she is a Jew, which she is not. “That’s so cheap,” the daughter says. Rather than denying or defending it, Olds talks to her daughter for an hour, assuring her that her feelings are the result of her love for the lives lost.
One Secret Thing
One Secret Thing begins with a political/historical approach—a cycle of twelve poems simply entitled “War”—that readers might not expect from Olds and ends with the personal—poems about her mother—with which readers of Olds are familiar. “War” starts with an image of a “Woman with the Lettuce” who stares angrily at the camera that faces her as she stands in line with a crowd being shoved toward a truck. The almost fanatical determination of a “Legless Fighter Pilot” is shown in his desire to kill as many of the enemy as he can. Olds presents images of the dead lying on the snow, even one of a man who is already dead being stabbed by a “handsome young man” who is smiling (“The Smile”). Olds’s intent is clearly to convey the brutality of war.
In poems about her mother, Olds conveys her mother’s fierceness, even in the way she tucked in her two daughters, “batten[ing]” them down (“At Night”), and then later when her mother tries to climb out of her bed in the intensive care unit after being treated for toxic shock, kicking “. . . until/ she raised baby-fist welts on her ankles . . .” (“Royal Beauty Bright”). With the approach of her mother’s brain tumor, “flaring up again,” Olds imagines that “something big” is coming and that her mother is waiting for it (“Something Is Happening”). In the title poem, “One Secret Thing,” she describes rubbing petroleum jelly inside her mother’s mouth, the secret thing being that she “. . . did not want to touch/ inside her . . . ,” and how it was an act of escape to free herself.