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Sharon Olds 1942–

American poet.

Sharon Olds is known for poetry in which she uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse, she examines her roles as daughter and mother, rendering painfully ambivalent memories of her parents in...

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Sharon Olds 1942–

American poet.

Sharon Olds is known for poetry in which she uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse, she examines her roles as daughter and mother, rendering painfully ambivalent memories of her parents in unsentimental, brutally honest, and often sexually explicit language. In addition to exploring family life, Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for victims of war and political violence. Many critics have noted that her focus on both domestic and public abuse evinces the universal scope of her poetic vision.

Biographical Information

Olds was born in San Francisco, California, in 1942. She completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in 1964 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1972. From 1976 until 1980, Olds was a lecturer-in-residence on poetry at the Theodor Herzl Institute and has subsequently held numerous teaching and lecturing posts at various universities and writing conferences. Olds has also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and has been involved in the administration of the NYU workshop program for the physically disabled.

Major Works

Olds's first book of poetry, Satan Says (1980), is divided into four sections, "Daughter," "Woman," "Mother," and "Journeys," and addresses such subjects as family relationships, domestic abuse, adolescence, sexuality, and motherhood. In the title poem, Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of outrage toward her parents, particularly her abusive father. In purging herself of violent emotions, however, the narrator unexpectedly moves toward love and reconciliation. In other poems in the collection, Olds celebrates motherhood and the experience of childbirth. In "The Language of the Brag," for example, Olds writes: "Slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have / passed the new person out…. / I have done this thing, / I and other women this exceptional / act with the exceptional heroic body." Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living (1984), is divided into two sections, "Poems for the Dead" and "Poems for the Living." In the first section, Olds's concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended into the

public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. These poems center on such characters as a Chinese man about to be executed and a starving Russian girl. In "The Issue," a poem about racial tension in Rhodesia, Olds, after describing a black baby who has been bayoneted, declares: "Don't speak to me about / politics. I've got eyes, man." The second section in The Dead and the Living is less political. Here, Olds returns to more familiar themes, including childhood, love, marriage, and parenthood, with many of the poems addressing Olds's tempestuous relationship with her alcoholic father. The poems in The Gold Cell (1987) continue the family, public, and sexual narratives of Olds's earlier books. In particular, Olds emphasizes the primacy of the body. In the poem "This," for example, Olds writes: "So this is who I am, this body / white as yellowish dough brushed / with dry flour." The Father (1992) is a sequence of fifty-two poems in which Olds describes the slow death of her father from throat cancer. Olds expresses both her compassion for and anger toward her father, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent. The Wellspring (1996) is divided into four sections and traces Olds's life from conception to middle age. Part one focuses on childhood, part two on sexual awakenings, part three on motherhood, and part four on love and mortality.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Olds's works has been mixed. Although many critics suggest that Olds's predilection for sexual description and shocking subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of her narrators and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers, others contend that her works are self-indulgent, over-dramatic, and exhibit a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. Satan Says, in particular, has been criticized for its explicit language, violent imagery, and strident tone. Critics generally agree, however, that in most of her subsequent books, Olds gained control of her emotional topics, creating a more restrained, though still disturbing, vision of humanity. Commentators have also faulted Olds for what they consider her repetitive and predictable subject matter and her underdeveloped connections between public and private cruelties. Despite these objections, Olds has been widely praised for her compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences.

Principal Works

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Satan Says 1980

The Dead and the Living 1984

The Gold Cell 1987

The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poetry 1987

The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980-1987 1991

The Father 1992

The Wellspring 1996

G. E. Murray (review date 1981)

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SOURCE: "Seven Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-60.

[In the following excerpt, Murray discusses Olds's passionate treatment of such subjects as pain, love, and anger in Satan Says.]

If there were a physics of suffering, some way to graph the pain of doubt, assessing Sharon Olds's impressive debut with Satan Says would be an easier affair. Lacking any exact science of emotions, it should be noted that Olds's harsh and shockingly truthful poems, often wrought in a strident pitch, will attract a sizeable following. The style also may rally detractors, for to an extent Olds makes poetry as if she were lancing boils and enjoying it.

With both her masks and straight faces, Olds considers herself, variously, a temptress, carnivore, daughter, victim, mother, survivor, "a murderer / selecting a weapon." Mainly in the fashion of Sylvia Plath and Ai, which is to say passionately lyrical and driven, she confronts her terrors two-fisted, focusing—perhaps too narrowly—a raw, primal eye on life.

The failure of parents, first love, and disillusionment are perennial favorites among "poetical" topics. But on these accounts, Olds seldom falters, as she combines the serious and the absurd, anger and remorse, apathy and desire, spirit and gut-instinct. Finally, it all breaks into intense expression, most memorably in the clever and powerful "The Indispensability of Eyes," "Station," "Indictment of Senior Officers," and "Republican Living Rooms," each with its own biting strategies.

This is not to imply that Olds is altogether unforgiving, though the preliminary flashes of her poetry may lead casual readers to assume that shock value is the governing principle of this work. The fact is that ultimately Olds remains "faithful to central meanings" of love and shared experience, particularly as she renders them in "Monarchs," "Primitive" and "The Unjustly Punished Child." It is with this mixing of blessings—her significant verbal skills and candid emotions—that Olds will doubtlessly gain future illumination for her painful uprootings.

Richard Tillinghast (review date 1984)

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SOURCE: "Blunt Instruments," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 239, No. 11, October 13, 1984, pp. 361-63.

[Tillinghast is an American poet whose work exhibits his skill with varied poetic styles including, like Olds, confessional and political poetry. In the following excerpt in which he reviews The Dead and the Living, he compares Olds's poems to Sylvia Plath's and suggests that although Olds's work is flawed, its overall impact is powerful.]

A brutalized childhood is the storm center around which the poems in Sharon Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living …, furiously revolve. The actors in the drama are indelibly drawn….

Olds's attempts, however, to establish political analogies to private brutalization … are not very convincing. For one thing, Sylvia Plath did the same thing earlier, and did it better. In "The Departure," Olds asks her father, "Did you weep like the Shah when you left?" And in "The Victims," she writes:

This becomes a mannerism, representing political thinking only at the most superficial level. Was Nixon ever really thought of as a father, for example, with the instinctual trust and love that implies? Were his crimes ever as intimate and damaging to any of us as child abuse would be? There is, in short, less political insight here than meets the eye.

While reading this book I found myself thinking both of Sylvia Plath and of Wuthering Heights. Olds has without a doubt been influenced deeply by Plath's poetry. Love and hatred of the father are major preoccupations for both writers, and both equate violence within the family with violence within the state and between nations. But there are important differences. The father in Plath is essentially a fantasy, the creation of a mind hovering on the edge of madness. Olds is, one feels certain, recording an actual story. The thrill of horror one often feels while reading Plath is produced less by some apparently real-life situation than by the workings of a brilliant mind out of control: "the autobiography of a fever," as Robert Lowell put it. But The Dead and the Living, like Olds's first book, Satan Says, has the chastening impact of a powerful documentary. It is for this reason, too, that the comparison with Wuthering Heights breaks down. Sadism within the family, the spectacle of the victim becoming the victimizer—those are present in both works. But because there is no romantic masochism in Olds, or—more accurately—none that has not been closely examined, her book is not a family romance but a photographic view of a family tragedy.

While her first book was impossible to ignore because of its raw power, The Dead and the Living is a considerable step forward. Her earlier impulse was to turn her pain and anger into myth, analogy, metaphor, as in "Love Fossil" from Satan Says—perhaps because of the difficulty of facing it head-on:

My da on his elegant vegetarian ankles
drank his supper. Like the other dinosaurs
massive, meaty, made of raw steak,
he nibbled and guzzled, his jaw dripping weeds and bourbon,
super sleazy extinct beast my heart dug for.

This grips and shocks, yet its tone of hysterical excess reflects something of the psychic damage that the speaker has sustained. In her new book the repulsion has lost none of its intensity, witness a detail such as "the black / noses of your shoes with their large pores." But the poet—and presumably also the person one glimpses fleetingly behind the work—seems more in control of the experiences that have clearly obsessed her for most of her life. In both her books, that obsessiveness is a strength and a weakness. Even in the second, many readers will feel overwhelmed by Olds's dogged insistence on reliving and rethinking her childhood traumas.

She must have sensed as much herself, because this book moves—perhaps a bit too schematically—through sections titled "The Dead," "The Living" and "The Children," from the past into the present. Olds is a keen and accurate observer of people. Still bearing the scars if not the wounds of childhood, she is not prone to sentimentality: "It's an old / story—the oldest we have on our planet—/ the story of replacement," whereby as the daughter grows up, she replaces her mother. Sharon Olds is a tough, clear-eyed survivor.

Linda Lancione Moyer (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Witness and Transformation," in Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 47, No. 19, January, 1988, pp. 453-54.

[In the following excerpt, Moyer discusses Olds's incorporation of personal pain and tragedy into her poetry.]

"We crave getting into each other's pain," Sharon Olds said in a workshop a summer ago, and in her three books, Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell, she lays open her own. In a poem about her parents' first meeting, she exhorts them to "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." She does, the alcoholism, cruelty, incest. Through all, she is the survivor, not only recording but—with the accuracy of her pictures and the clarity of her understanding—transforming.

In the long title poem of her first collection, Satan Says, she pictures herself as trying to write her way out of a little cedar box:

comes to me in the locked box
and says, I'll get you out. Say
My father is a shit. I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says It's opening.
Say your mother is a pimp.
My mother is a pimp. Something
opens and breaks when I say that.

Later, the poet hedges:

I love them but
I'm trying to say what happened to us
in the lost past.

Finally she chooses to stay in the box:

It's your coffin now, Satan says.
I hardly hear; I am warming my cold
hands at the dancer's
ruby eye
the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love.

Her refusal to bargain with the devil, to take the easy way out, her willingness to see clearly yet stay with her ambivalence makes her work healing, though often painful to read.

Rilke, in his letter to a poet who committed suicide, wrote: "Had you once perceived how fate may pass into a verse and not come back, how, once in, it turns image and nothing but image, but an ancestor who sometimes, when you watch him in his frame seems to be like you and again not like you:—you would have persevered." So Olds has done.

The speaker in Olds' poems is not only daughter and survivor but wife and fiercely loving mother as well. She writes tightly, with clear concrete details, their impact sometimes only fully realized in the poem's last lines, as when she writes about an injury to her son's head:

Olds not only writes very personally but from deep within the body, as mother, daughter, sexual creature. In her poem called "Prayer," she holds us right down on the bed with her for birth, sex, dying, then asks


Olds, by speaking of untreated, taboo subjects and using strong, explicit language, exploits the ground broken by the feminist poets of the 1970s.

Terri Brown-Davidson (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Belabored Scene, The Subtlest Detail: How Craft Affects Heat in the Poetry of Sharon Olds and Sandra McPherson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 1-9.

[Brown-Davidson is an American writer and educator. In the following excerpt, she argues that the poems in The Gold Cell are overdramatic and self-indulgent.]

I am a poet of excess, Definition, "poet of excess": writer who craves the piled-up instead of the pared-down. I recall sitting, as a child, in the darkened classroom as the projector whirred and I waited for the first dead-gray stills of Columbus and his ships to flash onto the screen. I preferred the shock-green effect of a giant floating Gumby, the whirlagig colors of the Mother Goose doll in her bonnet who would speak to us, hectically flushed, from the faded classroom screen. What can I say? As a child I wrote murder mysteries, seminal tales of beau-crazed sisters killing each other off, lurid nature tableaux. This is temperament, I decided, and certainly must be exploited to satisfy that storytelling urge stamped in our bones. But how much does the listener derive from unadulterated drama? I wonder about the emotional price he pays for a constant outpouring of the excessive or extraordinary. I wonder about the reader who attempts to enter a poem and finds himself repelled by its extremes in color or emotion, by its insistence on dramatizing experience in such a way that we can't locate ourselves as human beings in an overwrought text….

It is a sad fact that emotion run amuck tends to alienate a reader. As if he were visiting an accident site, he is compelled to flee. He doesn't mind reading about the essential life experiences, such as death, birth, love, sex—all the Lawrentian biggies—as long as they're presented in an underplayed or controlled-enough guise to allow him to enter the situation himself, as if he were floating through a dream state as extension of his waking life. The reader is generally no pornographer. He doesn't want to see a private act made public and thus exploitive, for such sexual grandstanding can only embarrass. So, how is the poet to make love and remain safely behind closed doors? There are a number of "antiexploitive" strategies he can consider. For example, he can choose subjects which lie close to his heart and are tinged with the reality of human experience; he can strive to present such experience honestly, without "emotional embellishing"; he can ensure that his diction matches his subject and tone (i.e., no prostitutes intoning like Shakespeare); he can employ realistic, nongeneric details to "ground" his approach; he can satisfy himself that what he's written is important by undergoing the ultimate poet's honesty-gauge test: if this villanelle were written by any other poet, would I feel compelled to read it? And, most importantly, he can continue to experiment in a variety of shapes, forms, and tones to achieve his emotional effects, to try to find the one move perfectly suited to each poem and thereby ensure that he, as poet, won't degenerate into an emotionally kneejerk, formulaic writer.

As a fellow dramatist, I can easily identify with any writer who labors under the misconception that "more is more." Hence my empathy for Sharon Olds. Like Kronos devouring his children, Olds would like to gobble life whole, to swallow the entire thrust of human experience with such gusto that no dust particle escapes her attention. Certainly this is a desirable attribute in an age of bare-bone poets afraid to hang flesh on their skeletons. But Sharon Olds is also, I believe, a poet who, in her incessant hankering after the real that can be possessed in the breadth and width of her bones, has pumped up experience to such a heightened level it no longer resembles any reality a reader wants to participate in. This tendency for excess, curbed admirably in Olds' second book, The Dead and The Living, has reared up with renewed violence in her latest collection, The Gold Cell. Consider a few of the poem titles: "Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor," "The Pope's Penis," "Love in Blood Time." If these titles don't provide some inkling of the danger of imagination unchecked by—dare I write it—taste, a sampling of one poem from the collection, "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," should indicate the recent direction of Olds' work:

High in the inner regions of my body
this gloss is spun, high up
under the overhanging ledge where the
light pours down on the cliff night and day.
No workers stand around in the
camaraderie of workers,
no one lays the color down on the
lip of the braid, there is only the light,
bands and folds of light, and the clean
sand at the edge, the working surface—there is
no one around for miles, no one hungry,
no one being fed….

The purpose of this poem is admirable. In the Romantic tradition (though with a contemporary twist), Olds wants to celebrate the Body Electric, the mechanism of the organism, so to speak, with all the religious/spiritual overtones which adhere to such an enterprise. And she celebrates this body in language beautifully layered, like flesh upon bone. It is all wonderfully metaphorical, wonderfully elegant. But the first problem that arises is, obviously, one of literal subject. Like the modern-day besotted who like to hail the birth of a baby as "pure miracle" without noticing all the flesh-ripping and gore that such a miracle necessitates, Olds would like to celebrate the miracle of female discharge by equating it, metaphorically, with something higher than itself, in this case, a process which takes on almost metaphysical proportions. The discharge is both "light" and "sea" since the "clean sand" lies against its periphery, and it is—holy of holies—self-perpetuating process, unadulterated, since "no workers stand around in the / camaraderie of workers" but since the work is being accomplished all the same. And with what does Olds equate this process? Godhead, I think. The function of light assumes confusing spiritual ramifications, as if the discharge were at once messy inconvenience for the woman who has to don Stay-Fresh to battle it, but also a sign of spiritual favor we can't quite grasp because it boasts the same logical illogic which made us perceive, a generation back, "the Curse" as stigma. The religious connotations pile up where Olds connects the discharge to—you guessed it—lamb-as-Christ:

Just as in the side of the
lamb no one is tending the hole where the
light pours out….

Now, of course, the discharge has assumed not only the figurative associations of Christ and his stigmata, but the slightly scarier, more pejorative ones of vulva as "wound," of woman as "hole." Thus the tone of the poem has begun to go awry. And Olds does not redeem herself by continuing to develop the water imagery she introduced at the beginning of this poem:

….. Deep in my sex, the
glittering threads are thrown outward and thrown outward
the way the sea lifts up the whole edge of its body,
the rim, the slit where once or twice in a lifetime
you can look through and see the other world—

I would say, of this passage, a nice sentiment. And I would say I admire Olds' move here in depicting the vulva as a passageway to the transcendental, for, at the end, don't we all curl into the universe in death, haven't we all emerged from the birth canal as compressed and unseeing as if we were peering through the wrong end of a telescope, waiting to see how some distant vision resolves into a clear perspective? The trouble is that Olds presses far too hard on the image. The idea of writing a poem about discharge could, if we were to enter the always dangerous realm of aesthetics, be considered sensationalistic if not downright salacious, and certainly not compelling—would one really want to write a poem about feces? About spit? If so, what would be the aesthetic purpose here? Another problem, a concomitant problem, arises from writing such a lush, language-gorgeous poem about a bodily process. Olds is writing here the way she always writes; she has not adapted her language to her purpose, has not considered the effect, on the already somewhat repulsed reader, of saturated language when addressing a topic such as female discharge. Thus Olds' plan of attack is out of keeping with her intent, and everything potentially powerful in this poem is sacrificed to her craving for drama, even the title, which is unnecessarily sensationalistic and fights the religious ramitications—dogs go "into heat," not women, except in B movies.

In addition, Olds sabotages her intent in other ways besides coining questionable subject matter and insisting, at any cost, on the painterly language which any poet with a dramatic leaning (see "Two Deaths,") must revel in. I take it for granted that Olds' intent is not just to communicate, for this is a pedestrian word, best reserved for travel articles and bills of fare, but rather to examine, to exalt, to link the reader to experience through language and shape on a page and thus wrap that reader in the sustaining warmth of meaning. Olds undercuts her purpose by not remaining conscious of it—by converting herself, in poem after poem, into some archetypal soothsayer, a sybil who spins out words without considering the implications of craft. How, you ask, might I assume this? Dare I assume it, without being a mind reader?

The fact is, Olds might convince herself that she is conscious of craft simply because she has found an amenable shape for her work (the long, straggly column) and because she can wield a phrase with the best of them. But beautiful language is not craft, particularly when it circumvents its purpose. And dramatic subject matter is nothing more than a harkening back to the lonely child in a schoolroom who squirmed in anticipation at the Mother Goose movies because they would whirl her, for one color-packed hour, out of the beige doldrums of her life.

The poet who is truly interested in achieving an emotional impact is willing to work for this effect. This means that he will employ whatever strategies he has at his command to convey a mood or idea, and, lacking these, will invent one for his purposes. The very predictability of Olds' techniques tells us that she is after, not mere emotional impact, not artistic greatness, but something else, something indefinable which, I think, revolves around the barest need for self-expression as well as the desire to extract the juice from everyday life and thus make it more "special" than it already is. If this is an ego-stroking maneuver, I don't see it at work in Olds' collections. I see, instead, a poetics which was originally exciting, if overblown, when presented in such poems as "Love Fossil" in Satan Says, when it seemed an expansion of the late Plath's work, an attempt to move back the boundaries of confessionalism and mine this school further of its most disturbing psychological opportunities. But this work lacked the craft, even then, of Plath's Ariel, though of course, since the presentation seemed new, the weaknesses were not readily apparent. Actually, the long, skinny column of type which is Olds' trademark had more variety then, since more poems, such as "Late" and "Seventh Birthday of the First Child," were at least broken into stanzas.

But the shape of her poems jelled. Started to jell in The Dead and The Living, which contains, in its poems about Marilyn Monroe and political photographs, Olds' best writing because it accrues to subjects we can care about, because it hasn't yet calcified into the sensationalism which, paradoxically enough, is less stimulating than exhausting. For an example of Olds' writing at its most fossilized, consider the opening of "I Go Back to May 1937," from The Gold Cell:

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.

This passage is pure Olds formula: the skinny but irregular column, the typical enjambment between article and noun, the overwrought similes which never quite work ("red tiles glinting like bent / plates of blood behind his head"), the relentless parallelism ("they are," "they are"). There is something really disturbing about this passage—not in the way Olds intended—in how formulaic it is. In this poem, as in others in which the speaker details her father's dying, something so rigid, so set has crept into the writing that we no longer trust the speaker's voice. It's as if someone were to announce to us, "I am now going to plumb the depths of human experience," and we were then expecting that person to put on a jolly good show. In not daring to change any aspect of her craft, in declaring, in a sense, that "This is my voice, and I'm not going to change it," Olds has set herself up for failure, for the true risk-taking poet is the one who seeks answers or who solves problems through craft, who dares to push beyond the boundaries to grow and keep growing and thus asserts, "I will never be so great, so dramatic, so emotionally all-embracing that I can't find a better way to say the unsayable." In The Gold Cell, her third book, Olds has found her "definitive" poetic voice, her "definitive" dramatic stance, and is thus inducing her own downfall as poet. In scene after belabored scene, the browbeating which is symptomatic of the overdramatic, rather than the deeply felt word or detail, leaks through, lacquering Olds' latest poems with a thick sheen of insincerity.

Clair Wills (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Body as Matter," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4711, July 16, 1993, p. 25.

[In the following review, Wills praises Olds's unsentimental and honest depiction of emotionally laden topics and social taboos in The Father.]

Some years ago, Sharon Olds's father died of throat cancer; this book comprises a sequence of poems charting the death of the body, and exploring the emotions and physical sensations experienced by the daughter in the face of the loss of an unloving father. With an easy lyricism, Olds recounts the gradual achievement of a kind of closeness, based not so much on mutual understanding as on an acceptance of the physical, of the body as matter. In "The Lifting" her father draws his nightshirt up to his neck, forcing her to look at his body when she would have turned away. The gown

rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.

The reader is similarly discomfited by Olds herself—witness not only to her father's unveiling but also to her own. This intimate confessional poetry grips partly because of its honesty, and partly because of the fear of embarrassment which is a continual danger for both poet and reader, as the father's helpless body and his daughter's feelings about it are gradually laid bare. That this danger is always finally averted, and that the poetry at no point slips into sentimentality, is a tribute to the poet's control of mood and tone. Even as she relates the intimate details of the sick-room, a kind of verbal distance is maintained. Olds manages to convey both the awkwardness and fascination which arise when vulnerability and physical intimacy enter a relationship without love. The dying man is always called "my father" (never, until after death, when a new note of familiarity is released into the poetry, is he addressed as "Dad"), suggesting that what is important is his role in her life rather than any closeness or compatibility: "this long, deep, unearned desire you made when you made me".

Because of the close, almost relentless focus on the body, the poems are not elegies in any ordinary sense of the word; again and again, an elegiac tone enters the verse only to be superseded by an unaffected and humorous refusal to be fooled about god, life after death, or the meaning of the father's life; it is on corrupted matter that their relationship depends. While at times this seems a depressing admission, Olds also conveys a sense of liberation in the realization of the corporeality of the familial relation. In "The Pulling", she imagines her father being drawn towards death as her children were pulled towards life through her body, "like a napkin through a ring"; in "Last Acts", she is his seed:

In keeping with this emphasis on the "trance of matter", Olds evinces a desire to experience fully every aspect of her father's death. She feels the weight of the urn containing his ashes as "a blessing", she lies full length on his grave, or finding that kissing his gravestone is not enough she licks it ("I ate his dust, I tasted my dirt host"). This also makes for some tense moments, such as the minutes before the other relatives arrive at the funeral, which she spends working quickly at the lid of the urn until it gives, so that she can see his ashes and come face to face for the last time with "the actual matter of his being". The volume as a whole is a risky undertaking, nearly marred simply by offering us too much of the same. Yet finally it works; with lightness and candour. Olds manages to turn her subject-matter—the slow and unlovely death of a difficult man—into something touching and strangely comforting.

Brian Dillon (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "'Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go': Sharon Olds's Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship," in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 108-18.

[In the following essay, Dillon examines Olds's narrative about the relationship between her and her father running throughout Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell.]

In her first three books of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1989)—as well as recently published poems not collected into book form, Sharon Olds describes a dysfunctional family misruled by a father whose abuse of power the poems' speaker responds to both as a child and an adult. Rather than one full-length Prelude-like account, Olds offers snapshots, literally dozens of short poems, a few which metaphorically delineate the father damaging the family structure, and others which narrate in specific detail the father's brutal presence. One anthology of literature commonly used in introductory level classes [The Riverside Anthology of Literature, 1991] features three poems highlighting the speaker's relationship with her father. In "The Chute" (included in The Gold Cell) the father selects a child to suspend by the ankles inside the laundry chute, threatening to drop the helpless one: "he loved to hear / passionate screaming in a narrow space." In "The Victims" (included in The Dead and the Living), an abusive father is kicked out of the house, divorced by his wife, and fired from his job. And in "The Race" the adult speaker narrates a wild—nearly out of breath—dash through an airport to board a plane in order to cross the continent and arrive at her dying father's bedside. Whether deliberate or not, the anthology selection of Olds's poems allows readers to construct a plot, a linear progression from abuse to expulsion of the abuser to the apparent death of the abuser, with (perhaps) the speaker's achievement of a peace with her past in "The Race." This last poem is included in The Father, Olds's most recent publication, and is just one of 52 poems in this book detailing the speaker's response to her father's dying and death.

To what extent, in looking at the entire Olds canon, can a plot about the father be discerned? The title poem for Satan Says, which opens Olds's first book, establishes a concern the poet returns to in her next two books and in poetry published since The Gold Cell. In circumstances more terrifying than Alice's wonderland dreamworld, the speaker is locked in "a little cedar box," apparently a small jewelry box. The voice of Satan promises her free dom if she repeats his vulgarities: "Say shit, say death, say fuck the father." The speaker complies, but her conflicted response about her parents highlights an emotion foreign to Satan: "I love them but / I'm trying to say what happened to us / in the lost past." Her expression of love prevents her escape from the cedar box. "It's your coffin now, Satan says." Though burdened by familial circumstances, the "pain of the locked past," the speaker's freedom lies in "trying to say what happened," as well as, the poem concludes, "the suddenly discovered knowledge of love" (Satan Says).

The voice of the speaker in "Satan Says" certainly seems to be the same voice we hear in numerous poems published over the next decade or more. In "The Chute," Olds's speaker details the chilling effect her father's behavior had on her and her two siblings. For whatever odd reason, the wiring for the doorbell was located partway down the laundry chute, and one child would be chosen by the father to be dangled down it to tape two wires together. Two features stand out. Early in the poem the description of the setting is interrupted. The speaker jumps to a later time and provides the reader with a glimpse of her father that is never explained and which seems to lie outside the concerns of "The Chute":

Why does he have blood on him? Why is his ringing so persistent? Olds is not forthcoming with an explanation in this or other poems that appear to refer to the same incident. Consider the opening lines to "History: 13" (the number referring to the speaker's age at the time of the unsettling event):

When I found my father that night, the blood
smeared on his head and face, I did not

know who had done it. I had loved his body
whole, his head, his face, untouched,
and now he floated on the couch, his arms
up, like Mussolini hanging
upside down in the air, his head
dangling where they could reach him with boards and their
fingernails, those who had lived
under his tyranny.
(The Gold Cell)

As in "The Chute," the speaker fails to account for her father's bloodied appearance; instead, she focuses on her own initially confused and finally ambivalent response to him. She questions whether she or anyone in her family was responsible for his disturbing presence. And though she concludes with a label that damns the father, her sentiment is one of empathy: "… I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning, of mourn ing for the Fascist." It seems worth noting that this poem is placed seven poems prior to "The Chute," with a variety of poems about her parents viewed from both the child's and adult's perspective in between, suggesting that Olds refuses to make narrative continuity easy. Nine years earlier Olds began "That Year" with what appears to be the earliest reference to this minimally detailed incident. The poem is worth reading in full to get a sense of the genuine anguish the father caused, Olds's tendency to place family experiences within an easily recognizable historical context, and the speaker's attempts to assess her past from the perspective of an adult.

The year of the mask of blood, my father
hammering on the glass door to get in

was the year they found her body in the hills,
in a shallow grave, naked, white as
mushroom, partially decomposed,
raped, murdered, the girl from my class.

That was the year my mother took us and
hid us so he could not get at us
when she told him to leave; so there were no more
tyings by the wrist to the chair,
no more denial of food
or the forcing of foods, the head held back,
down the throat at the restaurant,
the shame of vomited buttermilk
down the sweater with its shame of new breasts.

That was the year
I started to bleed,
crossing over that border in the night,
and in Social Studies, we came at last
to Auschwitz. I recognized it
like my father's face, the face of the guard
turning away—or worse yet
turning toward me.
(Satan Says)

The loathing for the man depicted as Fascist and Nazi in these poems does not prepare the reader in search of narrative coherence for the adult, distanced perspective on the father the speaker offers in "The Chute." The reader who hopes Olds will reproduce experience will be disappointed in the elliptical quality of many of the poems about the father. The reader who hopes Olds will emphasize the speaker's evaluation of her experience will be intrigued. The child living through the experience asks, "how could you trust him?" But the adult speaker excuses the father's actions as she interprets the poem in the final lines.

The conclusion appears to be at cross purposes with the rest of the poem: the dramatic tension of the preceding narrative, the reader is informed, should not be understood as an implied criticism of the father's threatening behavior. The child's perspective of fear gets erased with this conclusion. The father analogously presented elsewhere as a Mussolini or a Nazi has not changed. Instead, the speaker makes a grand effort to understand him and to contemplate how he has penetrated the core of her being: "if you were / his, half him, your left hand maybe and your / left foot dipped in the gleaming / murky liquor of his nature, how could you / trust yourself?" The tension between the speaker's response to her father as a child and as an adult is left unresolved here (and in other poems treating the father-daughter relationship), which upsets efforts at reading for the plot.

The ending of "The Chute" admits the desire to explain, to provide mature, distanced explanation, however unsatisfying this might be for the reader. As one commentator [Christian McEwen in "Soul Substance," a review of The Gold Cell in The Nation April 11, 1987] on Olds has remarked, "As readers and as human beings, we may not agree with her; we may have other, happier versions of 'love / and release.' But Olds allows no room for such defection. The stories are hers, and they must be understood in her terms only." Yet the lines about her father ringing the doorbell are not fleshed out, justification for his appearance and action is left unstated, and an intratextual reading (one created by reading it in the context of other Olds's poems) merely restates the reference to the incident without illuminating it. Olds's 1990 poem "The Prepositions" (which is not included in The Father) is worth noting here: it recalls the speaker's seventh grade assignment to memorize a list of 45 prepositions, her school environment, and other associations prompted by memory of this task—"fourteen, the breaking of" childhood, beginning of memory." Halfway through this poem Olds interjects the following lines:

Over, past, since, through,
that was the year my father came home in the

middle of the night with those heavy worms of
blood on his face, trilobites of
elegant gore, cornice and crisp
waist of the extinct form….

These lines can only be understood intratextually, but even with such a reading, the father's experience and the speaker's response to it remain ambiguous. While the lines describing the father's appearance strain under the weight of lexical complexity, with the odd word "trilobites" drawing excessive attention to itself and away from what actually occurred, how this incident affected the speaker, and any account justifying reference to it in this poem, is unexplained. And Olds's characteristic avoidance of enjambment with the vertical drop induced by ending lines on weak words—the, of—forces the reader to plunge through her account of a painful experience. Again, Olds leaves the reader with hints and indirections, with the outlines of a plot.

Olds forces her reader to move from book to book and occasionally from section to section within the same book to piece together a portrait of this father. In The Dead and the Living, the speaker avenges the father who delighted in intimidating his children. The pronoun "it" carries much ambiguous weight in "The Victims": the abuse "it" suggests remains nonspecific. "When Mother divorced you, we were glad. She took it and / took it, in silence, all those years and then / kicked you out, suddenly, and her / kids loved it…. She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it…." The father's loss of his job follows upon the divorce; the speaker's adult perspective, asserted in the final lengthy sentence that begins with an overt marker of the temporal shift—"Now I / pass the bums in the doorways …"—expresses no empathy for the father, no attempt to shrug off the pains of the past as the final lines of "The Chute" attempt to do. The lack of sympathy evident in these lines, the assumption that these "bums" earned their misery, is a rare example of Olds venting spleen but without offering any conflicting response to suggest tension in her feelings toward the father. The reader's empathy with the speaker apparently is assumed. "The Departure" poses questions in an accusatory tone and equates the father with the Shah of Iran: both are guilty of engaging in impersonal acts of brutality. "Did you forget / the way you had had me tied to a chair, as / he forgot the ones strapped to the grille / in his name?" But even this poem demonstrates the speaker's effort to penetrate an emotional depth of the father, one that the speaker can literally identify with. While "The Victims" asserts that the speaker and her siblings "grinned inside" when the father was "kicked" out of the house, "The Departure" presents the father's leave-taking as deserving a serious rather than giddy reaction:

The father has no voice in any of these poems. Yet with "The Departure," the speaker appears to be provoking a dialogue, and the reader is forced to imagine what the father would say were he allowed to speak. Since the father is a dominant presence in so many poems in Olds's first three books and the central subject in her fourth, why does she choose to keep him silent? To silence the abuser, the oppressor figure grants the speaker a degree of control as an adult-artist that she clearly lacked as a child. But there is a significant trade-off: non-particularized as the father's acts often are presented (in "Looking at My Father" we are told that "he's a tease, / obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental," generic qualities that could be applied to many parents; The Gold Cell), the poetry risks sounding less intensely private, and, consequently, risks minimizing the damage the father caused. In The Father, his silences become a recurrent theme. When in "His Stillness" his doctor informs him his cancer is beyond cure, his response is "like a holy man," a dignified "Thank you": "I had not remembered / he had always held still and kept silent to bear things, / the liquor a way to keep still. I had not / known him." The speaker's hostility toward her father evident in earlier poems is significantly toned down in this book; the emphasis here is on the absence of love and the speaker's coming to terms with that fact. The speaker clings to details: his striking a match and drawing on a cigar provided "his only song … / it was that song or none." The reader who complains that Olds creates a space around her poems in which plot continuity is suggested but left unfulfilled, the reader who wonders whether the speaker extracts an apology from the father and if the pains of the past are smoothed over in a final emotionally-charged dialogue, misses the point of this book. It is precisely the silence of the father that creates an enormous emptiness that these poems try to fill, silence that provokes multiple conjectures as to who the father is and why his dying and death so confound the speaker. "I had stopped / longing for him to address me from his heart / before he died," Olds writes in "The Want." The irony of "Last Kiss" is that the father's impatience with his daughter, with her suitcases packed as she must leave him, probably for the last time, to return to her world, prompts his exasperated "Last kiss!": "To plead that I leave / my father asked me for a kiss! I would not / leave till he had done so, I will not let thee go except thou beg for it." Although echoing Jacob's demand of the angel with whom he wrestles all night, no blessing is requested by the speaker of her father, and none is offered.

The silencing of the father, as well as the speaker's refusal to damn the father and assert that the speaker herself emerged irreparably scarred from her seemingly traumatic childhood experiences, suggests Olds's intentional willingness to avoid the label "confessional" poet, her resistance to make poetry centered on anger and shame. The conventional view that confessional poetry is practiced primarily by Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and others, has been challenged by Laurence Lerner [in "What is Confessional Poetry?" Critical Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1987], who argues that the term is far more amorphous than contemporary critical practice would indicate. An attempt to define the term draws attention to these concerns: "Confession is something that causes us shame … confessional poetry deals with experience that it is deeply painful to bring into public, not because it is disgusting, nor because it is sinful, but because it is intensely private." The conclusion to "The Chute" swerves away from any expression of shame at having a sadistic father. The historical analogue for understanding the father's action in "The Departure" allows Olds to avoid sounding "intensely private." Lerner argues that some poetry, post 1950s American especially, which gets labelled "confessional" does reveal raw experience, the psyche under intense strain, presumably the author's own and factually accurate, and demonstrates "narrative courage," yet it does not deserve the label poetry. His concluding thought seems particularly appropriate when we think of Olds's work: "lyric poetry was never wholly detachable from confession, just as, if it is to have any claim to be poetry, it can never be wholly identified with it."

Olds is careful to avoid painful revelation overwhelming her aesthetic form. Olds's speaker never asserts that her relationship with her father significantly scarred her: the thrust in her accounts of her father is that she survived and with the tool of language will describe what it feels like. In an early poem, "Nurse Whitman," she equates her task as daughter / artist with that of America's greatest poet in his finest non-literary role: "You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock, / as I touch my father, as if the language / were a form of life" (Satan Says). Her language not only reclaims the past but also serves a therapeutic function for the speaker. In the same book, in two other poems which feature the father when the family was still together dysfunctionally, the speaker concludes that she is a "survivor" ("That Year" and "Time-Travel" in Satan Says). "Time-Travel," like many of Olds's poems, replaces the father's speech with his physical presence, which is lovingly described. In a dream-like episode the adult speaker re-visits a lakeside house in the summer of '55. Looking for her father, she finds him and silently observes his appearance. What follows includes the second and part of the third stanzas.

I can possess him like this, the funnies
rising and falling on his big stomach,
his big solid secret body
where he puts the bourbon.
He belongs to me forever like this,
the red plaid shirt, the baggy pants,
the long perfectly turned legs,
the soft padded hands folded across his body,
the hair dark as a burnt match,
the domed, round eyes closed,
the firm mouth. Sleeping it off
in the last summer the family was together.
I have learned to walk

so quietly into that summer
no one knows I am there. He rests
easy as a baby. Upstairs
mother weeps….

The prompt for the mother's weeping can be presumed only by intratextual readings, and then only indirectly. This is the outline of a frequently brutal man in repose. The speaker's desire to "possess" the father approximates the painter's desire to accurately capture her subject on canvas: for a figure so crucial in the emotional life of the speaker, the father remains mysteriously two-dimensional. What does the speaker think of the father, then (1955) and in the present time of the poem? Olds consistently leaves a gap where one expects to find personal reflection. The adult speaker, the time-traveler, locates her teenage self in this fractured family setting literally by the shoreline, isolated, confused, wary of her family: "She does not know / any of this will ever stop / She does not know she is the one / survivor" Satan Says. The opening line asserts that the speaker has "learned to go back" to this scene from her past; what she has learned from it remains unstated, though the ending emphasizes the speaker's distance from the brutality of the father.

The dramatic tension is minimized as the antagonist sleeps and the speaker claims a personal victory. "Time-Travel" opens the section titled "Journey" in Satan Says. And the journey of the speaker's efforts to describe and understand the behavior of her father and his influence on her continue throughout her work, frequently in poems that capture the physical presence of the father. "The Ideal Father" contrasts two versions of the past as the speaker pries apart idealization and painful memory: the hair, skin, even the penis of the idealized father are "perfect as a textbook example," yet the speaker also must remember the man who "slapped the glasses off a / small girl's face" (The Dead and the Living). The honesty with which the speaker avoids blurring idealization and painful memory is evident in other poems that bluntly acknowledge the speaker's inevitable burden of the father's inheritance: "Finally I just gave up and became my father / … I saw the whole, world shining / with the ecstasy of his grief, and I / myself, he, I, shined …" ("Fate" in The Dead and the Living). Again, the reader's frustrations surface as the speaker swerves from telling what she sees from this new perspective of merg ing with the father. The speaker has adopted the "likeness" of a dangerous man, and even praises her husband's willingness to trust her: "As I see you / embracing me, in the mirror, I see I am / my father as a woman, I see you bravely / embrace him, in me, putting your life in his / hands as mine" ("Poem to My Husband from My Father's Daughter," Satan Says). The father is both dangerous and pathetic, and the speaker's strength is her ability to turn into art the pain and weirdness. She is a survivor "possessed," as the title of another poem labels this dark passion. "Never having had you, I cannot let you go …" (The Dead and the Living). And this feeling, the speaker urges us to believe, must be reciprocal, though her father might only "realize" this after his death. The speaker fantasizes that with a newly acquired afterlife voice he will account for her effect on him: "She could / speak, you see. As if my own / jaws, throat, and larynx had come / alive in her" ("When the Dead Ask My Father about Me"). This poem, included in The Father, and the final poem of this same book, "My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead," demonstrate both the speaker's flagrant ego and her quest for a love that is now—and has been for many years—impossible to achieve. He speaks of her knees, curls, face, and womb. (Olds once asked, "Is there anything that shouldn't or can't be written about in a poem?" and almost in response pushes against poetic bounds here as her father asserts, "when I touched your little / anus I crossed wires with God for a moment.") Though he recalls her baby body quite well, he stops at this surface and will not be bold to imagine her emotional core: "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."

As the dying of the father is the subject of this latest work of Olds's, he escapes, quite literally, from any effort the reader imposes to plot the father-daughter relationship. The breathless speaker of "The Race" runs through an airport to catch a plane in order to fly to her dying father's bedside, "to touch him again in this life." The poem concludes in an open-ended manner: "I walked into his room / and watched his chest rise slowly / and sink again, all night / I watched him breathe." Perhaps her walking suggests a last minute reluctance: she is still not mentally and emotionally prepared to discuss the unresolved conflicts that "The Victims" and other poems indicate she feels. No attempt is made here to bring closure on the father-daughter relationship, let alone to assess its impact on the speaker. Expectations that the poet will provide narrative coherence are frustrated.

The speaker's shift from "ran" and "raced" to "walked" also suggests a reluctance to view her dying father's body, or at least a steeling of her emotions to confront the sight of her father's disease-ravaged body. In many other poems, though, the father's body, specifically the signs of its painful decay, become the poem's subject matter. His thick, heavy sputum floats in a glass on a table next to his hospital bed—"I think of it with wonder now"—and the glass acquires symbolic proportions akin to Stevens's jar in Tennessee: it would "shimmer there on the table until / the room seemed to turn around it / in an orderly way" ("The Glass"). What the speaker knows when she sees her father as a victim, dying of cancer, is that they are connected, not by their shared experiences, not even the ones portrayed as traumatic for the speaker in numerous poems, but connected in their bones and blood, their bodies a physical conjunction that transcend all darker memories of abuse. How the father was transformed from a handsome man courting the speaker's mother to an abusive father to a horizontal body with his life slowly excised from him is not the subject of Olds's poems. The poems that treat the dying and dead father minimize who the father is. Instead, his dying and death propel the speaker into the mysteries of her assumed inheritance from him. Half of the speaker's pre-embryo state she imagines as she washes the face of her dying father in "Last Acts":

From the testicles descended, Olds derives this physiologically sound, though fantastically imagined, image.

In one of Olds's more audacious poems, "The Swimmer," the speaker throws herself into the sea, emptying herself in the process of memory and emotion as she merges with the matter of her father:

I am like those elements my father turned into,
smoke, bone, salt. It is one of
the only things I like to do
anymore, get down inside the horizon
and feel what his new life is like, how
clean, how blank, how griefless, how without error—
the trance of matter.
("The Swimmer")

How else, this poem seems implicitly to be asking, can the death of the other be transcended? The emotional distance the father maintained, both when the speaker was a child and as he is dying, prohibits a communion of love between father and daughter in his final days; absent the heart, the father's body still remains as an object the speaker can attend to lovingly with language. She highlights the impersonality of the mechanism of the body: the contents of his catheter bag, the "sucking snap / when his jaws draw back" ("Death and Morality"), his skin, eyes, and open mouth, the weight of his ashes in their urn. But she is not crudely literal. With a motif of birthing (used throughout The Father), the speaker internalizes his death:

The poems that recall the dead father do not allow the other to remain the other: the speaker absorbs the father into herself. The speaker's breast self-examination prompts recollections of the father's cancer, dying, and death. A live connection between father and daughter prevents her from shaking free of him.

For the reader to demand a level of insight beyond what Olds offers here would be to expect pat generalities or religious sentiment. Religion is referred to rarely in The Father: in "His Terror," only a ritual act—eating the Eucharist, symbolically, the body of the divine Father—is accounted for, an act drained of spiritual significance. The poem shifts from the father's contact with his minister to the speaker's concern that a cry of pain or terror he has long stifled will break loose. Olds's efforts to plot the father-daughter relationship and the father's death-slide always skirt the safe truism. To expect a more specific account of the speaker's revelations is simply unwarranted. Instead, the poet's fearlessness must be acknowledged.

In Olds's previous works, the speaker's sympathy expands to the past, as the father's emotionally shortchanged boyhood is imagined: "When I love you now, / I like to think I am giving my love / directly to that boy in the fiery room, / as if it could reach him in time" ("Late Poem to My Father," The Gold Cell). And her awareness of her father's idiosyncrasies stretches into the future, as the speaker recognizes the passing of his traits on to her children: "Sometimes my daughter looks at me with an / amber black look, like my father / about to pass out from disgust …" ("The Sign of Saturn," The Dead and the Living). No reader should be tricked into believing, though, that metaphorically pushing out the father's corpse in the canoe means the speaker is released from him. The plot of this relationship might very well continue as long as Olds writes. The past cannot be neatly confronted, interpreted, and resolved. Some plots resist a tidy closure.

Calvin Bedient (review date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2103

SOURCE: "Sentencing Eros," in Salmagundi, No. 97, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-81.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of The Father, faulting Olds's self-indulgence but praising the force of some of the poems in the volume.]

Sharon Olds's fourth book of poems, The Father, is easily one of the oddest ever published—even, one of the most outrageous. Consider: a sequence of fifty-one poems on the poet's ghoulish, erotic death-watch of her father, who was hospitalized for cancer, and the grieving aftermath. His dying both steps up and makes safe (unrealizable) her lust to be him and to have him: she is Electra, a babe who will suck from his "primary tumor," a mother who will take his dead body inside her womb, a cannibal who will eat his ashes ("There are people who will swallow whole / cars, piece by piece"—"The Urn"). "Isn't it something," she asks after his death, "the way I can't get over you, this / long deep, unearned desire / you made when you made me" ("Letter to My Father from 40,000 Feet"). The question is self-lacerating; even so, it does not escape being a boast.

In all this, the poet exhibits shame at neither her libidinal nor aesthetic self-indulgences. In the last poem, she has her dead father enumerate, at long last, what he loves about her, including "your womb, it is a heaven to me, / I lie on its soft hills and gaze up / at its rosy vault." Of course, this woman-hater would do nothing of the kind, but it is the poet's way of healing his insults—intended and accidental—to her self-esteem. The monstrous egotism of her willful disposition of the facts, her bending of the truth for vanity's and therapy's sake, also takes the form, among others, of numerous endings of forced drama and grandiosity. What a drive to omnipotence!

But this alone does not account for the astonishing peculiarity of the book. It must be taken in conjunction with two other things: first, an equally strong appetite for the ugly, the gruesome, a horror not veiled but actually played up in her eroticization of a devastating illness. Regarded only as the pioneering work of bringing death's mucus, smells, colors, spasms, into the "lovely" world of poetry, the volume is remarkable: strong stuff. This hideousness—sensational only to the degree that it is perversely eroticized—is the negative lining of the poet's omnipotent wishes. She can be equal to it; she can not only survive it but love it; no greater love has any woman, any daughter …

Olds's imagination, led by passion and not by judgment, trades in extremes, whether of idealization or horror. It is sublime, it would roar like a night train across the wastes of everything her life brings to light. Yes, she's powerful, she knows it, she has won literary fame for it, she banks on it, she exploits it. (In still another poem in which her dead father speaks of her, this man who was indifferent to her says he "liked her exaggerated passions," which means, I take it, that she does). But there is no justice in such an imagination; it either blasts or blesses, in each case like a God. Frequently getting things out of whack, it doesn't notice, or expects indulgence—as when Olds twists her father's protesting "Last kiss!" (she has been coming back again and again to give him more) into his virtual command: "I will not let thee go except thou beg for it" ("Last Words"). By the evidence she herself supplies, this is so wishful a misunderstanding that she must mean us to see it as pathetic. Yet it's offered not only at face value but with happy insistence and as nothing less than the poem's climax and closure. No intelligent constraint curbs the tone. This poet gives herself nothing but license.

And yet—and here lies the third strand of the book's extreme unlikeliness—the sequence ends in several poems in which this astonishingly indulgent imagination cures itself; suddenly it works through its titanic distortions and comes out in an ordinary-sized world where real justice can be done to the tortured material. After so many resistant poems? Was the poet, then, conducting her self-education in public? Presenting the reader with 85% rant and 15% wisdom, in that order? Evidently.

The underlying issue in the book, as Olds finally acknowledges, is her egregious idealization of the father she also hated and feared. In pumping him up, she made herself small. Jessica Benjamin, in The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, is incisive about the predicament: in part a girl wishes to identify with her father, she notes, in order to beat back maternal power. Olds's father's long domestic "drunken / sleep"? "A spell laid on him—by my mother!" ("Waste Sonata"). The father, Benjamin says, represents independence, is an example and a trellis for the child's will to individuation and sexual agency, the more so if the mother is perceived as sour on pleasure and the bodily functions, as the mother in this sequence is: the dead father says to the poet, "I never hated your shit—that was / your mother" ("My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead"). (No wonder Olds make her father a god of "glistening matter," reversing the usual diagnostics of patriarchy and female abjection; no wonder she rejoices to think of herself as once a sperm in her father's scrotum, part of his pleasure, or when swimming in the ocean, as the same "seed": "arms held to her sides, … spine whipping"—"The Swimmer"). Penis envy is just an aspect of this independence envy—or better to call it, in Olds's case, omnipotence-envy:

But if, at home, the father is blotto with alcohol? All the more aloof, like a God. And if he scorns women ("the heel of his hand beating his forehead: Women are so / stupid it destroys your mind"—"The Want")? All the more reason to escape his target range by becoming like or part of him, even if he has to be dead in order to seem pliable and vulnerable enough to be thus joined:

When the hero dies, they draw away,
as if the dead need more space—
I was bent above my father as he curved up,
and when he died I wanted him to rise up
into me or me to climb down
into his body, we were like two baskets
ripped at the sides which could now be woven together.

Or all the more reason to be possessive: "when the girl realizes she cannot be the father, she wants to have him" (Benjamin).

It is not until the forty-third poem that Olds first tests her ability to pull the exaggerated father down, and thus gain real independence; but even there she only murmurs: "I guess I am saying / I hate you, too" and ridiculously (is she trying to excuse herself by thinking like a child?) imagines throwing his look-alike (never mind that they are both passengers on a flight) "down to the ground," there to "arm-wrestle him / and win, bang his forearm on the Earth / long after he cries out" ("Letter to My Father from 40,000 Feet"). She's her father's daugh ter even in this, one tough cookie: "he respected my spunk—when they tied me in the chair, that time, / they were tying up someone he respected" ("Beyond Harm").

Then, in the forty-seventh poem, "I Wanted to be There When My Father Died," the first arrestingly honest piece in the book, she says, "I wanted to watch my father die / because I hated him … his silence had mauled me … I was an Eve he took and pressed back into clay." And in the forty-ninth she asks, "What have I worshipped?" But, characteristically, she cannot see him in perspective even then: he's potentially so powerful that she must waste him by peeing in a pond:

But now I have met you, coiling bourbon
genie of my urine, I have read the entrails
today, I have seen your gorgeous name
writ on water in waste, and pulled to the
dam and dashed down over it.
("To My Father")

Omnipotence still, but now chiefly hers.

It's in the next poem, "Waste Sonata," that Olds finally gets it right: not wanting "To grow old and die, a child, lying to herself," she concedes that her father "was not a shit. He was a man / failing at life." But, in a selfcorrection that restores, in however damaged a form, the giant mould of her idealization of him, she imagines that she, her mother, sister, and, brother are the "shits that move through him … in that purgatory," and can only "almost" love them, and herself. The final snap of release doesn't come until the end of the next and final poem, in the very last nick of the book:

Brusque and abrupt wisdom—but, at long last, there it is.

Abruptness is Olds's poetic stock-in-trade. Its restless and exciting guise is the impression she gives of improvising at white heat, of translating impulse into narrative and image on the spot, at a ferocious clip. Flatter, more literal, than Sylvia Plath, her work is nonetheless just as excessive, just as nerve-wrackingly exigent, in its way. But unlike Plath's performances, hers depend, paradoxically, on an air almost of amateurishness—roughness and awkwardness are essential to her success. There she is, in the very thick of life, running hard just to stay in place: can she make it? More, can she pull off the poem? Olds hooks the reader by seeming to be a prose writer who has found herself on a verse treadmill that is racing out of control, one who finally pulls fearsome resources out of herself and ends with a bang.

She may throw out similes that are dull, inconsequent, or unconvincing (for example, her father passing through her as the universe passes through God "like a napkin in a ring"—"The Pulling'). Or she may get off track in the middle of a poem, as if unaware of where the track is, or as if being "independent" (witness "Last Acts" and "The Transformed One"). Her syntax may be sloppy at times: "Whoever has / turned away from us, or could not / look at us, just the pressure of their weight feels like a blessing." But none of this does insuperable damage, because a certain impetus is the star, a movement, a hunger that instantly slides off everything, over the quicksilver spill of a comma-splice, towards something else, something maybe better. The comma-splices keep narrative exposition from flagging, or convey hasting feeling or a literal rush (as here in the terrific poem "The Race"). But Olds also seems simply addicted to them; they're part of the rhythm of her drive, her nerves.

What her performed impetus cannot save are moments of imaginative forcing. Most of these are in the interest of either her father's or her own grandiosity. Recall the lines on his lifted gown as nothing less than the apocalyptic veil that will (so it's promised) fall from our eyes, so that we may know everything: an ending that is like concluding a little song the way Beethoven concludes a symphony, the religious sentiment of revelation absurdly out of proportion to the sight of a man's penis—even a father's—and the tone of sanctity the wine in a cup of self abasement.

Improvisation as exigency, ecstasy, anxiety, rage, grief—Olds turned it into triumphs again and again in The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell, but here it groans and wobbles, its wheels wildly out of alliance. There are even a few poems of stunning badness (e.g. "Death and Murder," which senselessly and sensationally compares treating an ill person to what murderers do to one, then glorifies the act of murder as "kneeling on the bank, scooping up the supple clay"—a fantasy of omnipotent creation). The risk of a sequence book is that poems will be included because they fit, or seem to, and not because they have merit. Still, there are a few pieces of no less stunning power: "The Race," "The Feelings," and "I Wanted to be There When My Father Died," as well as several others that seem better than jerry-built, or forced out for the sake of the sequence, among them "The Want," "His Smell," and "When the Dead Ask My Father About Me." Most of the work, however, is neither good nor wretched; it wavers between the plausibly and the transparently self-indulgent, while communicating some, if not all, of the poet's familiar, notoriously pungent force.

Louise Glück (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "The Forbidden," in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 53-63.

[Glück is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she faults the poems in The Father for being repetitive.]

Sharon Olds is a poet of considerable achievement and a wholesome distaste for that most depressing of strategies, the obligatory elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy. Olds' technique, her fascination with the extreme physical, the unsayable reality, makes a case for her presence here, and The Father seems, atmospherically, to draw on or suggest taboos it doesn't actually investigate. Olds has an astonishing gift for that part of the act of writing which corresponds to the hunting/gathering phase, or, to put it another way, that part which is generative: many of the poems in The Father read as improvisations around a single word or cluster of words, and their resourcefulness, Olds' sustained scrutiny and fastidious notation of detail, amazes. This method, which characterizes nearly every individual poem in the collection, characterizes the book as well, as though [William Carlos] Williams' dictum regarding things had been adapted to an emotional agenda. If the book fails, as it does for me, it does so in part because the poems grow tedious: Williams' scrutiny was democratic, or perhaps, more properly, an application of the scientific method: it was a point of honor to have no bias regarding outcome. This is Williams' vitality. But Olds uses her genius for observation to make, repeatedly, the same points, to reach the same epiphanies; the energy and diversity of detail play out as stasis. The principal figures here, the speaker and her dying father, change very little; the scenes between them change very little. While we might not expect change of a dying man (his service, to the book, might be a fixity which would permit the speaker greater range in attitude and gesture as well as feeling, since response is no longer an issue), we do expect some fluidity within the speaker. What we find instead is a recalcitrant girlishness; the voice is, here, as fixed as the father, pinned to a pre-adolescent and faintly coy obsession. To some extent the drama here, father and daughter, would seem to dictate this, and the poems do recognize the problem, though their solution is not to abandon the format but to strain it: periodically, the speaker envisions the father as her child, as a fetus inside her, and so on. What the poems do not do is move either forward or backward, backward to an earlier phase of childhood, the perspectives of which might illuminate the current confrontation, or (convincingly) forward….

The Father suffers from an insufficiency of will or direction; the poems are nearly all better in their parts than as wholes, as is the collection. The aimlessness of the book itself suggests the single disadvantage of Olds' impressive facility: these poems read as great talent with, at the moment, nowhere to go.

Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens," in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 234-54.

[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt from a comparative essay on Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens, she examines Olds's treatment of the theme of Eros, or erotic love. Ostriker concludes that although there are similarities between Bishop's and Olds's concepts of Eros, Bishop successfully addresses this theme and Olds does not.]

I would like to talk about erotic discourse in poetry in its widest and most archaic sense, beginning with the proposal that what Adrienne Rich today calls "The drive / to connect[,] The dream of a common language" ("Origins and History of Consciousness") has for millennia been understood and experienced as the body and soul's desire, as simultaneously natural and divine, and as source of intense pleasure, intense pain. As in the Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine…. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste his pleasant fruits" (1:2; 4:16). Or Sappho: "Mother, I can't finish my weaving. You may blame Aphrodite, soft as she is, she has almost killed me with love for that boy" (frag. 135). Or Catullus, inventing introspection and passionate ambivalence in the same moment: "I hate and love. I don't know how, but I feel it, and it is excruciating" (no. 85; my translation). Or Andrew Marvell, at the close of "To His Coy Mistress": "Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness up into one ball, / And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Thorough the iron gates of life. / Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will make him run." In and from the poetry of the ages, I would stress the idea of connection, the impulse to connect, to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation, as always implicitly erotic, always a form of making love.

Making love. Poetry. An odd combination, some will think. For in postmodern, media-drenched America, eros equals pornography, both for its advocates and its attack ers. Pornography, or perhaps possession, a consumer product. Many poets, and almost all critics, avoid it (except in the special category of AIDS writing, where eros equals mortality). What most contemporary critics seem to want is less body and less feeling in poetry. Less sensuousness. Less desire—these topics are so sticky, so embarrassing, so impolite, so troublesome—can't we, please, have a poetry that's clean, with the messy and horrifying fluids and passions scrubbed off it?

Not that academic disapproval of eros is new. It is as old as the discontents of civilization and the need to subdue desire in the name of an efficient state. Freud properly observed that libido is precisely what socialization represses. Yeats rhymes entertainingly on the scandalousness of poets to pedantss: "Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?" ("The Scholars")…. Modernist poetics, insofar as it pursues the ideal impersonality recommended by T. S. Eliot or bows to Pound's distaste for "emotional slither," constitutes perhaps an apex of anerotic sublimation—however undermined by the practice of poets such as Frost and Williams. It is surely not coincidental that of the major women modernists, the only one to be respectfully canonized was the sexually respectable Marianne Moore, while the deviantly sexual H. D., Loy, and Stein—not to mention conventionally amorous lyricists like Millay—remain outside that particular pale. His impassioned and explicit exploration of the erotic is probably one of the many causes that keep Robinson Jeffers in critical limbo, a potential embarrassment. In our own time, as women poets occupy the terrain of eros in massive numbers, uttering both heterosexual and lesbian desire and drawing radical connections between love of bodies and love as a potential principle for the body politic, it is not surprising to find a backlash of critical opinion emphatically preferring the abstract to the sensuous, the cerebral to the emotional. In part for this reason, the austere poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is universally praised, and the physically and sexually charged poetry of Sharon Olds commonly attacked. At the same time, while critical discussion of Wallace Stevens has until very recently avoided or evaded the issue of the erotic in his poetry, it is interesting to note that several recent volumes of Stevens criticism address precisely—or almost precisely—this issue.

In the following triangulated discussion of Bishop, Olds, and Stevens, I will cite at some length the critic Vernon Shetley, who concludes his chapter on Elizabeth Bishop in After the Death of Poetry by describing Sharon Olds as a representative mainstream poet who fails to live up to the Bishop tradition. I will argue first that Shetley's view of Bishop is skewed toward the erasure of eros in her poetry; next that his dismissal of Olds derives from a horror of eros in hers; and third, I will suggest that notwithstanding apparently polar differences between Bishop and Olds, including where they locate themselves on a continuum of erotic desire and dread, the two poets share an understanding of what eros is. Finally, I will propose a tentative view of erotic discourse in Stevens that would locate him elsewhere….

Nobody would say Sharon Olds disguises the erotic in her poems. The erotic in her work is ubiquitous, joining bodies of flesh, generations, natural cycles of procreation and decay, human to animal, animal to vegetable, male to female, profane to sacred, life to art, sex to food to writing. The title poem of Olds's first book, Satan Says, announces the program of her art. Trapped inside an ornamental box she is trying to "write [her] way out of—her childhood, her body, a sentimentalized tradition ornamented by tacky shepherds—she is tempted by Satan to escape by saying things like "fuck," "shit," and cursing her parents; she obeys, but as the lid of the box opens and she is about to exit into Satan's mouth, she remembers, "I loved / them, too," and the lid closes. The poet will remain locked in the box that is now her coffin, but she hardly cares, as freedom to articulate rebellious hate precipitates "the suddenly discovered knowledge of love." Olds chooses to be a poet ambivalently but firmly attached to parents. Several other poems about writing in this first volume announce corollary facets of her agenda. In "Nurse Whitman," Whitman's and Olds's love of men is at once compassionate and sexual, embodied and imagined, while a fusion of present and past joins a fusion of genders in an act of writing that is also an act of conception and birthing:

We lean down, our pointed breasts
heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk—
we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now,
we bring to fruit.

In "The Language of the Brag," a poem that follows several poems describing the intensely absorbed animal life of "Young Mothers," Olds asserts the act of childbirth as a "heroism" equivalent to phallic power ("I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw … the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock") and to the creation of poems. Having lain down and passed blood, feces, water, and a new person covered with "language of blood like praise all over the body" into the world,

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

That the poems are intended to be both transgressive and sacred is made clear. "Station" describes the poet's husband, left to mind the children while she writes, gazing at her with "the poems / heavy as poached game hanging from my hands." "Prayer," the final poem in Satan Says, defines "the central meanings" through linked images of copulation and childbirth, closing with a Whitmanlike vow: "let me not forget: / each action, each word / taking its beginning from these."

Where Bishop writes as a voice of loneliness, fearing and desiring connection, the self in Olds is never represented in isolation but always in relation, penetrated and penetrating, glued by memory and gaze to others. She scandalously eroticizes the bodies of children and parents, genitals and all, describes the sex act with explicit attention to a variety of orifices, is obsessed with the foodlike and procreative possibilities of human bodies, loves images of animals, soil, blood and eggs, represents her sexually greedy body as a tiger's, an anteater's, that which "takes him in as anyone in summer will / open their throat to the hose held up / hot on the edge of the sandlot," and insists "I am this, this" (The Gold Cell). Cross-gendered imagery recurs through her work, as she invokes "My Father's Breasts" (The Dead and the Living) or speculates that her mother made her deliberately in the image of the powerful father: "I feel her looking down into me the way the / maker of a sword gazes at his face in the / steel of the blade" (The Gold Cell). Sperm is recurrently described as milk, sexual gratification as eating and drinking, sex as power: "The center of your body / will tear open, as a woman will rip the / seam of her skirt so she can run," she tells her daughter (The Dead and the Living). Olds's sacralizing of the sexual and procreative body is sometimes explicit, sometimes textually hinted, as when the daughter's maturing body is described as rising bread in a way that half represents the girl as Christ ("Bread," The Dead and the Living).

Olds's critics complain at times that she sensationalizes the dysfunction of her natal family—cold, alcoholic grandfather and father, searingly clinging anorexic mother—overlooking the complication of the daughter's insistently expressed desire for, worship of, and identification with the father's body, which persists throughout her recent volume about his dying and death. The sensuous profusion in Olds stands in stark contrast to the austerity of a writer such as Bishop. Some readers conclude that such rich surfaces cannot possibly coexist with depth. Yet there may be important unsaid, unsayable, matter in Olds just as there is in Bishop. Consider "Sex Without Love," the single Olds poem Shetley discusses, which he claims uses metaphor merely ornamentally

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other's bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health—just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.(The Dead and the Living)

The poem's opening "How do they do it?" may be construed as wondering either about technique or about morality. The question lets us know that the speaker doesn't do it, but not whether she envies or deplores. The following swift succession of similes implies a slippage from admiration—what we might feel if our ideas of sex without love came from watching, say, James Bond movies—to something closer to horror or pain. Sex without love is attractive in the style of art or sport, athletically and socially attractive, then it is a bit like the hanging carcasses in a Francis Bacon painting, then it parallels food, then for a brief instant it shockingly resembles the most shameful abandonment of the helpless. Significantly, Olds does not dwell on this instant, although in another poem ("The Abandoned Newborn,") her topic is the condition of an infant left wrapped in plastic in a dumpster. The simile nonetheless jars and reverberates, for the mother-infant image simultaneously connotes and negates the vulnerable and utterly satisfied infantile eroticism that we strive to retrieve in adult sexuality (several other Olds poems also make this connection). The linebreak reinforces the poignance of expectation dashed, the full stop signals a dead end along one line of thinking. At the edge of the image, or our consciousness of it, especially if we happen to be mothers ourselves, might be the fact that all mothers (including the mother of Jesus, who was Love) give their babies away, if not sooner then later. The pain of this abandonment is not accidentally but systematically a corollary of a culture in which sexual pleasure is divided from procreation, and motherhood is sentimentally honored but institutionally disempowered and without status. It is, in other words, a real effect of "sex without love." Shetley's comment on this simile calls it "entirely gratuitous; since babies whose mothers are going to give them away are exactly as wet, no more and no less, as babies whose mothers are going to keep them, this elaboration serves no purpose but to remind us that sex without love may lead to unwanted pregnancy, a message better suited to public service announcements than poetry." Both tone and content of a sentence like this suggest to me a reader deeply out of touch with his topic.

Shetley fails to comment on lines 8-13, in which the speaker cannot quite articulate what sex with love is. But this is the core of the poem. "Come to the come to the God" works doubly. It stumbles over the inexpressible and exclaims over its own inarticulateness, much as Bishop stumbles and exclaims in "One Art." It also half implies that what love "comes" to is, precisely, God. "Still waters" reinforces and deepens this implication while echoing and redeeming the wetness of sexuality and of the newborn. Each a pool from which the other drinks, we taste a shared water of life. Sex, the speaker suggests, brings us to the pastoral oasis of the Twenty-third Psalm, our animal innocence, our divine protection. It restores our souls. Loving whoever comes to such a space with us would itself be natural. Sex, birth, nature, innocence, God, and a revisionary re-reading of scripture are all involved here. The image of light rising like steam from the lovers' "joined skin" imaginatively turns the fact of perspiration into a signal of the holy. The experience lies, however, outside the poem's discourse: the poem offers a silence that the reader must fill in.

The remainder of the poem appears to repudiate or transcend the oasis experience. Loveless lovers know better, we are told: they don't make the mistake of substituting the priest (the sexual partner) for the god (the pleasure). The true religion of eros is strenuously self-absorbed; the extended final metaphor of sex as running against one's own best time (one's own best orgasm) insists on our absolute isolation.

Shetley's comment on Olds's "Sex Without Love" calls its metaphors "descriptive rather than cognitive." Clearly they have not made him think; the assumption that women who write about sex must be brainless is a very old one, which I have documented elsewhere. His commentary concludes as follows:

But ultimately, the poem's challenge to conventional values, both sexual and poetic, is recontained through the distance and isolation in which the poem envelops these in some sense unimaginable persons. The poet professes to admire these exemplars of lucidity…. But ultimately, [she] consigns them to their aloneness, professing her incomprehension; she … prefers to remain within the emotive comfort of false beliefs. By the poem's end, its initial challenge to conventional values of emotional warmth and mutuality has been entirely defused.

This reading seems willfully incorrect in several respects as well as tautological. Olds's "in some sense unimaginable persons" certainly exist, and sometimes might be any of us; the poet initially professes incomprehension but in the end undertakes to explain them rather convincingly. More interesting is that the sharp, best-case understanding of the loveless lovers whom she continues to call "they" means the speaker simultaneously is and is not like them. It might seem that her empathy overrides and invades their loneliness, in order to understand their experience from within. Or is it rather that their perfect and superior loneliness rebukes and explodes her empathy? Two kinds of lovers, two concepts of God, two ontologies of self, constructed as "undecidable alternatives" not unlike those we admire in Bishop, govern this poem. And although it is an atypical poem for Olds because it does not use the first-person singular, it is typical in its capacity to represent sexuality as both desirable and frightening.

In the final portion of this essay I wish to ask two questions. What sort of erotic discourse do Bishop and Olds share? And can Wallace Stevens be seen as belonging to the same general discourse, or must he be otherwise located? The first question can be answered briefly on the basis of my readings. Bishop mostly evades, Olds mostly asserts erotic connection—but for both, the erotic is a power preceding and defining the self; for both, it exists at the liminal border between language and the unsayable; for both, it abuts on a realm we may call spiritual. Technically, the metaphors of both poets enact the erotic. Olds's do so, as I hope I have shown, first of all by their excess, which is mimetic of the procreativity Olds identifies with eroticism; second by requiring us constantly to register interplays of likeness and difference across categories, and in particular by repeatedly collapsing the categories of the human, the natural, the divine, and the artistic while reminding us of their conventional separation. To say "I am this," and mean the body, is in Olds to claim complete connection with the world. Bishop's metaphoric technique works differently and so subtly that one of her most characteristic and unique strategies has scarcely been noticed. From the beginning to the end of her work, Bishop has a habit of letting metaphor attribute life and motivation to the inorganic, humanity to the inhuman.

Christine Stenstrom (review date 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Wellspring, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 1, January, 1996, p. 104.

[In the following review, Stenstrom favorably assesses The Wellspring.]

In this her fifth collection [The Wellspring], awardwinning Olds surveys her life from conception to middle age with the laserlike attention to emotional and physical detail that is her hallmark. The book's first two sections focus on childhood and adolescence; the self-portrait Olds paints is of a voracious and egocentric child who thirsts for attention and is sensually attuned to all she experiences. Her recollections of her father's casual cruelties (he composed a humiliating tongue twister for his lisping daughter to recite at Sunday breakfast), though chilling, are dispassionately recounted. The second two sections are devoted to parenthood and conjugal love. Olds's po ems about her children throb with love and pathos, and her paeans to an emotionally and physically satisfying marriage are among the book's most rewarding poems. In language that is taut, clear-sighted, and frank, Olds writes powerfully of life's most elemental experiences: birth, love, and death.

Laura E. Tanner (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Olds's The Father," in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 103-21.

[Tanner is the author of Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction. In the following essay, she applies the concept of the gaze in film and literary theory to Olds's description of her terminally ill father in The Father.]

The publication of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1978 [Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3] initiated a dialogue about the function of the "gaze" that has subsequently moved beyond the boundaries of film theory. Mulvey's discussion of scopophilic viewing in the cinema identified a voyeuristic dynamic in which the erotic identity of the viewing subject is clearly separated from the object (usually a woman) on the screen; the viewer derives pleasure from objectifying the screen persona and subjecting that persona to the power of the controlling gaze. The success of film criticism in denaturalizing the act of looking in the cinema—i.e., exposing the way in which the viewer's gaze may be constructed to enforce hidden assumptions or authorize conclusions that appear "natural"—has led in turn to the need for unveiling the way that the gaze is constructed in other forums and the need for defining the power dynamics that result from that construction.

In relying heavily upon psychoanalytic models that stress viewing as a form of visual pleasure, however, film theorists and adaptive critics following in their wake—in literary theory, gender studies and cultural studies—have paid little attention to the consequences of a gaze that is painful or uncomfortable, a gaze that moves away from a lingering focus on the seductive fetish to a flitting confrontation with disease and death. The way in which we as individuals and as a culture look at people with terminal illness raises questions about how the act of seeing can serve to naturalize assumptions about the dying body and the embodied subject framed by that body. When the object of the gaze changes from an attractive female form that the viewer objectifies or from a screen protagonist with whom the viewer identifies to the wasting body of a terminally ill patient, the structures of looking that Mulvey located within a dynamic of visual pleasure demand to be revised. The act of looking at a person with terminal illness may perpetuate the dynamics of objectification that Mulvey associated with the fetishization of women in the cinema; it may, also, however, upset the very distinction between subject and object to allow for the possibility of a gaze that dissolves the distance between the two.

This essay attempts to understand the intimacy of the gaze not as a means of negotiating sexual difference but as a way of establishing connection between a healthy subject and a person with terminal illness. The first section of the essay lays the theoretical groundwork for my investigation; using the work of theorists such as Mulvey, Foucault and Kristeva, I will explore the way that the gaze constructs the experience of dying: both for the terminally ill patient who perceives the self as an object of the gaze and for the watcher who negotiates the idea of death through the visual apprehension of a dying body. The next section of the essay expands this dialogue of critical voices through an analysis of Sharon Olds's The Father (1992), a volume of contemporary American poetry that serves to raise important theoretical questions about how the dynamics of watching are implicated in the construction of a relationship between the dying body and the embodied subject. In this volume, which focuses on the slow process of her father's death from cancer, Olds offers an unflinching exploration of what it means to turn the gaze toward the dying body. Opening with a description of watching—"I would be there all day, watch him nap, / be there when he woke, sit with him / until the day ended" ("The Waiting")—the volume continues by probing the way that looking and being looked at not only reflect but constitute identity. The Father, I will argue, offers a response to theories of the gaze that focus exclusively on eroticized and sadistic power dynamics; Olds presents not only an unflinching investigation of the gaze's dehumanizing power but a model for balancing the uneven distribution of power that marks the projection of the healthy gaze onto the diseased body.

Michael Foucault describes his study of modern medicine, The Birth of the Clinic (1973), as a book "about the act of seeing, the gaze." Foucault's volume begins to raise questions about how the gaze is constructed in medicine, about the forces that dictate what a doctor sees and does not see when he looks at a patient. In his exploration of these questions, Foucault defines a dichotomization of patient and disease that underlies much of modern medicine:

Paradoxically, in relation to that which he is suffering from, the patient is only an external fact; the medical reading must take him into account only to place him in parenthesis. Of course, the doctor must know "the internal structure of our bodies"; but only in order to subtract it, and to free to the doctor's gaze "the nature and combination of symptoms, crises, and other circumstances that accompany diseases." It is not the pathological that functions, in relation to life, as a counter-nature, but the patient in relation to the disease itself…. Hence the strange character of the medical gaze…. It is directed upon that which is visible in the disease—but on the basis of the patient, who hides this visible element even as he shows it….

In order to render disease visible, the medical gaze must factor out the person with illness; seeing the patient as an embodied subject emerges as not only inconsequential but counterproductive. In the examining room, the person with illness becomes the white space in the picture, the absence which allows the illness to be seen.

Because the medical gaze sees disease only by blocking out the human subject whose body bears the mark of illness, illness becomes increasingly visible as it becomes increasingly incontestable. The person with terminal illness may thus feel totally abandoned, for the medical gaze, as Foucault observes, sees its logical extension in the absolute obliteration of the person by the disease, in death. In "The Patient Examines the Doctor" [Intoxicated by My Illness, 1972], an eloquent essay describing his experience with an untreatable cancer, Anatole Broyard charts the effect of such a gaze on its object: "There is the way a doctor looks at you. One doctor I saw had a trick way of almost crossing his eyes, so he seemed to be peering warmly, humanistically, into my eyes, but he wasn't seeing me at all. He was looking without looking." Broyard's desire to be "seen" by his doctor emerges as more than a plea for "humanistic" intention or psychological affirmation; it also suggests a struggle to sustain life in the face of death. Broyard seeks a physician willing to look hard enough at him to reclaim him from the critical illness that threatens to obscure his subjective presence: "If he could gaze directly at the patient, the doctor's work would be more gratifying. Why bother with sick people, why try to save them, if they're not worth acknowledging? When a doctor refuses to acknowledge a patient, he is, in effect, abandoning him to his illness." The "direct" gaze, in this scenario, becomes a means of reversing the process of the disease, of enacting the turn through which the person overwhelms the disease within and not vice versa.

Vision always accesses the subject through the body, and the destructive dynamics of the gaze often result from a look that reduces an embodied presence to an objectified body. When a body bears the visible marks of illness—the lesions that often accompany AIDS, the uncontrollable muscle spasms of Parkinson's disease, the gaunt, hollowed face of a person dying from cancer—its function as a multiple sign system is often ignored in favor of an interpretation that renders itself as concrete vision. Because the marks of critical illness literally overwhelm the features of the person with disease, the gaze often locates the subject in a body that seems to announce its identity as the process of its own destruction. The medical gaze, then, merely extends and exaggerates a dynamics of looking that forces the person with terminal illness to see the self rendered visible only as its impending absence.

Visual confrontation with a dying body, however, also exaggerates and problematizes the dynamics of looking for the healthy viewer. The threat that such a body poses to the gaze can be framed, in Julia Kristeva's terms, as the threat of the abject, of "death infecting life." Materiality and corporeality emerge in Kristeva's work as necessary conditions of subjectivity which the subject must nonetheless disavow in order to preserve the illusion of stability, unity, wholeness. Although Kristeva defines the corpse as "the utmost of abjection" [The Powers of Horror, 1982], the body of the person with terminal illness may function as even more of a threat; such a person often exhibits the bodily signs of impending death while yet resisting the inanimate coldness that helps us to classify the corpse as Other.

Mainstream film, according to Mulvey, attempts to allay the fear of castration by portraying "a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy." To look at a person with terminal illness—even through the frame of literary or visual representation—often challenges such a sense of separation. The terminally ill body assaults the healthy gaze by threatening to unveil without fetishistic mediation the viewing subject's vulnerability, a vulnerability that stems from mortality itself.

The "healthy" gaze—in order to maintain "a sense of separation," in Mulvey's words, or what Sander Gilman describes as the need for distance from the ill—may attempt to move itself outside the expanding parameters of the sick body by establishing a way of viewing that destroys the link between viewer and viewed. Whereas the fear of castration can be handled by covering up the "missing parts" that suggest sexual difference, the person with terminal illness resists such easy manipulation, and indeed seems to move over his or her boundaries into the viewing subject's own. Moreover, because in this case the object of the gaze announces not only difference but sameness, the viewer's recognition of a shared mortality lends power to the very threat that the healthy gaze would dispel. Abjection, Kristeva concludes, "is above all a revolt of the person against an external menace from which one wants to keep oneself at a distance, but of which one has the impression that it is not only an external menace but that it may menace us from inside. So it is a desire for separation, for becoming autonomous …" [Quoted in Kelly Oliver's Reading Kristeva, 1993]. The diseased body frequently refuses to maintain the distance that marks separation between subjects; when the body is overwhelmed by illness, it begins to swell, ooze, sweat and bleed until it intrudes upon public space. The healthy gaze that risks intimacy with the person with disease thus sacrifices the seeming mastery of distance.

Within Kristeva's theory of the abject, erotic pleasure emerges as a symbolic response to the uncontainable threat of mortality. Defining the erotic not merely as a response to the threat of castration but as an attempt to sustain life itself in the face of death, Kristeva defines the eroticization of abjection as "an attempt at stopping the hemorrhage: a threshold before death, a halt or a respite." Kristeva's formulation of the relationship between the erotic and the abject lays the groundwork for an interrogation of the gaze that reverses the tendency in feminist film criticism to privilege the sexual aspect of looking. Although critics like Mulvey may cite the fear of castration as the source of the look, for example, they shy away from issues of mortality to focus primarily on the erotic dynamics of the gaze.

In Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Elisabeth Bronfren addresses the limitations of such gendered notions of castration:

What is put under erasure by the gendered concept of castration is the other, so often non-read theme of death, forbidden maybe because far less conducive to efforts of stable self-fashioning than notions of sexual difference. To see the phallus as secondary to the scar of the navel means acknowledging that notions of domination and inferiority based on gender difference are also secondary to a more global and non-individuated disempowerment before death.

Although Bronfren's discussion of "a notion of anxiety not based on sexual difference" is not formulated in terms of the gaze, her Freudian revisions suggest new ways of thinking about the dynamics of looking at a person close to death. Thus, focusing on Olds's The Father, I now wish to explore the way that the erotic dynamics of the gaze are complicated by the act of looking at a person with terminal illness, and the way that such looking becomes a means of negotiating identity in the face of death. Rather than attempting to refute or replace gendered notions of the gaze based on theories of sexual difference, my argument attempts to switch the reader's frame of vision in a way that makes it possible not only to recognize the theme of death which Bronfren describes as under erasure but also to see what is at stake in the act of seeing that constitutes the death-watch.

Calvin Bedient opens his review essay of The Father with words that express genuine shock:

Sharon Olds's fourth book of poems, The Father, is easily one of the oddest ever published—even, one of the most outrageous. Consider: a sequence of fifty-one poems on the poet's ghoulish, erotic death-watch of her father, who was hospitalized for cancer, and the grieving aftermath. His dying both steps up and makes safe (unrealizable) her lust to be him and to have him: she is Electra, a babe who will suck from his "primary tumor"…

Bedient's response to what he describes as Olds's "eroticization of a devastating illness" leads him on a critical quest to "account for the astonishing peculiarity of the book." That quest is framed in psychoanalytic terms; he locates the source of the poems' "strong appetite for the ugly, the gruesome" in what he sees as the underlying issue in the collection: Olds's final acknowledgment of "her egregious idealization of the father she also hated and feared." Invoking Jessica Benjamin's The Bonds of Love, Bedient usefully unveils some of the complex psychological dynamics that underlie the speaker's relationship with her father in this sequence of poems. Yet in tracing the poet's "eroticization" of her father's illness back to Olds's desire for individuation and sexual agency, Bedient relegates that illness to symptom and masks its urgent presence in the poems he discusses.

The Father's revelation of the diseased and dying body—perhaps as much as any metaphorical eroticization of the relationship between father and daughter—constitutes a violation of the cultural codes through which contemporary Western civilization renders the terminally ill body visible. If one method of containing the threat of the abject is to eroticize it, Bedient's critique of Olds's poetry can be understood in just that way. Concentrating on Olds's "outrageous" eroticism, he obliterates the embodied presence of Olds's dying father and focuses instead on the symbolic function that the father serves in the daughter's construction of sexual identity. As Olds's speaker watches her father's body deteriorate from cancer and witnesses his death, the material urgency of his embodied presence erupts again and again in the text; in glossing over the volume's representation of that bodily eruption and the poet's attempt to come to terms with her own role as spectator of it, Bedient ignores the truly "outrageous" and radical aspects of Olds's poetry.

In The Father, erotic metaphors serve not as "a respite" ' from the threat of death but as acknowledgment of the intimate consequences of looking upon her father's dying. "My Father's Eyes" compares the exchange of looks between Olds and her father to "the sudden flash / of sex that jumps between two people." If Freud is correct in aligning sexuality with the life force and against death, this volume of poems represents Olds's attempt to use the gaze as a means of dissolving boundaries rather than maintaining distance, as a way of claiming her father's embodied presence rather than reducing him to an objectified absence. In the process of the death-watch that she both enacts and critiques in these poems, Olds finds herself pulled across the border of her father's dying body, "turning … around his death" ("The Glass"). The awkward and sometimes forced intimacy reflected in the erotic overtones of Olds's poems, then, emerges at least in part from the dynamics of a death-watch that blurs the boundaries between seer and seen, subject and object, eye and body.

In the opening poem of the collection, "The Waiting," Olds immediately testifies to the objectifying power of the look. When she descends from the guest room in her father's house each morning, the speaker (whom I will take the license of referring to throughout my argument simply as "Olds") is confronted with the motionless body of her father:

….. By then, he knew he was dying,
he seemed to approach it as a job to be done
which he knew how to do. He got up early
for the graveyard shift. When he heard me coming down the
hall he would not turn—he had
a way of holding still to be looked at,
as if a piece of sculpture could sense
the gaze which was running over it—
he would wait with that burnished, looked-at look until
the hem of my nightgown came into view,
then slew his eyes up at me, without
moving his head, and wait, the kiss
came to him, he did not go to it.

In this rendering, Olds's father displays himself for the gaze that he is incapable of resisting; she images him as an artifact that absorbs the look but does not return it. Indeed, the "job" of dying that the father undertakes seems to involve a kind of collapse into matter, an abdication of agency that allows only the negative expression of subjectivity.

Unlike the sculpture to which he is compared, however, Olds's father can sense the gaze that runs over him, can know the look that renders him material. This knowledge of his own objectification emerges as one of the few signs of the father's subjective presence; the look as gaze is rewritten as the "burnished, looked-at look" not emanating from but inscribed on the father's body. Denied both the agency of the gaze and the inviolability of the object, Olds's father is caught between the definition of himself as subject and as diseased body.

Critical illness exaggerates the vexed dynamics of embodied subjectivity by placing the person with disease under the absolute tyranny of a body at the very moment when that body seems least that person's own. In The Body in Pain (1985), Elaine Scarry unveils the way in which extreme pain pins the suffering subject to a body that overwhelms the outer world and the inner self until that "increasingly palpable" body appears to subsume all else. When disease acts on the human body, it assaults not only organs and tissue but the subject's very notion of agency. Bound to a body that may shrink, swell, bleed and ooze but that necessarily moves toward self-destruction, the person with terminal illness may be forced to renegotiate the construction of the self in a manner that accounts both for the body's tyranny over the subject—its essential and undeniable connection to the suffering self—and for the subject's absolute alienation from a diseased body that may be as unfamiliar as the body of a stranger.

In Olds's collection, this alienation emerges in the form of the father's seeming complicity in his own objectification. While Olds herself becomes the real subject of the poem, her father emerges only as the "something someone has made." As his daughter's look reduces him to the material status of a body that moves steadily toward death, the father's own gaze begins to collapse into the material. Rather than registering subjective presence, the father's sidelong look—when he "slew his eyes up at me, without / moving his head"—registers the dissolution of subjectivity and its replacement with a fully conscious yet objectified self.

This collapse of vision into vacant material presence denies Olds's father the power of the gaze; her look confirms—rather than resists—the process of his objectification. In beginning The Father with this poem, Olds not only calls attention to the significance of the gaze as a force in constructing the person with terminal illness, but also suggests the way in which her status as artist as well as observer exaggerates her role in turning subject into artifact, human into matter. In the poems that follow, Olds attempts to negotiate a way of looking at her father that is not also a perpetuation of the objectifying dynamics of the gaze.

Instead of redirecting the look away from her father's body, Olds attempts to unsettle the strict definition of subject and object within the dynamics of vision. Although Olds continues to look upon her father's dying body, in later poems of the volume her gaze comes to serve as an extension rather than a refutation of his subjective presence. As such, it begins to realize the kind of healing gaze that Broyard defines in "The Patient Examines the Doctor": "My ideal doctor would resemble Oliver Sacks. I can imagine Dr. Sacks entering my condition, looking around at it from inside like a kind landlord, with a tenant, trying to see how he could make the premises more livable. He would look around, holding me by the hand, and he would figure out what it feels like to be me." The healing gaze, as Broyard images it here, is a double-edged one, a look that violates the boundaries between subject and object to locate itself variously; Broyard imagines Sacks moving outside the corporeal confines of his own gaze to enter the sick body, "looking around at it from inside" (emphasis mine).

Broyard's metaphorical revisioning of the gaze reveals the extent to which vision remains, despite its limitations, "the core component of the epistemophilic project" [Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, 1993]. The look as a way of knowing seems to offer a grounded, almost scientific form of accessing the "truth" of a situation that, in the case of terminal illness, is defined by a fundamental confusion about the very way in which the self can be known. Although the person with terminal illness lives in the dying body—experiencing disease not only in its visible manifestations on the body's surface but in its invisible assault on the nerves—that person often has no clearer sense of cause and effect than the observer who looks on from without. Indeed, part of the horror of critical illness can be located in its invisibility; because the gradual weakening of arteries to the heart or the slow spread of cancer from one organ to another often occurs invisibly, the person with terminal illness may "know" the disease within the body only by constructing it in the mind. The unpredictability of illness may emerge in the subject's experience of disease as a foreign agent within the self; frequently, that agency seems more powerful and more incontestable precisely because it refuses to make itself known directly. Broyard invites his doctor "inside" his condition so that he might "figure out what it feels like to be me"; in the process of imaging the other's entrance into the body, however, Broyard lends Dr. Sacks the power of a gaze the absence of which defines his own experience of his illness.

The disjunction between these two experiences of the diseased body emerges in the imagistic fracturing of Broyard's self. Rather than portraying Sacks looking "at me" from the inside, Broyard portrays him looking "at it," something distinct from Broyard himself. Indeed, Broyard imagines himself embodied within his body, holding Sacks's hand, both of them staring wonderingly at the strange structure around them. To say that the healthy subject does not experience itself as embodied is less true than to say that the healthy subject often naturalizes a particular, familiar body as a material extension of the self. When that body is denaturalized in the course of a critical illness, its object status is exaggerated not only for others but for the embodied subject who experiences him/herself through it. Because illness fractures the symbolic unity between the self and the body, the sick person experiences the physical self as a stranger in the mirror, while the sense of the "true" embodied self remains as an ineradicable sense memory. It is this ghostly physical self of Broyard (I in my body as I know it) that holds hands with Sacks, and helps him understand the diseased body in which he lives. In figuring out "what it feels like to be me," Sacks must relate to the embodied self within yet separate from the self's body; he must understand the fragmentation of embodied identity fundamental to the experience of illness.

Because the unity or coherence of embodied identity is always to some degree illusory, the healthy subject's temporary experience of fragmentation constitutes a very real threat to its sustaining illusion of stability; the healing gaze that Broyard images unsettles subject and object oppositions in part by exposing the terminal aspect of every human life. In her discussion of the abject, Kristeva comments on the threat posed by the collapsing of boundaries between death and life, illness and health, the dying body and its apparently healthy counterpart:

No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border….

In The Father, it is through eroticized language that Olds charts the difficulty of first connecting with and then extricating her body from her father's, of "thrusting aside" not only the visible signs of illness but the very experience of her own mortality. The problematic construction of identity that Bedient describes is thus embodied in the dynamics of disease that bring to a crisis the poet's connection with and separation from her father. The uneven distribution of power that marks the projection of the healthy gaze onto the diseased body can be repaired only by an imaginative merging that refuses—however tempo rarily—the empowerment of extrication. The "eroticization of abjection" that Kristeva describes as a means of holding off the Other within the self can also, as Olds reveals, be turned to its opposite: Olds's use of a sexual vocabulary describes the intimacy of moments in which the subject not only projects the gaze onto an object but intermingles with it.

"The Lifting" traces Olds's reaction when her father attempts to direct the gaze that renders him object in "The Waiting." When he exposes his naked body before his daughter's eyes, he not only receives but commands her look:

Suddenly my father lifted up his nightie, I
turned my head away but he cried out
Shar!, my nickname, so I turned and looked.
He was sitting in the high cranked-up bed with the
gown up, around his neck,
to show me the weight he had lost. I looked
where his solid ruddy stomach had been
and I saw the skin fallen into loose
soft hairy rippled folds
lying in a pool of folds
down at the base of his abdomen,
the gaunt torso of a big man
who will die soon.

Sitting high above his daughter on the "cranked-up bed" with his gown around his neck, Olds's father renders himself completely exposed to the look. Not only inviting but commanding his daughter's gaze, he thrusts his dying body in the line of her vision; as he does so, he upsets both the sexual dynamics of looking and the distribution of power conventionally associated with the gaze.

The healthy gaze that would distance and separate itself from the abject is here forced to focus upon the corporeal immediacy of a body revealed in all its material excess. Although Olds's desire to turn away from her father's nakedness seems to issue from a sense of sexual decorum, the marks of disease overwhelm the signs of sexuality written on her father's body. In the course of being visually drawn toward the naked body from which she would have turned away, her gaze moves first not to the penis but to the signs of disease written on her father's sagging belly. Whereas the "solid ruddy stomach" of a healthy man reflects the gaze of desire, the gathered folds of abdominal skin that confront Olds mark the visible motion of her father's body toward death. Looking at his naked body, she is confronted not with the difference of his sex but with a transforming, almost androgynous body; even as the signs of emaciation on her father's body draw Olds's eye away from the penis, the "loose / soft hairy rippled folds" of skin on her father's stomach evoke the presence of female rather than male genitalia.

Despite the way that the father's radical assertion of agency in "The Lifting" distinguishes his presence from his purely material manifestation in the opening poem of the volume, he continues to exist here as an object of the gaze. Offering himself up to his daughter's vision even as he commands her look, Olds's father reveals that he can no longer construct himself as subject without apprehending himself as object. His desire to look at himself and to be looked at is a mark of both the separation that he feels from his material being and his desire to know himself in that being. No longer able to present his body as a sign of his subjectivity, his health, his fitness, Olds's father loses control of both the visible surfaces that would announce his embodied presence and the interpretive system that allows others to read him through his body.

In directing his daughter's look, Olds's father appropriates her vision to reclaim his status as subject of the gaze as well as its object. Forced in "The Waiting" to know himself as the object of a gaze that rendered him as artifact, in "The Lifting" Olds's father attempts to direct and participate in the look that he cannot avoid. As he pushes his wasting torso into the line of his daughter's gaze, the father violates the conventions of decorum to implicate himself in his body; his "rueful smile" and "castup eyes" signify the bemused uneasiness with which he reveals the unfamiliar object that his body has become. In inviting his daughter's "interested" gaze, Olds's father asks her to share in his own fascinated and uneasy response to a body that is both his and not his; his distance from a body transformed by illness allows him, along with his daughter, to marvel at its presence even as his discomfort registers "the lifting" as an act of exposure.

In commanding his daughter's gaze, Olds's father cultivates the distance of her look as a means of negotiating the gap that he experiences between his presence as body and embodied subject. If the experience of the person with terminal illness is defined by the ever-present body, the epistemology of sight is trapped within a material dynamic that accesses subjectivity only through the visible aspects of that body. As long as the gaze sees as its object a diseased body but not the diseased person's experience of embodiment, the look only perpetuates the dislocation experienced by the person with terminal illness. In cultivating his daughter's look, Olds's father asks her not to reverse the process of the medical gaze that Foucault describes but to redefine its dynamics so that the father can be known through his body without being reduced to it. He asks her not to see him in spite of his illness—abstracting the illness out of the subject in the way that the medical gaze might abstract the patient out of the body—but rather to locate him in the unfamiliar body that literally and figuratively frames his existence.

The experience of illness denaturalizes the body that had come to signify Olds's father's identity, rendering that body unfamiliar and disconnected at the very moment that it asserts its presence as absolute. The person with terminal illness experiences the fissure that opens up between the body and the embodied subject as a gap that may blur distinctions not only between subject and body but between one subject and another, between one body and another. Entrapped within a changing body that no longer pretends to function as an essential manifestation of his subjective presence, Olds's father looks along with her at a body that both may claim but which necessarily belongs to neither. As his tumors grow larger and more visible and his body grows gaunter and more unfamiliar, Olds's father finds himself absolutely connected to a body that seems as alien to him as the body of a distant relative, an old woman, a friend.

In exposing the contingency of the subject's relationship to the body, illness also renders malleable the problematic subject/object dynamics of the gaze. Like the patient in Broyard's essay who holds the hand of his doctor as both look at the diseased body, Olds's father serves as both subject and object of his own look. In recognizing that his connection to the dying material body is inessential but absolutely determining, Olds's father gives up the claim to agency that often accompanies the assertion of subjectivity. At the same time, however, the father's admission that his body fails to speak for, signify and enact his will as subject leads to a new flexibility that also allows him to defy the status of pure object.

In "The Lifting," the power dynamics of looking that depend upon the distance between subject and object begin to dissolve, along with the perceived essential connection between subjects and bodies, opening up the possibility of using the gaze as a means of forging new connections rather than asserting difference. As he draws her look onto his wasting torso, Olds's father becomes the subject of the look as well as its object; as she confronts his starkly naked form, she finds herself written there as well:

…. Right away
I saw how much his hips are like mine,
the long, white angles, and then
how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter's,
a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
I saw the folds of skin like something
poured, a thick batter, I saw
the rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
shows me his old body, he knows
I will be interested, he knows I will find him
appealing. If anyone had ever told me
I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
and I would look at him, at his naked body,
at the thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair, look at him
in affection and uneasy wonder
I would not have believed it.

If the power of the viewing subject depends upon pleasure in looking and mastery over the object of the gaze, Olds finds herself disempowered; when Olds's father commands the look and directs it onto his dying body, Olds sees her mortality rather than her desire mirrored in the object of the gaze. Caught unaware, Olds is the subject of a look that is not preformulated, distanced or empowered; in a flash of recognition, she sees her father stripped down almost to his bones and finds those bones shockingly familiar. As illness wears away at her father's flesh, what remains is not the stark sign of essential sexual difference but the long angles of hips that the speaker compares to her own and the shared curve of a pelvis "shaped like my daughter's, / a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out."

Gaylyn Studlar's In the Realm of Pleasure (1988), a study of the masochistic esthetic in film, explores the way that an object can function as a subject; she traces the disruption of a mastering vision to the presence of characters in film who return the look of the audience, who become subjects of the gaze themselves. In The Father, the subject of the gaze identifies herself with its object; as Olds recognizes the continuity between her body and her father's, her sympathetic look undermines the distance that underlies the process of objectification. In finding herself in her father's emaciated body, Olds claims that body for him; embracing his bones, she locates herself in this almost-skeleton, resignifying the materiality that threatens to erupt from within as a mark of the link between father and daughter and a sign of shared mortality. Olds's gaze probes beneath the changing surfaces of her father's body to unearth a sameness, a continuity invisible even to him; in acknowledging connection rather than maintaining separation, her form of visual essentialism locates identity in a body that seems to speak difference to the very person who experiences his world through it.

"The Lifting," then, offers a version of the look that Mary Ann Doane has defined in another context as "the female gaze." In "The Clinical Eye; Medical Discourses in the 'Woman's Film' of the 1940s" [in The Female Body in Western Culture, 1985], Doane describes a form of "female spectatorship" that aligns women's way of looking with an apparent excess of emotion, sentiment and empathy:

From this perspective, the female gaze exhibits, in contrast to male distance, a proximity to the image which is the mark of over-identification and hence, of a heightened sympathy. But the concept of sympathy is a physiological one as well, of particular interest to the female subject…. Sympathy connotes a process of contagion within the body, or between bodies, an instantaneous communication and affinity…. Unable to negotiate the distance which is a prerequisite to desire and its displacements, the female spectator is always, in some sense, constituted as a hysteric.

The medical films that Doane addresses encourage the female spectator to reject a sympathetic "feminine" way of looking in favor of a "masculine" clinical gaze; the woman who fails to do so is diagnosed with "the paradigmatic female disease" of hysteria, a disease characterized, in Doane's formulation, by a body so completely in sympathy with a psyche that there is no differentiation between them.

If the medical films that Doane describes are constructed to contain the female spectator's "over-identification" and "heightened sympathy" with the object of the gaze, in "The Lifting" Olds expresses the radical consequences of the sympathetic look. In this poem, the "process of contagion … between bodies" manifests itself in the dissolution of distance between the healthy subject and her diseased counterpart, the female looker and the male object of the gaze. Because Olds's look claims a connection with her father's emaciated body, she is able to gaze with "uneasy wonder" not only at her father's naked form but "at the thick bud of his penis in all that / dark hair." Although Olds transgresses cultural norms that would prohibit a grown daughter from looking at her father's genitalia, her identification with her father's dying body emerges as a much more dangerous consequence of the act of looking than any incestuous desire. Having exposed herself to the contagion of mortality, Olds, like Doane's female spectator, finds herself moved out of a cycle of desire and displacement predicated upon the distance of the gaze. If, as Doane argues, the danger of female looking is contained in the diagnosis of hysteria, a disease in which there is no differentiation between body and psyche, then in "The Lifting" the radical potential of sympathetic looking is realized in a gaze that blurs the boundaries between bodies and psyches so thoroughly that the subject/object dynamics of looking are undermined. Although critics like Bedient read Olds's sympathy as a form of sexual hysteria culminating in her "ghoulish, erotic deathwatch of her father," what emerges as truly radical is the motion of this poem away from the erotic power dynamics of the gaze and into a form of looking as subjective intermingling.

In "The Last Day," Olds finds herself confronted once again with the sight of her father's naked, wasting body. This time, however, her father's motion toward the purely material is exaggerated by his lapse into unconsciousness. Literally unable to present or obscure himself before the look, Olds's father becomes the object not only of the medical gaze but of his daughter's penetrating stare. As Olds gazes unchecked into her father's open mouth, the reader registers with forceful immediacy the intima cy of looking:

The daylight was shining into his mouth,
I could see a flake, upright, a limbless
figure, on his tongue, shudder with each
breath. The sides of his tongue were dotted with
ovals of mucus like discs of soft ivory,
I sat and gazed into his mouth….

Having lost all power to control or direct the look, Olds's father collapses into a body violable in its slackness. The powerful sunlight that shines into his mouth, rendering every oval of mucus and drop of spittle visible to the eye, highlights the extent to which Olds's father is unable to arrange himself before the look. The potential horror of such exposure emerges in Olds's image of the limbless figure perched upright on her father's tongue, denied any language but an inarticulate shudder.

In looking at her father, Olds carries on his wish to look at himself. She turns to the gaze in an attempt to place her father, to locate him in the unfamiliar matter of his dying body: "I sat and gazed into his mouth, I had / never understood and I did not / understand it now, the body and the spirit." Unwilling to discard the body before her as a mere shell of a spirit soon to be liberated, Olds keeps her vigil by entering into and merging with her father's body, penetrating past its surfaces into mucous and saliva. Matter issuing from the orifices of the body, in Mary Douglas's words [in Purity and Danger, 1969], emerges as "marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body." When her father's unconscious form begins to challenge Olds's sympathetic gaze, her look forces past the boundaries of her father's body, moving closer and closer to the "physiological" concept of sympathy that Doane describes as "a process of contagion … between bodies." Although Olds perceives her father's body at its most abject and encroaching, she allows her gaze to be pulled in and, in Doane's terms, infected by his embodied mortality.

In the final moments of her father's dying, then, Olds's gaze emerges as increasingly embodied. Having given up the strict separation of subject and object that would allow her to declare her difference and her distance from her father's dying body—to "extricate" herself, in Kristeva's terms—Olds "stay[s] bent" before him, varying her posture and repositioning her own body to accommodate the object of her gaze. Although Olds does not inhabit the ailing body that frames her father's every breath, her identification with him emerges when the source of her gaze is unveiled; whereas in "The Waiting" the father "would wait with that burnished, looked-at look" for his daughter's gaze, in "The Last Day" it is Olds who "wait[s] and wait[s] for the next breath," her own vision trapped in the material origin of a cramped body. Having seen herself in her father's dying body, Olds sacrifices a gaze that objectifies and masters for an embodied look that is no more omniscient than she is immortal.

Olds responds to the nurse's silent announcement of her father's death by literally abolishing the distance between her body and his:

I put my head on the bed beside him
and breathed and he did not breathe, I breathed and
breathed and he darkened and lay there,
my father.

Despite her physical proximity to her father, Olds is thrust further and further away from him; the gap between her living body and his silent form expands with each of her breaths. When Olds's imaginative merging with her father collapses under the force of his silent breathlessness, Olds is thrust back into her own pulsing body; for the first time, Olds's father emerges as the object that he has figuratively threatened to become throughout the volume.

Whereas Olds's gaze contributed to her father's objectification in the opening poem of the volume, the concluding lines of the poem recounting his death show Olds turning to the gaze as a means of locating her father in the inanimate form before her. When she turns to her father's lifeless body, Olds's look is less a distanced, detached gaze than a touch, a caress:

…. I laid my hand on his chest
and I looked at him, at his eyelashes
and the pores of his skin, cracks in his lips,
dark rose-red inside the mouth,
springing hair deep in his nose, I
moved his head to set it straight on the pillow,
it moved so easily, and his ear,
gently crushed for the last hour,
unfolded in the air.

In a reversal of the conventional dynamics of the gaze, Olds uses the act of looking to negotiate the distance that physical closeness has exaggerated. Vision takes on an almost physical quality as Olds's gaze fills the gaps and sutures the wounds of the body's surface.

In an earlier poem, "Last Acts," Olds describes her desire to wash her father's face before he dies, to enter along with the cloth she holds the dips and valleys of his pores as a way of pushing past the boundaries between them. "The Last Day" recasts that act of touching into a look; in doing so, it challenges assumptions about the dynamics of looking articulated by Irigaray in her argument about the gaze: "[The gaze] sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations" [Quoted in Robert Stam's Subversive Pleasures, 1989]. Olds never eschews the gaze's focus on the body's surface to find another epistemological entry into her father's being; instead, her own gaze risks the intimacy of embodiment to overcome the "impoverishment of bodily relations" that Irigaray connects with the distance of the look. As Olds's penetrating gaze enters the cracks in her father's lips and the pores of his skin, she responds to the margins of his body not as contaminating surfaces but as points of material and emotional interface. Physical proximity yields distance whereas the kind of intimacy that Olds renders elsewhere in erotic terms surfaces here in the gaze.

When Olds looks at her father's lifeless body, the manipulative dynamics of the gaze become literalized in her ability to arrange and rearrange the pliant form before her. The gaze that in "The Waiting" reduces the speaker's living father to an artifact of her creation, however, here accesses the father's inanimate body through the frame of his absent agency. If seeing is always a form of creating, Olds's creation in this poem garners its authority not from her desire but from her father's. His body has literally become an object that she manipulates, but she has earned the right to do so; as she moves his head to set it straight on the pillow, she images her act as restoration rather than creation: "his ear, / gently crushed for the last hour, / unfolded in the air." The body that Olds rearranges as text is one that she owns exactly because she has owned up to it, one in which she can locate her father because she has located herself in it.

In an excerpt from his journal, Anatole Broyard observes:

What a critically ill person needs above all is to be understood. Dying is a misunderstanding you have to get straightened out before you go. And you can't be understood, your situation can't be appreciated, until your family and friends, staring at you with an embarrassed love, know—with an intimate, absolute knowledge—what your illness is like.

Broyard's formulation of the sympathetic gaze as an "embarrassed" stare reflects the way that the death-watch both invokes and unsettles the dynamics of looking. Olds's discomfort as her father thrusts his naked body before her eyes reveals the consequences of the kind of look that Broyard invites here; such viewing is experienced as intrusive rather than distancing, as disturbing rather than empowering. If the erotic gaze sometimes lends the view ing subject intimate access to the object of desire, seeing the person with terminal illness may result in a form of uncomfortable intimacy that implicates the viewer in the experience of mortality. Broyard's description of the "embarrassed" look acknowledges the inherent difficulties of such sympathetic seeing but calls for a viewer who "stares" through such embarrassment with an unflinching, directed gaze. Such an "embarrassed" stare expresses both power and powerlessness, interest and fear, discomfort and affection. Bridging the gap between the dying and the living must involve such a radical and almost contradictory unsettling of power relations; if the look is to become a means of restoring rather than disrupting connection, the viewing subject must sacrifice the distance and autonomy of the healthy gaze by refusing the empowerment of extrication. In becoming a means of locating the presence of the embodied subject in the dying body, the death-watcher dissolves the subject/object dynamics of the gaze until the healthy subject is forced to acknowledge its own mortality, and the watcher becomes the watched.

Lucy McDiarmid (review date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Private Parts: Sharon Olds's Poems Don't Shy Away from Physicality," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 15.

[McDiarmid is an American educator and editor. In the following review of The Wellspring, she discusses Olds's celebration of the body.]

If the body electric that Whitman sang were set in one of Eavan Boland's domestic interiors, and addressed with the affectionate wisdom of Donald Hall, it might become the kind of body Sharon Olds celebrates in The Wellspring—sensual, familiar, beloved. These new poems, her fifth collection, describe the poet's "apprenticeship to the mortal" from her prenatal memories through adult sexuality, from "My First Weeks" through "Celibacy at Twenty" to "True Love."

The bodies she writes about—her mother's, father's, lovers', children's, husband's—exist with all their genetic histories and reproductive organs fully visible to the poet. To visit her mother's college is to remember a time when "Half of me / was deep in her body, dyed egg / with my name on it"; to consider the zipper of her son's outgrown jeans is to remember that he "had waited inside me so many years, his / egg in my side before I was born, / and he sprang fresh in his father that morning." In "The Source" Ms. Olds imagines her father's testicles ("My brothers / and sisters are there, swimming by the cinerous / millions"), as, in "Eggs" (from an earlier volume, The Dead and the Living), she had imagined her daughter's ovaries.

Perhaps it's her California background that enables Ms. Olds to write without any apparent cultural memory of Puritan taboos. The double body of her parents engaged in intercourse has long been a composite muse for her poetry. In "My Father Speaks to Me From the Dead," the final poem of The Father, her cremated father speaks to her with a new wisdom "where I have been / I understand this life, I am matter, / your father, I made you." In "The Wellspring" Ms. Olds at first visualizes with disdain her mother's temperature chart, "the little x on the / rising line."

But when a friend was pouring wine
and said that I seem to have been a child who had been wanted,
I took the wine against my lips
as if my mouth were moving along
that valved wall in my mother's body, she was
bearing down, and then breathing from the mask, and then
bearing down, pressing me out into
the world that was not enough for her without me in it.

Because Ms. Olds cannot imagine her parents loving each other, she rewrites her conception to attribute to each parent, singly, a desire for her birth. These genetic and obstetric intimacies must stand in for the missing nuclear family.

The family invoked in the dedication of The Wellspring ("For our daughter and son") and in many of its poems may have made possible the poet's revisionist reading of her own childhood. The wellspring of the title is human love envisioned as a fluid source of life. Thus it is no accident that the idea of herself as a child her mother wanted occurs "when a friend was pouring wine," or that (in "The Source") she thinks of herself during intercourse as "the glass of sourmash / my father lifted to his mouth." The bliss of being breast-fed meant that "every four / hours I could have the world in my mouth."

It is not easy to sustain without sentimentality a vision that could turn into a paean to family values. The Wellspring sustains it for many reasons, among them the chanting rhythms of the line that make each poem a miniature somatic ritual. And like Whitman, Ms. Olds sings the body in celebration of a power stronger than political oppression. To Whitman, the slave at auction was "the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns, / In him the start of populous states and rich republics." In poems from The Dead and the Living Ms. Olds made a lament of that trope, mourning the starving Russian girl in a 1921 photograph by imagining that "Deep in her body / the ovaries let out her first eggs," and seeing in the penis of a murdered Armenian boy "the source / of the children he would have had."

In the new poem "May 1968," a revisiting of the famous student protest at Columbia, Ms. Olds's own body lying on the street becomes a site of resistance:

As "May 1968" moves from the confrontational politics of the campus to the ultrasonic vision of the protester's womb, the occasional poem turns into a lullaby. It is a sign of the complexity of Sharon Olds's vision that the pregnant body, all that domestic future of cribs and birthday parties latent within it, can still be the body militant.

Brian Sutton (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: "Olds's 'Sex Without Love'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 177-80.

[In the following essay, Sutton analyzes thematic and stylistic contrasts in the poem "Sex Without Love."]

Sharon Olds's frequently anthologized poem "Sex Without Love" gains power through three contrasts: a contrast between surface approval and deeper criticism of "the ones who make love / without love"; a contrast between emotional coldness and physical heat; and a contrast between the poem's solemn, philosophical tone and its reliance on sexually graphic puns.

Many images within the poem appear to suggest that the speaker admires people who partake of sex without love. They are almost immediately described as being "beautiful as dancers," and later are compared with ice-skaters, "the true religious / the purists, the pros," and "great runners." All of these comparisons seem, at first glance, favorable.

Those whose sex is loveless seem to be favorably portrayed in another respect as well: They are described as purer and more profound than ordinary lovers. We are told that they are "the ones who will not / accept a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God." Here, ordinary lovers seem at best unenlightened, at worst heretical, while those whose sex does not involve love seem holier, more theologically insightful because their highest urges are not grounded in the physical. And after comparing the loveless sex partners to "great runners," the speaker points out that these runners do not, finally, race against other runners but against their "own best time"—an approach which seems deeper and more refined than that of the typical runner.

But when the images are examined more closely within the context of the poem, the speaker's attitude emerges as far less approving. As Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz point out [in their Instructor's Manual to Accompany Literature: The Human Experience, 1996], "while [the images] do express admiration, it is the admiration for a virtually nonhuman … obsession with self." There is, after all, something narcissistic in the performance of fine dancers and ice skaters; the runners, in their concern with their "own best time," ignore their fellow humans in the race; and "the ones who will not / … love the / priest instead of the God," their surface purity notwithstanding, choose the abstract and reject the human. Thus, Olds suggests that the loveless sexual partners lack human warmth: They are "gliding over each other like ice-skaters / over the ice," and like great runners, they are "alone / with … the cold."

To underscore the partners' emotional coldness, Olds contrasts it with the physical heat they generate during sex. They are described as having "faces red as / steak"—an image which emphasizes the heat of the moment and yet, paradoxically, reduces the sexual partner to the status of a piece of raw meat. Later, there is an image of "light / rising slowly as steam off their joined / skin." Yet remarkably, the sexual techniques which have created all this heat are portrayed implicitly as impersonal if not downright hostile: The partners are described as having "fingers hooked / inside each other's bodies."

Even more jarring is the image used to portray the partners' sweat in the heat of passion: They are "wet as the / children at birth whose mothers are going to / give them away." This image dramatizes the ultimate refusal to acknowledge emotional attachment as a consequence of sexual intercourse. Moreover, as Abcarian and Klotz note, since the partners are compared not to the rejecting mother but to the rejected children, they are portrayed as "people [who] have been cut off from a profound source of our humanity."

But perhaps the strongest implicit condemnation of the loveless sexual partners is expressed in lines 8 through 11:

The jagged, insistent rhythm of line 9, with each repetition of "come to the" set off by extra spaces, surely mimics the rhythmic thrusting and heavy breathing of the sexual partners (the heavy breathing being another link to the runners, dancers, and ice skaters). The word "God," also set off by extra spaces, is further isolated and emphasized because it breaks the rhythm of the repeated dactylic phrase "come to the" with a spondee. Thus, "God" not only is the grammatical object of "come to the," but also stands alone as the loveless sex partners' orgasmic moan. Given the imagery of these lines, and especially the fact that the partners will "not love / the one who came there with them," the statement two lines later that these partners "will not love / the priest instead of the God" seems much more negative. For just as the priest helps people to reach God, so the unloved sexual partner has helped the person who engages in sex without love to reach orgasm. Thus, implicitly, the "God" that the sexual partners love, and seek to reach, is orgasm itself.

Besides exemplifying the contrast of emotional coolness with physical heat and the contrast of surface approval with deeper condemnation, lines 8 through 11 also exemplify the third contrast: that between the poem's solemn philosophical questions and its reliance on sexual puns. In these lines, of course, the pun involves the word "come," as the speaker questions how the sex partners can come to God/orgasm and to the "still waters" (suggesting not only the Twenty-third Psalm but also the calm after the wetness leading to and climaxing in orgasm) without loving "the one who came there with them."

The poem also begins and ends with sexual puns. When the poem begins "How do they do it, the ones who make love / without love?" the question has to do not only with the separation of sexual intimacy from emotional commitment, but also with sexual methods. The poem's later description of impersonal sexual techniques tells exactly how they "do it," in both senses of those words. And in the final lines, where the loveless sex partners are compared with great runners, those runners are concerned not with other human beings but with "the fit" (of their shoes, admittedly), as well as with "the truth, which is the / single body alone in the universe / against its own best time." The final line echoes thousands of messages on bathroom walls about phone numbers to call "for a good time."

But even if the persons described in Olds's poem do call others "for a good time," emotionally they are always alone, even when engaging in sex with someone else; their partners, priestlike, may have helped them to reach their orgasmic God, but their focus is entirely on their solitary enjoyment of that God.

Harold Schweizer (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: "The Matter and Spirit of Death," in Suffering and the Remedy of Art, State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 171-84.

[Schweizer is an educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the therapeutic aspects of the poems in The Father, concluding that the volume "is a book in search of a catharsis and clarification of fear and pity."]

Sharon Olds' poetic sequence The Father records her father's death from cancer. Each breath, cough, spit of mucus, and stool is accounted for. The book is obsessed with waiting, with breathing, with bodily functions of the most intimate and ultimate kind, as if the poet wanted to wrest a secret from the slow process of dying, being present to her father's dying so as not to miss the split second when the secret might leap out of the body. The book lingers, at times with an astonishing patience and insistence, particularly over the exact moment of his death, which is the title of one poem. Olds releases her father slowly and with costly tenderness, letting go only after he has begged for it in the manner of Jacob. The book is a work in slow motion, an anticipatory and retrospective grieving, a pity and fear, all in ritual passage reminiscent of the monastic schedule, with the poems bearing such titles as "The Waiting," "The Pulling," "The Lumens," "His Stillness," "The Want," "The Lifting," and so forth.

Above all, the book is about matter. Olds seems to learn with relief that that is all it is: "I have always longed to believe in what I am seeing." The father's death, where it might have most strongly called this longing into question, most strongly reconfirms it. Indeed, it seems as if the> suffering and death of the father was a last occasion to prove that truth must be in the particular, in the body, not in the soul, in history, not beyond it.

The line ending on "his body rises …" may offer a momentary illusion or allusion to the body rising from the dead, but it is the law of matter that seeks its destiny, breath not spirit, matter not metaphor. Father and daughter lie not in heaven but "somewhere on the outskirts / of the garden of Eden…."

I wish I could say I saw a long
shapely leg pull free from the chrysalis, a
wet wing, a creature unfold and
fly out through the window, but he died down
into his body….

The spiritual does become—perhaps necessarily if matter wants to be truth—the narrative's dialectical opponent; it has to be called forth to be called off. How else could one say that the body is enough, other than that the poet, having known her father "soulless" all her childhood, would have descended and looked for his soul if he could have been helped? But since these possibilities are denied, even salvation will be absorbed by matter. Will matter shine with its own salvation? Will salvation matter?

The book begins and ends with matter, frames its argument with matter and with all of its declensions and conjugations, as noun and verb, material and moral truth. The opening reference to Genesis where the father is "night / watchman of matter, sitting facing / the water—the earth without form, and void, / darkness upon the face of it, as if / waiting for his daughter"—makes a grand, perhaps intentionally too grand, announcement of a romantic creative rivalry between God and daughter, spirit and matter. The daughter is not always creator of her own world and language and, being subject to the father-God's breath, she is also subject to the father's uncreative powers: "I was an Eve / he took and pressed back into clay…." That the daughter survives is only due to the stronger power of death. Death is the daughter's liberator.

In retrospect one realizes that even the very first line of the book—"No matter how early I would get up …" announces, allusively, the matter of this book. But while this is a book about matter its purpose is thoroughly redemptive: it is to redeem the clay into which he had pressed her. The body of her dying father is the site of redemption. The last page closes with the father's voice from the dead, "I am matter, / your father …" framing, thematizing this book in between whose covers there is the body of the father, still or restless, first sitting, then lying, then sinking down, in pain and in sleep, all minutely observed. There is a veritable poetics, a creative theory, in the father's relentless decline deeper into body and ash and earth and the daughter's rising, not higher, but also deeper into her conviction that soul is nothing, matter all, and yet that death can do what life undid. The bitter memories of what life undid, or what the father did, accelerate their appearance in the second part of the book. The book therefore, one senses, is a last chance of healing and helping what could never be healed or helped in life.

Each poem is a measurement of minute increments of time, of inexorable, irreparable progress, granting only the smallest reprieves and returns to previous scenes and settings. There is only one seeming remission when the father "is better, he is dying a little more slowly"; otherwise the narrative of this sequence is obedient to the strict authority of time and disease and death. Many of the poems begin by marking time, "How early …" "The last morning …" "Every hour …" "Now …" "… and there are three weeks left." "I waited …," and so forth. In the middle of the book, the book of waiting contracts to briefer increments of time. The diary of dying which had been a living with time, becomes now a living on the verge of timelessness. The question of whether one can continue where death ends looms somewhere in that intense narrow margin of time/lessness marked by the imminence of death. Then, after ten or so pages of return and repetition of death and reflection on the moment of death itself, time expands by leaps "Beyond Harm," "One Year" into the future where even memory is torn down ("The Motel") and the father's death not only recedes, but also rises up again in myth and dream.

The certainty of death is the book's telos from which it derives its assurance of arrival and survival as well as its style. The breath of the author is dependent first on the breath then on the death of the father, the matter of his breath and death is finally reflected by a style marked by lucid, factual clarity. Caring for the father is equally therapeutic for the daughter. Mutuality is one of the book's themes and is frequently encountered in the father's breathing, where the dauther discovers her dependency, the source of her own breathing and writing. Nor is there a question about authorship or reference or autobiography. The unproblematic analogy between life and art suggests instead that the death need not be, cannot be, transformed through art, and that art, likewise, seeks no transformative powers beyond being simply the power of witness and attendance, a being-there as factual as a back rub, although as much a labor of love. It is only in the latter part of the book, in what one might call the "memorypoems," where the desire for the indifference of matter leaves the remainder of an "unearned desire" and the incompletions of love.

The narrative contingency and continuance depends on seeing the father safely through to the fire, a resistance to the pull of death and a liberation from death. But eventually the achievement of the book, when the telos of the father's death has been consummated, is to continue continuance itself. The book therefore eventually asks the question: what writing can survive a death? How does one write after the most consummating narrative event? How does one write after one has written to the end? Perhaps that is why the sequence lingers at that latter point, returning to and rewriting and repeating the death until it releases the writer into freedom: "I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always / love me now, and I laughed—he was dead, dead!"

Many of the issues I have mentioned here in summary are addressed in a poem entitled "I Wanted to Be There When My Father Died." The title seems more idealistic than the qualification that follows immediately: "… because I wanted to see him die—." Indeed, The Father is a book almost exclusively of seeing. "I have always longed to believe in what I was seeing." It is a curious admission since it implies other beliefs, which are, presumably, tested out at the site of the father's dying and found wanting. It is here in "I Wanted to Be There …" that we learn one of the secret motivations of the poet's presence at her father's deathbed, a motivation that explains partially the distance implied in "seeing":

because I wanted to see him die—
and not just to know him, down to
the ground, the dirt of his unmaking, and not
just to give him a last chance
to give me something, or take his loathing

The dimensions of the daughter's relationship with the father and her childhood are present in other poems as well where we learn that if the daughter now has "nothing for him, no net, / no heaven to catch him," it is because he taught his daughter "only / the earth, night, sleep, the male / body in its beauty and fearsomeness." But besides fear she returns to him also pity. "The Look" gives one of the most moving examples. The last lines of the poem read:

In the balance of pity and fear, these remain cherished moments, encounters of which there is not much likeness, to my knowledge, in modern American poetry. The Father is a book in search of a catharsis and clarification of fear and pity, that they may be offered in right measure and balance. If Sharon Olds' book wants to be such an offering, the catharsis that the narrative ought to work out for its author remains one of the book's major labors, born in poem after poem, throughout the long summer of the father's dying. "All summer he had gagged, as if trying / to cough his whole esophagus out." We read on in "I Wanted to Be There …":

surely his pain and depression had appeased me,
and yet I wanted to see him die
not just to see no soul come
free of his body, no mucal genie of
spirit jump
forth from his mouth,
proving the body on earth is all we have got,
I wanted to watch my father die
because I hated him. Oh, I loved him,
my hands cherished him….

The Father is an articulation, a verbal extension of the "Oh," held precariously between the two forces of love and hatred, fear and pity. But eventually even the hands that cherished him will delegate their task to "other hands" into which it might be better to "commend this spirit," for not all issues between love and hatred have been, can be, resolved in poetry.

The hands that cherished him cherished the body, meaning the particular, the historical, Aristotle's "that which was." It is no body if it can be generalized, just as one cannot generalize caring, washing, nursing, helping, witnessing. Hence, the particularity of the descriptions and accounts of mucus, spit, and stool. Even the language of the poems follows the law of material truth: it avoids poeticizing this particular death, lest it might turn into Aristotle's poetic universals and thereby into a belying of individual suffering and dying. Thus, each poem, redescending into the labor of moments and situations, also refuses to let suffering, death, and caring become transformed into art.

What we admire in this volume is firstly not the art of writing but the art of nursing. What we admire must be first the exemplary moral determination and love of the daughter to nurse her father—she who "had stopped / longing for him to address [her] from his heart." Her father, we learn progressively, at times would not speak for a week, had never asked his daughter for anything, had never really looked at her, had regularly passed out on the couch in alcoholic stupor, and had only when he sickened turned to his wife and daughter. In spite of this grim record of her youth, there is not an instant of hesitation as the book begins—significantly "early"—in the daughter's moral determination. To the father she must have appeared like a Cordelia, proving in the numerous instances of closeness and intimacy a loyalty and affection rare and difficult.

He gargled, I got the cup ready,
I didn't vary the stroke, he spat, I
praised him, I let the full pleasure
of caressing my father come awake in my body,
and then I could touch him from deep in my heart….

Such attention, merging as it does pain with pleasure and matter with spirit, reconnects the world in its deepest fundamentality. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is in this poem that we find one of the epiphanies of the book, when the father momentarily responds with his "dark shining confiding eyes." If the world needs an ethical foundation, its beginnings would be in such small, intimate, and brief mergings of pleasure and pain. "This is the world where sex lives, the world / of the nerves, the world without church, / … outside the world of the moral" as Olds points out in "Death and Morality." The book is the record of the strategies of the will, of the small, small acts of attention, measured by the paced continuance of the sequence, by which this merging of pleasure and pain could be possible and consciously attended to. The originality of Olds' book is in the particularity of the death and deed, in which service she left behind, as Kierkegaard would say, both the category of ethics and of aesthetics. The Father tells of the incomprehensible category beyond. Olds' denial of spiritual revelation, her insistance on the body demands that the church find itself in hospitals rather than "far away, in a field," where one can hear "the distant hymns of a tentmeeting…."

Further Reading

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Beaver, Harold. "Snapshots and Artworks." The New York Times Book Review (March 18, 1984): 30.

Positive review of The Dead and the Living in which Beaver discusses the volume's focus on family themes.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Family Values." Poetry CLXIV, No. 1 (April 1994): 39-53.

Examines the treatment of family relationships in Olds's The Father and in the poetry of Laura Riding, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and Carol Muske.

Gregerson, Linda. Review of The Dead and the Living. Poetry CXLV, No. 1 (October 1984): 36-7.

Mixed review of The Dead and the Living in which Gregerson states that Olds's political poetry is exploitive, but that the poet is "an eloquent celebrant… of sexual love."

Hamill, Sam. "Lyric, Miserable Lyric (Or: Whose Dog Are You?)" The American Poetry Review 16, No. 5 (September-October 1987): 31-5.

Discusses the metrical structure of The Gold Cell.

Harris, Peter. Review of The Gold Cell. Virginia Ouarterly Review 64, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 262-76.

Finds the poems in The Gold Cell emotionally gripping, but questions whether the intensity of Olds's verse is merely sensationalistic.

Hudgins, Andrew. Review of The Gold Cell. The Hudson Review XL, No. 3 (Autumn 1987): 517-27.

Offers a mixed assessment of The Gold Cell, admiring its powerful imagery and narrative flow but faulting its haphazard structure and sensationalistic themes.

Keelan, Claudia. "That Which Is Towards." Poetry Flash, No. 247 (October-November 1993): 1, 4-5, 14-15.

Favorable review of The Father.

Kinzie, Mary. Review of The Dead and the Living. The American Poetry Review 13, No. 5 (September-October 1984): 41-3.

Examines Olds's use of language and metaphor in The Dead and the Living, comparing Olds's verse to poems by Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück.

Lesser, Rika. "Knows Father Best." The Nation, New York 255, No. 20 (December 14, 1992): 748-50.

Examines the autobiographical focus of The Father.

Libby, Anthnoy. "Fathers and Daughters and Mothers and Poets." The New York Times Book Review (March 22, 1987): 23.

Asserts that poems in The Gold Cell are hampered by Olds's preoccupation with morbidity, physicality, and brutality.

Matson, Suzanne. "Talking to Our Father: The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds." The American Poetry Review 18, No. 6 (November-December 1989): 35-41.

Comparative review of Olds's The Gold Cell and Adrienne Rich's Your Native Land, Your Life. Matson discusses Olds's use of metaphor as a means of articulating her painful and ambivalent feelings toward her father and as a strategy for healing.

McEwen, Christian. "Soul Substance." The Nation, New York 224, No. 14 (April 11, 1987): 472-75.

Mixed review of The Gold Cell in which McEwan offers general praise for Olds's poetry, but questions her fascination with voyeurism and her reliance on techniques employed in her previous books.

Mueller, Lisel. Review of Satan Says. Poetry CXXVIII, No. 3 (June 1981): 170-74.

Faults Olds's metaphors in Satan Says, but praises the emotional intensity of the volume.

Ostriker, Alicia. "The Tune of Crisis." Poetry CXLIX, No. 4 (January 1987): 231-37.

Praises Olds's use of intimate autobiographical details and vivid imagery in The Gold Cell.

Peseroff, Joyce. Review of Satan Says. The American Book Review 4, No. 2 (January-February 1982): 21-2.

Heralds Olds's treatment of female relationships and use of language in Satan Says.

Phelan, Peggy. "Intimations of Mortality." The Women's Review of Books I, No. 5 (February 1984): 16-17.

Offers a positive assessment of The Dead and the Living.

Pybus, Rodney. Review of The Matter of This World: New and Selected Poems. Stand Magazine 30, No. 1 (Winter 1988-89): 67-75.

Praises Olds's focus on physicality, autobiography, and parent-child relationships in The Matter of This World.

Yenser, Stephen. Review of The Gold Cell. The Yale Review 77, No. 1 (Autumn 1987): 140-47.

Examines stylistic and thematic elements of The Gold Cell, noting that the volume exemplifies a candid narrative handling of painful subject matter.

Zeidner, Lisa. "Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities." The New York Times Book Review (March 21, 1993): 14, 16.

Lauds the style and realism of The Father, but states that the work is "unusually narrow in focus."

Additional coverage of Olds's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 32, 39, 85; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; and Discovering Authors: Poets Module.

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Sharon Olds Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Olds, Sharon (Vol. 32)