SOURCE: "Snapshots and Artworks," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984, p. 30.
[Beaver is a German-born English critic, novelist, educator, and editor. In the following excerpt from a review of The Dead and the Living, he commends Olds on the intimacy and realism of her family portraits.]
[The Dead and the Living] is a family album prefaced by snapshots of the century's agonies—images of executions, race riots and gory death from Tulsa, Okla., to Chile and from Rhodesia to Iran. O.K., we can take it. At this theatrical distance we are not touched to the core.
The blazing white shirts of the white men are blanks on the page, looking at them is like looking at the sun, you could go blind.
But we do not go blind. Such horrors are thawed by the rhythm of words. They remain static conundrums to be puzzled out with a meditative gaze. Only when this photographic technique of intimate exposure is transferred to her family does Sharon Olds come into her own. It is the private scrutiny that shocks—the day of her mother's divorce, her first period, sex after childbirth, a 6-year-old boy's erection on the back seat of a car. Nothing is too personal, too intimate for such scrutiny.
The confidence of the best of these family portraits is astonishing. Only rarely does Miss Olds fall into cliché or sentimentality. Patterns are traced from grandfather to father to son—a family curse of "cruelty and oblivion" as relentless as that of the house of Atreus. Not that Miss Olds would make such gestures. She is consumed wholly by the present:
Hitler entered Paris the way my sister entered my room at night, sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees, held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and peed on me, knowing Mother would never believe my story.
That is the tone. Confidences are made without a trace of embarrassment but with a hint of sacrificial pride. Each family, as it were, harbors it own little Dachau. (Here a macabre form of modern self-regard creeps in.) The poet might dream of a perfect father in place of the real one with "his bad breath, / his slumped posture of failure," but the female is as ugly as the male: "Finally I just gave up and became my father."
This identification evolved into the brilliant "Poem to My Husband From My Father's Daughter," beginning:
I have always admired your courage. 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…. You are fearless, you enter him as a woman, my sex like a wound in his body, you flood your seed in his life as me.
Even her 6-year-old son is a killer:
Whenever there's a lull in the action, my son sights along his invisible sights and picks things off…. Everything becomes a target— cops topple, a whole populace falls as he aims, yet I know this boy, kind and tender. He whirls and lets them have it.
Leaving an arms exhibit at a museum,
he can't resist, and before my eyes, down the stairs, over and over, clutching his delicate unprotected chest, Gabriel dies, and dies.
So the theme spills over from the public to the private and so to the children themselves. It corrodes the century. Yet Sharon Olds is no Sylvia Plath. Her "bad grandfather" who "wouldn't feed us" and her Hitler entering...
(This entire section contains 791 words.)
Paris are the stuff of very private, generous ruminations. They are not the cries of a soul in torment. What lingers is not horror, but laughter—her grandmother's cackling crack-corn laugh when taken on an outing from her nursing home or the poet's own amused celebration of her son's birthday party, which he and his friends transform into something between a bankers' conference and a war game:
I could beat youup, a seven says to a six, the dark cake, round and heavy as a turret, behind them on the table. My son, freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks, chest narrow as the balsa keel of a model boat, long hands cool and thin as the day they guided him out of me, speaks up as a host for the sake of the group.We could easily kill a two-year-old, he says in his clear voice. The other men agree, they clear their throats like Generals, they relax and get down to playing war, celebrating my son's life.
When the confessional drive is tamed to such life studies, it is not the agony we are likely to remember but the persistent comedy of human love.
Sharon Olds 1942–
The following entry provides an overview of Olds's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32 and 39.
Olds is a highly regarded, prizewinning poet who uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic and political violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse she examines her roles as daughter and mother, and her painfully ambivalent memories of her parents are rendered in uncompromising, often sexually explicit, language. In other poems Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for the victims of war and political violence. For many critics, Olds's seamless linkage of domestic and public abuse indicates the universal scope of her compassion and poetic vision.
Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. In 1964 she completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and in 1972 received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. 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's first volume of poetry, Satan Says (1980), conveys the primal emotions produced by child abuse. In the title poem Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of rage toward her parents. However, in purging herself of violent emotions, the narrator moves unexpectedly towards love and reconciliation. In The Dead and the Living (1984), which was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1984 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, Olds expands her focus on her traumatic childhood to include poems tenderly depicting the activities of her children and her own role as a mother. Her concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended to the public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. Similar themes pervade The Gold Cell (1987), which likewise emphasizes sexuality, the primacy of the body, and family life. In The Father (1992) Olds expresses her grief and compassion for her father during his death from cancer, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent.
For many critics, Olds's predilection for sexual description and horrific subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of the narrator and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers. Others, while recognizing the struggle for forgiveness and redemption in her work, contend that it exhibits a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. In spite of these objections, Olds's poetry has been widely praised for its compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences. Frequently associated with the confessional school of poetry, Olds has attained the status of a major figure in contemporary American poetry.
SOURCE: A review of The Dead and the Living, in The Iowa Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 151-61.
[Wright is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Dead and the Living, she praises Olds's use of unadorned, concrete description to evoke sympathy and love in scenes of domestic violence and trauma.]
This second book [The Dead and the Living] by Sharon Olds, the 1983 winner of the Lamont Award, is a powerful follow-up to Satan Says, fulfilling all the expectations that first book raised. Grace Paley has said in an interview that "the act of illumination is political … the act of bringing justice into the world a little bit": by bringing into the light lives that have been (to use Paley's words) "unseen, unknown, in darkness," Olds has both revealed and redeemed the most painful portions of her private and public lives, and celebrated that which has brought her a palpable, full-bodied joy. By confronting her own "darkness" fairly, Olds has affirmed the humanity of those who engendered that darkness, and shown herself, in these days of sensationalized telling-all for lucrative book contracts, to be a poet of affirmation. To draw a parallel with nonfiction, we could say that Olds' poetry about family is more in the spirit of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception than of Christine Crawford's Mommie Dearest.
As is already apparent, Olds' focus in these new poems is on themes which continue to preoccupy her—familial relationships, both those in which the speaker is daughter or granddaughter, and those in which she is wife and mother. In spite of many celebratory and humorous poems (especially in the sections of the book devoted to her chosen family—her husband and children), the dominant impression of the collection's first half is somber-hued, like that of a gallery of Old Master family portraits darkening with age. In what must have been poems difficult to write, Olds gives us, in passages seasoned with anger and leavened with compassion, the cruel, hard-drinking grandfather; the submissive grandmother; the elder sister who shockingly tormented her when they were children, knowing their mother "would never believe [the] story"; the brother who as an adult is still "sending his body to hell," in a protracted attempt at suicide; the mother who "took it and / took it in silence, all those years, and then / kicked [her husband] out, suddenly, and her / kids loved it"; and the father himself, especially the father, with his double bourbons and child abuse—tying his daughters to chairs, denying his son dinner, slapping the glasses off their faces. In the magnitude of what she has to forgive, and the courage, honesty, and gentleness with which she treats the details of the familial nexus, Olds brings a little more justice into the world, and also provides us with a sympathetic view of human love persisting in spite of cruelty and emotional trauma. There is much in the complexity of nuance and interrelation of characters, moreover, in these poems, that reminds us of a good collection of short fiction; as such, these poems are accessible and believable in the same way that fiction is. Olds does not stand outside or above the people in her poems; she speaks out but does not condemn; she is part of the same emotive fabric as they are, and this identification lends the work much compassion:
Finally I just gave up and became my father, his greased, defeated face shining toward anyone I looked at, his mud-brown eyes in my face, glistening like wet ground that things you love have fallen onto and been lost for good. I stopped trying not to have his bad breath, his slumped posture of failure, his sad sex dangling on his thigh, his stomach swollen and empty. I gave in to my true self … ("Fate")
The preoccupation with the father figure points to the truth of the love-hate relationship, in the nearly equal degree of energy the speaker devotes to those two emotions; and we see the peculiar way in which one transforms to the other, as the speaker gives up the attempt to be other than the object of fascination, and "becomes her father"—as we all are mysteriously inseparable from our earliest origins, and are most truly ourselves when we recognize and accept this truth. There are undertones of the Oedipal complex here—in the bowing to whatever is inevitable about the identity of parents and children, the nature we are perhaps fated to possess—but here the realization of such is less immediately terrifying, more immediately a source of redemption and psychic peace.
What makes these poems gripping (I read the galley proof straight through in one sitting) is not only their humanity, the recognizable and plausibly complex rendering of character and representative episode, but their language—direct, down to earth, immersed in the essential implements and processes of daily living:
My daughter has turned against eggs. Age six to nine, she cooked them herself, getting up at six to crack the shells, slide the three yolks into the bowl, slit them with the whisk, beat them until they hissed and watch the pan like an incubator as they firmed, gold. Lately she's gone from three to two to one and now she cries she wants to quit eggs. ("Eggs")
No inflated diction or mannerisms here, no italicized Latin or French, no learned footnotes full of elaborate historical explanations or taxonomical nomenclature, but the basics: bread, milk, blood, water, hands, hair, eyes, birth, death, love. Of sixty-two poems in the book, nine of them end with the word life; could it be merely accidental that six of these endings occur in the final section, the poems about Olds' two children?
Concern for the fundamentals, however, does not mean that the poems are devoid of wit, intellect, or extended figurative play:
When I take my girl to the swimming party I set her down among the boys. They tower and bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek, her math scores unfolding in the air around her. They will strip to their suits, her body hard and indivisible as a prime number, they'll plunge in the deep end, she'll subtract her height from ten feet, divide it into hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine in the bright blue pool. ("The One Girl At the Boys' Party")
The controlling algebraic metaphor is appropriate to the daughter's age and primary concerns—early adolescence and its sharpened awareness of sexuality, "to the power of a thousand from her body." The writer of these poems emerges as someone who knows, from living an "ordinary" or "typical" woman's life—marriage, child-rearing, and reflection upon her own childhood family—what is really important between people. Granted, most poets write their "family" poems, but few of these relate their private mythologies in terms of national or global events, few simultaneously keep their personal lives and the larger life of human community in mind, as Olds does here in a poem to her father:
Did you weep like the Shah when you left? 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?… Did you forget the blood, blinding lights, pounding on the door, as he forgot the wire, the goad, the stone table? Did you weep as you left as Reza Pahlevi wept when he rose over the gold plain of Iran, did you suddenly want to hear our voices, did you start to rethink the darkness of our hair, did you wonder if perhaps we had deserved to live, did you love us, then? ("The Departure")
The urgent interrogative tone here echoes the mental agony embodied in the extended figure of physical torture; the daughter, distraught and still angered by her father's cruelty, presses him, even in death, to respond. We sense that an affirmative would redeem childhood's horrors, because the father's love still matters: even in her anger, the speaker has not entirely cut him off, entirely refused to forgive.
Olds is not hesitant about dealing with violence or sexuality; she neither aggrandizes these concerns nor self-consciously flaunts them. Her treatment of physical love is direct, unembarrassed, and affectionate, as in this poem to her husband:
A week after our child was born, you concerned me in the spare room and we sank down on the bed. You kissed me and kissed me, my milk undid its burning slip-knot through my nipples, soaking my shirt … I began to throb: my sex had been torn easily as cloth by the crown of her head, I'd been cut with a knife and sewn, the stitches pulling at my skin … I lay in fear and blood and milk while you kissed and kissed me, your lips hot and swollen as a teen-age boy's, your sex dry and big, all of you so tender, you hung over me … ("New Mother")
Sensuality is heightened here by the impossibility of consummation, the tension between the couple's passion and present constraints; but it is the sensuality Olds affirms of happily married love. She can also be gently humorous, especially with that most evident of male totems, treating it neither with pre-Freudian awe nor post-Freudian resentment. Her humor, rather, bespeaks familiarity that breeds appreciation:
When I was a connoisseuse of slugs I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the naked jelly of those gold bodies, translucent strangers glistening along the stones, slowly, their gelationous bodies at my mercy … the glimmering umber horns rising like telescopes, until finally the sensitive knobs would pop out the ends, delicate and intimate. Years later, when I first saw a naked man, I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet mystery reenacted, the slow elegant being coming out of hiding and gleaming in the dark air, eager and so trusting you could weep. ("The Connoisseuse of Slugs")
The pleasure and indeed, the respect accorded here by this lengthy retroactive comparison is reminiscent of another treatment of a delicate and often-euphemized subject, Maxine Kumin's famous "Excrement Poem."
If I were to fault this book in any way, it would be for one aspect of the same urge toward clarity that makes Olds' work accessible: a tendency in places to overwrite, to over-describe or explain beyond what would suffice. The language here is generally looser, more narrative than that of Satan Says, and several poems could benefit from cutting of excess adjectives and explanatory phrases:
She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it until we pricked with her for your annihilation, Father. Now I pass the bums in doorways, the white slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their suits of compressed silt, the stained flippers of their hands, the underwater fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the lanterns lit, and I wonder who took it and took it from them in silence until they had given it all away and had nothing left but this. ("The Victims")
The awkwardness of "pricked with her for your / annihilation," the implied mixed metaphor of slugs with flippers, the belabored parallel of the ending weaken the poem's impact, so that it does not do justice to the intensity and importance of the subject; but with some careful cutting, such difficulties could be eliminated.
There are many poems, nonetheless, with the same ironic tautness, the same perceptive rigor, as those in Satan Says. One of my favorites is "Rite of Passage," an observation of small boys at a party already practicing their adult masculine roles as aggressors:
As the guests arrive at my son's party they gather in the living room— short men, men in first grade with smooth jaws and chins. Hands in pockets, they stand around jostling, jockeying for place, small fights breaking out and calming. One says to anotherHow old are you? Six. I'm seven. So? They eye each other, seeing themselves tiny in the other's pupils. They clear their throats a lot, a room of small bankers, they fold their arms and frown. I could beat youup, a seven says to a six, the dark cake, round and heavy as a turret, behind them on the table. My son … … speaks up as a host for the sake of the group.We could easily kill a two-year-old, he says in his clear voice. The other men agree, they clear their throats like Generals, they relax and get down to playing war, celebrating my son's life.
The grimmer undertones of violence and the irony of the son's diplomatic statement are tempered here by loving humor, and we are able to laugh with recognition of these "men in first grade" even as we shudder at the socialization processes that demand competitiveness and bullying, and make their relaxation contingent upon "playing war."
I have been focussing so far principally upon "Poems for the Living," the second half of the collection, in which Olds recollects her difficult past with relative tranquility and generosity, and celebrates her own married life and the lives of her two children. But it is the opening, "Public" section of the book's first half, "Poems for the Dead," which is likely to capture critical attention above all. These are poems based on news photographs, visual documentations of the grisly effects of civil and international conflict, and the hapless victims thereof—starving Russian and Armenian children, dead civil rights protestors, Chinese and Iranian revolutionaries, and an address, in the manner of Carolyn Forché's poems to those struggling in El Salvador, to activist poet Margaret Randall:
You are speaking of Chile, of the woman who was arrested with her husband and their five-year-old son. You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child, in front of each other, "as they like to do." Things that are worse than death. I can see myself taking my son's ash-blond hair in my fingers, tilting back his head before he knows what is happening, slitting his throat, slitting my own throat to save us that. ("Things That Are Worse Than Death")
Although Olds has not gone abroad to witness or participate personally in the resistance in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, or elsewhere, the reality of that which is worse than death has entered her life as fully as it has the lives of those who have been present. She is just as engaged, her poetic reportage is every bit as impassioned—every line says, "I have been there, in mind and heart." She has not merely looked at, but truly seen the victims in the photographs—photos in the magazines we all flip through, photos in the archives we all have access to—and has responded in a way that many of us have not, although in theory we are all capable of doing so, if Kierkegaard's notion of actualizing potential is to be believed. Olds knows that we do not need to join the Peace Corps, work as overseas correspondents, or volunteer for partisan armies abroad in order to respond as human beings to man's own inhumanity, and to speak out and act upon what we have seen and heard. Here is what she saw of Rhodesia in 1978:
Just don't tell me about the issues. I can see the pale spider-belly head of the newborn who lies on the lawn, the web of veins at the surface of her scalp, her skin grey and gleaming, the clean line of the bayonet down the center of her chest. I see her mother's face, beaten and beaten into the shape of a plant, a cactus with grey spines and broad dark maroon blooms. I see her arm stretched out across her baby, wrist resting, heavily, across the tiny ribs. Don't speak to me about politics. I've got eyes, man. ("The Issues")
Unlike those who were there and who might have been swept up by the fever of their side of the cause, their immediate personal stake in the struggle; or who might have become inured to sights as horrible and as common in the war zone as these—if only for the sake of their own survival and sanity—as Philip Caputo has reported of Vietnam combatants in A Rumor of War; Olds' perceptions have not been blunted. She has not developed a perceptual defense mechanism against the sight of death; this vulnerability is one advantage, as it were, of not being physically present, of having an aesthetic, but not an emotional distance. Therefore, she is not fooled by political bafflgab or strategic rationales—of either the Right or the Left: her own eyes tell her all there is to know about "the issues," if the inevitable outcome of ideological differences is the pair of mutilated bodies on the lawn in Rhodesia. This poet is not one of those caught up in the glamour of revolution or revolutionary causes; her compassion for victimized humanity is pure common sense, a mother's feeling for the deprived, the helpless, the trapped, the children—especially the children:
The girl sits on the hard ground, the dry pan of Russia, in the drought of 1911, stunned, eyes closed, mouth open, raw hot wind blowing sand in her face. Hunger and puberty are taking her together. She leans on a sack, layers of clothes fluttering in the heat, the new radius of her arm curved. She cannot be not beautiful, but she is starving … The caption says she is going to starve to death that winter with millions of others. Deep in her body the ovaries let out her first eggs, golden as drops of grain. ("Photograph of the Girl")
What is signal about Olds' approach is a fidelity to detail that amounts to a modified naturalism: if she tells accurately what she sees (after selecting the most affectively pertinent details, just as the photographer has originally singled out that image, that angle and shutter speed and focal length, out of all possible subjects and treatments), the "message" implicit in the composition will stand forth on its own, as much as is possible in the inescapable contrivances of art. The speaker's stance toward her material is evident in the tone—"Just don't tell me about the issues"; "Things that are worse than death"; "I've got eyes, man";—but her attitude emerges from and is justified by the patent horror or pathos of what she shows us. Attention to detail has its ironic function as well, to point out the beauty or economy of the implements of oppression, the skill of those who devised them, as in this photo of dissidents awaiting execution in Iran:
The first thing you notice is the skill used on the ropes, the narrow close-grained hemp against that black cloth the bodies are wrapped in. You can see the fine twist-lines of the twine, dark and elegant, the intervals exact, and the delicate loops securing the bagged bodies to the planks like cradle boards. The heads are uncovered, just the eyes bound with rag. ("Aesthetics of the Shah")
The loveliness of the composition only underscores the terror of what is soon to befall those bound in such "delicate loops."
Olds' confidence in the power of detail, and her concomitant refusal to show off verbally, to interpose a display of verbal or prosodic pyrotechnics between subject and reader, make for clarity, a style very much at the service of the subject. In her own way, Olds has heeded Stevens' aphorism in The Necessary Angel—poetry as an act of the mind engaged in finding "what will suffice," to do justice to what she shows us. In a sense, then, her style at its best becomes "invisible," unobtrusive except for those moments in which the desire for clarity works against itself in an excess of adjectives or descriptive phrases. But these less effective passages do not unduly distract from the power of the poems.
I am stimulated by [The Dead and the Living]—by its fulfillment of earlier promise, and by the potential it suggests both for Olds' own future work and for American poetry in general. Once again we have an example of our common ability to embrace the world "out there"—we need not remain, mentally or aesthetically, in our suburbs and literary ghettoes, writing only about ourselves. What we turn our attention to in our respective "private sectors" can and does have relation to the public realm, and to the lives of others. Truly "political" poetry—that which has to do with the polis, the community—can function as an aesthetic semi-permeable membrane, where the personal and the public inform and interfuse each other, where we private citizens can respond as individual human beings to the fate of others across socio-economic and national boundaries. Whatever the controversies raging in the journals about the possibility for and validity of political poetry, Sharon Olds has shown us that she, at least, is able both to focus on her own family and to avail herself of information accessible to all of us to enact in literature a concern for the larger family of humanity.
Satan Says (poetry) 1980The Dead and the Living (poetry) 1984The Gold Cell (poetry) 1987The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poetry (poetry) 1987The Sign of Saturn: Poems 1980–1987 (poetry) 1987The Father (poetry) 1992
SOURCE: "The Tune of Crisis," in Poetry, Vol. CXLIX, No. 4, January, 1987, pp. 231-37.
[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she praises Old's use of intimate autobiographical details and vivid imagery in The Gold Cell.]
The opening section of Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell contains some of her most haunting poems. A white woman faces a black youth with the "casual cold look of a mugger" on the subway and considers how deeply they are in each other's power. Some policemen coax a suicide from his parapet on a hot night, and they light cigarettes whose "red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world." Some Ugandan villagers during a drought are beating to death a food-thief whose head-wounds are "ripe and wet as a / rich furrow cut back and cut back at / plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed." A 12-year-old girl who has been raped and has watched her best friend raped and stabbed to death lives on to go to high school where she works hard at math and becomes a cheerleader, "and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the / shredded pom-poms in her fists." Olds's characteristic note is a clear unsentimental compassion; her characteristic imagery is laid on thick, wet, and warm as bodies.
The book's three remaining sections return to themes powerfully treated in her earlier volumes, Satan Says and The Dead and the Living: father and mother, sexuality, son and daughter. In "I Go Back to May 1937," the poet pictures her parents on the brink of their marriage and is tempted to warn them to stop:
but I don't do it. I want to live. I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips like chips of flint as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
Tell she does, sparing neither parent—father another Saturn eating his young, mother rolling over daughter like a tongue of lava—while the stunningly awful details, by their very intimacy and physicality, make anger impossible. These people are the poet, she is they. When Olds writes of sex, she sinks into voluptuous metaphors of food, predatory animals, satiety, birth. Writing of her children, she concentrates on their living and imperilled flesh, which we see as it were suspended in the amber of the poet's locutions and her love. While she neither philosophizes nor moralizes explicitly, Olds's refusal to establish any conventional poetic distance from her subjects amounts to a tacit moral imperative: that we affirm as intensely as possible our biological existence and the attachments to others it implies, and that we hold life as absolutely precious. "The gold cell" as a figure for life's primary unit implies both entrapment (we cannot escape our parents, our children, our sexuality, our bodies) and pure treasure.
Olds's poems here are longer and slightly less taut than her earlier work. I'm puzzled at times by her lineation (e.g., many lines ending in "the" or "a" for no apparent reason other than a general preference for run-on). But the grace, the ease, the American casualness of her phrasing, along with the rich and precise tactility of her imagery, make a perfect combination. I found many of these poems no less than breathtaking.
SOURCE: "Fathers and Daughters and Mothers and Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, March 22, 1987, p. 23.
[Libby is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, taken from a mixed review of The Gold Cell, he asserts that Olds's poems are hampered by a preoccupation with morbidity, physicality, and brutality.]
Though it inhabits the same general psychic territory [as Carolyn Kizer's poetry], Sharon Olds's poetry is as raw as Carolyn Kizer's is cooked. The Gold Cell is also a collection about men and boys, fathers and sons. But it enters with an unusual savagery into the familiar arena of Oedipal strife that has been so central to American poetry since mid-century—since Lowell, Roethke, and Plath. Miss Olds's intentionally brutal tone is set early, in one of her few narratives of nonfamilial violence. In "In the Cell" her mind wanders almost arbitrarily from idle contemplation of the hair on her calf to the depiction of a slow castration in a torture cell. Her poems characteristically start slowly, almost in prose, then develop a wild and messy energy that builds into propulsive rhythms and lines that spill over onto each other so fast the reader risks missing words, connections. This slam-bang action usually culminates in something like a punch line that lifts the reader out of the poem.
The risk, of course, is that the reader will have been knocked out of the poem much earlier, maybe repelled by the brutality, but more likely exhausted out of intensity. Habitual shocks tend to deaden, and after we've read 20 or 30 poems with penises in them, functioning, detached or semidetached, we may grow insensitive to the extraordinary physicality of the poet's vision. But some of the emotional power is restored in Sharon Olds's poems of the father.
If Sylvia Plath's father occasionally appeared in her poems as a vampire out of an old, cheaply elegant horror movie, the father in The Gold Cell seems to have emerged from a contemporary splatter flick. "Saturn" slows Miss Olds's usual pell-mell pace to describe the father eating his son, part by detailed part. But the monster fascinates. In "Looking at My Father," the father is "obsessive, rigid, selfish, sentimental," but "my / body thinks his body is perfect."
I even like to look in his mouth, stained brown with cigars and bourbon, my eyes sliding down the long amber roots of his teeth, right in there where Mother hated, and up the scorched satin of the sides.
Such description, with its chilling hints of coffin imagery and family rage, is both overwrought and irresistible. And Sharon Olds can turn out wildly fanciful metaphors like nobody's business.
But there is still the problem of response. Our awareness of genuine suffering here, however wildly exploited, goes badly with the tendency to enjoy the poetry as flamboyant shock. Perhaps unfortunately, it seems easier to listen to Miss Olds on sex, because we are a little more comfortable with the anarchic pleasure she offers here. Female genitals tend to be tritely described as wounds, but a poem like "Green and Aggression" is striking for its vision of brutal joy. Still the tone is uneven, and when they attempt affirmation, the love poems can fall into clichéd assertion: after sex marked by blood of a "real arterial red," she says baldly "I knew you were God / and I was God."
The final section of The Gold Cell completes the cycle with a mother's poetry about children. The power of Miss Old's physical imagination allows her a striking childbirth poem, "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet." But it seems to confine her to a vision of mothering as a confrontation not only with every human bodily fluid, but with sickness, grotesque injury, and the constant presence of a death. In "The Latest Injury," the shaved and mended head of a slashed son is "bluish as the epidermis of a monkey / drawn out of his mother dead." The image is memorable, but the final adjective says much about the general tendencies of Sharon Olds's macabre imagination in this book.
Gilbert, Sandra M. "Family Values." Poetry CLXIV, No. 1 (April 1994): 39-53.
Examines the treatment of family themes and relationships in Olds's The Father and in the poetry of Laura Riding, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and Carol Muske.
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 contemporary poetry, including Olds's The Gold Cell.
Maxwell, Glyn. "Poets in Abundance: Bedevilled by Angels, Ghosts and Aborigines." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4600 (31 May 1991): 11-12.
Reviews Ronald Wallace's anthology of American poetry, Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses, citing Olds as an exemplary confessional poet.
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.
SOURCE: "Soul Substance," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 244, No. 14, April 11, 1987, pp. 472-75.
[In the following mixed review of The Gold Cell, McEwen offers general praise for Olds's poetry, yet questions her fascination with voyeurism and her reliance on techniques employed in her previous books.]
"I will tell," says Sharon Olds in her poem "I Go Back to May 1937"—and she does tell. She tells all the cruel stories of her rich and complicated childhood, and her readers love it. Here is the father again with his coal-black hair and his cereal-bowl forehead, here is the mother starving herself over an ounce of cottage cheese, here is the older sister who gave her child away, here is the lost brother; and now, in the thank-God of the comfortable and comforting present, here is Sharon Olds herself, her lover-husband and her marvelous and much-regarded children.
We love Sharon Olds because she has survived such terrible things, and because, like the heroine of her poem "The Girl" (who "knew" what it was like to be shot five times and slaughtered like a pig), we think that means she "knows" in some other, more ultimate sense. "Look, I have come through," she cries, and we cannot envy her "the life of ease and faithfulness," the champagne or the fur coat, because we hear the thrum of that survival in everything she writes. It gives—or until now has given—an extra edge to all her poems: a watchfulness, a sharp anxiety, a sense of "only just."
The Gold Cell is a new venture because here, for the first time, that anxiety is a little assuaged. Olds is, for one whose work has been so risky and experimental, on extraordinarily safe ground. Her family, her children, her sexual self, politics seen through the filter of the media: these are subjects she has approached before, and in very much the same manner. There are new stories in The Gold Cell, but the voice, the tone, the attitude remain unchanged. Olds the nervy groundbreaker has settled down. She has become a brilliant rhetorician of her own past.
The few exceptions to this are to be found among the political poems, grouped together at the beginning of the book. Painstaking and careful, thrilling with imaginative sympathy, Olds has pieced together the salient facts from newspaper reports, photographs, television, radio. Many western poets, some with far bolder politics than she, have attempted to make poems in this way. None, I would say, has managed it so well. As readers, we are left with a curious double vision, as if we could see the familiar media version, and through or underneath it, the agonized synthesis which is the poem. I feel this especially strongly about "The Food Thief" and "The Girl," rare poems in their courage and authority.
Nonetheless, the first section of The Gold Cell does have its problems. Olds's writing has always had a lush, slightly voyeuristic streak, and while that can deepen and intensify what she describes, it can also lead to distance in the reader, the feeling that a story is being told only (or primarily) for its aesthetic effect. See, for example, her description of the black boy in "On the Subway":
He has the casual cold look of a mugger, alert under hooded lids. He is wearing red, like the inside of the body exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the whole skin of an animal taken and used. I look at his raw face, he looks at my fur coat, and I don't know if I am in his power he could take my coat so easily, my briefcase, my life— or if he is in my power, the way I am living off his life, eating the steak he does not eat …
I can imagine a reading of this poem that would duck the aestheticizing and move directly to the support of Olds's "politically correct" interpretation, that she is "living off his life, eating the steak / he does not eat." But to my mind, that would not be sufficient. For one thing, that politically correct conclusion is hardly a conclusion at all. It comes right in the middle of the poem, and Olds gives it no more weight than any of the other contrasts and comparisons she draws. The entire poem is in fact constructed on the maintenance of a false equilibirum: "He is wearing red…. I am wearing dark fur." Such descriptions are provided without affect, as if they were simply so, but their defensive bias soon appears. The boy has a "raw face," "the casual cold look of a mugger." No equivalent account is made of Olds. Instead, she protests in all-too-familiar terms:
There is no way to know how easy this white skin makes my life, this life he could take so easily and break across his knee …
There is a laziness here, a failure to imagine and to take responsibility. As readers we feel cheated. We expect Olds to understand this the way she understands the other subjects that are important to her: sex, for instance, or the moment when a child enters the world.
In trying to explain why Olds might not take on this subject more fully, I found myself back where I had started, with the sense of her as tremendously accomplished, but also limited (for now) by that accomplishment. It is as if she had taken stock of her position in the world, and of the subject matter which is rightly hers, and then kept very close to home. One result of this is that she begins to be in danger of self-parody—almost, at times, of self-plagiarism. For a couple of poems that brush the edge of this difficulty, see her quirky little parable "Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor," and the poem "The Pope's Penis," which reads as follows:
It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate clapper at the center of a bell. It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a halo of silver seaweed, the hair swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night, while his eyes sleep, it stands up in praise of God.
For anyone who knows Olds's earlier work, even the mention of a penis will produce a wry smile of recognition. Just as she bends the natural world toward the human, using it as metaphor and illustration, so, time and again, she has bent the human toward the genital. Here, finally, with "The Pope's Penis," the genital gets its utter comeuppance. What could be funnier, or more thoroughly triumphant?
It is the images one remembers: the "clapper at the center of a bell," the "ghostly fish," the penis standing up in praise of God. But if you read more slowly, you discover other virtues: the quiet, unassuming beginning, the internal rhymes, the repetition ("moves when he moves," with that Yeatsian echo), the skill with which things are brought to a close, the last line underlined just slightly, so that the point is made and taken. This is a tiny poem, one of Olds's shortest, but it is a good example nonetheless of what she has mastered so thoroughly over the past five or six years. Those same basic qualities can be found in almost all the poems in the book.
The second section is essentially made up of family history poems, telling all the ugly stories we hadn't heard before: Olds's mother raping her as a little girl, her father driving her terrified up the steepest streets of San Francisco, or lowering her and the other children down the dark shaft of the laundry chute. Here again, there is fierce rhetorical skill, though its impact is diminished somewhat by Olds's peculiar relationship with her audience. She writes in the knowledge of her earlier poems, and she assumes that we will read her work in the same way, that we will catch the cross-references and be as interested as Olds herself in making moral sense of difficult events. She also takes it for granted that, her case being made, the audience will accept her point of view. Thus she ends her poem "The Chute" by explaining:
and yet, you know, he never dropped us or meant to, he only liked to say he would, so although it's a story with some cruelty in it, finally it's a story of love and release …
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. I have long been an admirer of her poems, and it was a surprise to find how much I balked at some of these. When Olds insisted that she knew her father was not perfect, "but my / body thinks his body is perfect…. it likes to / slip the leash of my mind and go and / look at him, like an animal / looking at water," I did not want to accompany her. When she wrote about the dress her father was supposed to have given her after her parents' divorce ("The Blue Dress"), or the pleasure that her own existence gave her mother ("Why My Mother Made Me"), I did not want to listen. Clear and moving though the poems were, I felt that the satisfaction to be found in them was more psychological than literary—that for all their skill they were confessions or arguments rather than realized poems.
There is, however, an exception: the poem "Saturn," in which Olds once again describes her father. He is lying on the couch in the darkness, and he is eating his children:
My brother's arm went in up to the shoulder and he bit it off, and he sucked at the wound as one sucks at the sockets of lobster … crushed the bones like the soft shells of crabs and the delicacies of the genitals rolled back along his tongue….
In comparison with her usual mode of writing, such implacable surrealism has a powerful effect. There is no need for explanations or addenda; the images themselves are quite enough.
Olds is, on the whole, a memorable image-maker. But in one poem, "The Meal," where she describes her mother at the breakfast table, "facing that plate with the one scoop of cottage cheese on it / forcing [herself] to eat, though [she] did not want to live"—her extraordinary facility deserts her. Olds has told us elsewhere that she is "The Shrink's Wife," and when she compares the cottage cheese to a "mound rounded as a breast," to a "cock runny with milk gone sour," and ends by seeing it "curdled like the breast of the mother," one begins to feel that it is the shrink, not she who is speaking. The metaphors are part of some far larger argument. They are no longer hers.
This surrender to another person's language appears again in the third section of the book, which is given over to love and sex and passionate sensuality. Here, in the poem "First Boyfriend," Olds uses painterly words like "umber," "ochre" and "amber," and later, "chrome," "brass" and "gilt" to provide the atmosphere. They are all favored words in a deliberately limited vocabulary, chosen because they sound good together: yellowy-brown words, metallic words, words Olds has used before to great effect. But this time that effect does not come off. The words do not clash or resonate or intensity. Instead, the poem melts under their increasing vagueness.
There are, however, in that same section, poems in which line breaks and word choice are no longer so self-conscious and the thought forms clearly, aching across the page. Among them are the two slightly awkward, ragged Cambridge elegies ("First Love" and "Cambridge Elegy"), and, despite my qualms about them, the curious poems of self-regard: "Still Life," "It," "A Woman in Heat Wiping Herself," "I Cannot Forget the Woman in the Mirror" and "This." "Still Life" is a self-portrait after making love, "scene of destruction, scene of perfect peace." It has something of the quality of a nineteenth-century painting, perhaps by Ingres (this century it would be Balthus): something rich and luscious, but at the same time dead. In Olds's poem there is a "dead pheasant all / maroon neck feathers and deep body wounds, / and on the center of my forehead a drop of water / round and opalescent, and in it / the self-portrait of the artist, upside down."
It is a strange portrait, hurt and wordy, and yet also mute. In "It," Olds writes that sometimes after making love she is stunned to remember it: "as if I have been to Saturn or the bottom of a trench in the sea floor, I / sit on my bed the next day with my mouth open and think of it." Some of the numbness / dumbness of that open mouth is in "Still Life," and also in "This":
I have this, so this is who I am, this body white as yellowish dough brushed with dry flour pressed to his body. I am these breasts that crush against him like collapsible silver travel cups that telescope into themselves, and the nipples that float in the center like hard raspberries in bright sunlight …
"This" too, for a poem of self-celebration, is oddly flat, unjoyous, even, at times, mechanical. Olds is claiming her identity as a sexual being: she is, she tells us, one who desires, one who makes love. But in the poem one feels only the stress, the pull, the hard drag of want, not an inkling of the satisfaction.
Yet this cold, flattened hunger for sensual fulfillment is not the only version Olds has of herself. She also believes that in the face of tremendous obstacles she has learned to pay attention to small beauties, and that it is in part through noticing these things and loving them ("the raised dot of amber sugar" on the breakfast table, the tiny pile of her son's sunburn peelings) that she has managed to survive. It seems to me very obvious that Olds is right about this: she does indeed love "little things" passionately, exhaustively. But it is also important to say that she does not love them for themselves alone. Everything she writes builds toward a climax, and the "little things," however odd and unlikely in their juxtaposition, are always offered up to that moment when Olds comes into her own: that moment of grandeur, of completion, that she yearns for, and that she is utterly unable to resist.
It is because Olds adores that moment that her poems for her children's pets, "Gerbil Funeral" and "Mouse Elegy," are at bottom so embarrassing. The problem is not that a strong poem could not be written on such a subject, but that Olds can only write it in one way. She is incapable of a small-scale thought, fitted to a small-scale happening. Even for a gerbil, even for a mouse, the red carpet is unrolled, the glittering chandelier is lowered from the ceiling.
Still, it is Olds's passion for grandeur, for important thought, that makes her poems as powerful as they are. You may feel (as I do) slightly rebuffed by her authoritativeness on the subject of her children ("When love comes to me and says / What do you know, I say This girl, this boy"), but even through the barrier of that superior tenderness you have to respect the poetry (see, particularly, "The Quest," "Liddy's Orange" and "Looking at Them Asleep"). It is in "The Quest" that the "gold cell" appears, a metaphor, it seems, for all the tiny precious things, in this case every small live molecule of her daughter's body. This gold reappears throughout the book, showing itself in all its different facets: the gold cell, the gold door, the gold yolk, the gold sphere, the gold ball, the gold grease, the gold wall. It acts as a unifying force, both metaphysical and literary, a sort of DNA soul substance, which humankind can use or abuse as we wish. It is worth nothing that the "gold ball" in "When" is the first sign of nuclear disaster.
For Olds herself, however, the triumph of the good cannot be quite as serendipitous. Having grown up as she did, the need for personal morality is strong. In "After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood" she writes of the mixed feelings that that apology aroused: "I could not see what my / days would be with you sorry, with / you wishing you had not done it." The fact is that her identity has been so tied up with the surviving and describing of the brutal past that apology (requiring in its train forgiveness) comes very near to annihilation: "I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you." Nonetheless, she does manage to forgive her mother (at least in the poem), and in "Late Poem to My Father" she reaches out to him as well:
always thought the point was what you did to us as a grown man, but then I remembered that child being formed in front of the fire, the tiny bones inside his soul twisted in greenstick fractures …
She imagines herself back into what the boy endured, and in doing so, finds a way to love him. "When I love you now," she writes, "I like to think I am giving my love / directly to that boy in the firey room."
There is no way to complete that forgiveness, no way on this earth that the boy-father can be reached, but in writing the poem, telling the story, Olds does something that is perhaps equally important. She shows the way to other children of other parents: the way through hatred, resentment and self-pity, through obsession and out the other side. Because she does this, we in turn forgive her almost everything.
SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 517-27.
[Hudgins is an American poet, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed assessment of Olds's The Gold Cell, admiring its powerful imagery and narrative flow, yet faulting its haphazard structure and sensationalistic themes.]
Whatever reservations you may have about Sharon Olds's poetry—and I have a number—there's no denying that she's a lot of fun to read. [In The Gold Cell the] poems always open with a great "hook" to grab the reader and the endings are even better—kickers, stunners. But the movement between the opening and the conclusion is usually a headlong rush in which one line collapses into another because the poem is in such a hurry to get to its payoff. The piling up of weak words, especially articles and conjunctions, at the end of a line can create a pell-mell, head-over-heels tumble but it can also, when overdone, cause the line as a unit to lose its integrity:
And I called the hospital, I remember kneeling by the phone on the third-floor landing of the dorm, the dark steep stairs down next to me….
The result is a narrative held together not by measure or rhythm but by the facts of the story and the intensity of their expression—the same things that hold us transfixed when a friend tells a wrenching story about his or her life. But I wonder about how these poems will hold up to repeated reading. The same emotional propulsion that makes the poems so hypnotically readable also causes some sentimentality, when the emotion veers out of proportion to the situation it arises from; sensationalism ("The Pope's Penis"); and simple silliness ("Mouse Elegy," "Gerbil Funeral"; and consider too the opening of "Alcatraz": "When I was a girl, I knew I was a man / because they might send me to Alcatraz / and only men went to Alcatraz").
Olds very deliberately puts herself in the tradition of Plath and Sexton, and that may be a mistake. Her poems lack the wild, yet nimble, associative leaps that make Plath's poems so dazzling and the deeply-felt spiritual yearning that unites Sexton's body of work. If Plath identifies her father with Hitler, Olds in "History: 13" takes second best among the three Axis leaders and identifies her father with Mussolini. The father comes home one night with blood on his face and lies down
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.
In concluding, the poem directly evokes Plath's "Daddy":
I turned my back on happiness, at 13 I entered a life of mourning, of mourning for the Fascist.
The obvious next question is, "How well does this poem stand up next to Plath's?" Not very well, I think. Perhaps Olds is a writer of poems more than she is a writer of books of poems. If I pick up the book and read three poems, I'm knocked out by at least one of them, by the sheer power of individual utterance. But reading the book as a whole I begin to worry about the Freudian or Jungian or self-revealing "punch lines" that suddenly snap at the end of too many poems. The move begins to seem more like a reflex than a vision.
But, for all these reservations, I don't want to scant the power of these poems, especially those in the first section when Olds writes in the third person or employs a persona—techniques that allow her more distance from her subjects. And in the final section there are some very touching poems about her children: "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet," "The Signs," and "Looking at Them Asleep," which ends: "When love comes to me and says / What do you know, I say This girl, this boy."
SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, Autumn, 1987, pp. 140-47.
[Yenser is an American critic, educator, and poet. In the following excerpt, he examines stylistic and thematic aspects of The Gold Cell, noting that the volume exemplifies a candid narrative handling of painful subject matter.]
"We're here to learn / the earth by heart and everything is crying / mind me, mind me!" That is [Alice] Fulton's Rilkean credo in "Everyone Knows the World Is Ending." In "Little Things," in The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds has her own version: "I am / paying attention to small beauties, / whatever I have—as if it were our duty to / find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world." How divergent their means of minding and binding are, a couple of poems about early sexual experience will suggest. Fulton's "Scumbling" is a lustrous, dreamy lyric, one of her poems of inwardness, all discretion and reticence. When she writes that "My reserve circled, imperial / as the inside of a pearl," the beautifully turned sentence traces the contours of the poem as well as that of the night with her lover. As she recalls it now, Fulton watched her "feelings hover / over like the undersides / of waterlilies … topped by nervous almost- / sunny undulations," and the repeated sounds ripple like small waves through the passage. The conclusion's tentativeness is the light's and her body's and her language's:
I had to let myself be gone through, do it in the arbitrary light tipping and flirting with seldom-seen surfaces.
In "First Sex"—how different even the titles are!—Olds, too, acknowledges that she "knew little," but she "took it as it / came, his naked body on the sheet." Here the surfaces are well-lit, "the tiny hairs curling on his legs like / fine, gold shells, his sex, harder and harder under my palm / and yet not hard as a rock his face cocked / back as if in terror." At the end of her poem,
he gathered and shook and the actual flood like milk came out of his body, I saw it glow on his belly, all they had said and more, I rubbed it into my hands like lotion, I signed on for the duration.
There is nothing "off-color" here. Downright, with a sensibility like a strong appetite, Olds characteristically shoulders nuance aside and goes straight at her subjects. Her work is chock-full of striking metaphors that are rarely delicate, never precious. With the exception of her habitual use of the run-on sentence, a technique that lends a poem a breathlessness more satisfying on some occasions than others, her syntax is purposeful and unmannered. Her verse is free and even resistant to prosodic effects. As she splices sentences, so she enjambs lines; but whereas Fulton will bring semantic pressures to bear by wrapping a phrase over a line ending or poising it there, one foot on either level ("be gone / through"), Olds breaks her lines with studied disregard of the sense—often after an article, a conjunction, or a preposition—so that the endings seem erased rather than judged.
This lack of prosodic integrity is in keeping with the narrative urgency of these poems. While the poems do not always involve much in the way of event, they unfold as though under the pressure of a tight plot. They are usually not divided into stanzas or sections, and they usually describe a single continuous arc. True, a poem might go off like an errant firework at a tangent, but that is a different matter. It is hard to excerpt her poems effectively because she works cumulatively and persists in a line of thought until it has built up such a momentum that it takes on a special luminosity from the friction of passage, at which point she is likely to shunt it off in a new direction. In "Gabriel and the Water Shortage" her nine-year-old son devotes himself to conservation. "He will not / flush the toilet, putting the life of the / water first." "He befriends" the water until he is "glazed with grime, and every / cell of dirt … is a / molecule of water saved." Gabriel has "given his heart to water," which at poem's end turns out to be
so much like a nine-year-old—you can cut it, channel it, see through it and watch it, then, a fifty-foot tidal wave, approaching your house and picking up speed as it comes.
And so the poems move.
The starkness of Olds's language agrees with her abiding concern, the ground of her three books to date, the physical body. At the end of Satan Says, her first volume, she asked in "A Prayer," since answered, that she continue to "be faithful to the central meanings," presented in terms of sex and birth. She advises us in "This" not to "ask me about my country or who my / father was or even what I do, if you / want to know who I am, I am this, this," and what Sharon Olds means is not the word on the page but the "body / white as yellowish dough brushed with dry flour" that put it there. Indeed, her gold cell, whatever else it is, is the corporeal essence.
This gold cell is almost as protean and recurrent as Fulton's palladium. The full term appears just once, in "The Quest," in the phrase "every gold cell of her body," which refers to her daughter, but there are traces of it throughout, sometimes in casual allusions ("small cells of their faces," "pleasurable in every cell"), and sometimes in dramatic passages. (In "What if God," God is imagined as "a squirrel reaching down through the / hole" that her desperately lonely mother broke in her childhood shell, a "squirrel with His / arm in the yolk of my soul up to the elbow, / stirring, stirring the gold.") The gold cell takes the form on the handsome dust jacket of a gold ball encircled by a serpent, an image that assumes special meaning in light of the poet's preoccupations and especially in light of "201 Upper Terrace, San Francisco," which is the address of the house in which Olds was conceived and in which she lived until she was three years old. Driving up to visit it decades later, she looked at it—the phrasing is pointed—"as you'd / gaze on a cell where you had been kept, with / awe and terror" and imagined her mother standing at a window after making love with her father. Then comes this startling passage:
and I whipped my tail and sailed up and saw the egg like a trap door in the side of the jail and I pushed through it head first, my tail fell off I began to explode in ecstasy released, released, and in nine months they lifted me up to the view.
If among other things the gold cell is the gamete, it can also be understood as the very principle of life. In "Greed and Aggression" Olds compares herself during lovemaking to "a tiger lying down in gluttony and pleasure on the / elegant heavy body of the eland it eats." The elaboration of this image seems to me to come very close to defining the center of her fierce creative vision:
Ecstasy has been given to the tiger, forced into its nature the way the forcemeat is cranked down the throat of the held goose, it cannot help it, hunger and the glory of eating packed at the center of each tiger cell, for the life of the tiger and the making of new tigers, so there will always be tigers on the earth, their stripes like stripes of night and stripes of fire-light— so if they had a God it would be striped, burnt-gold and black, the way if I had a God it would renew itself the way you live and live while I take you as if consuming you while you take me as if consuming me.
As this passage will suggest, whatever thoughts Olds has of the sacred are bound up with the corporeal. "The Pope's Penis" is surprisingly free of satire and snigger:
It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate clapper at the center of a bell. It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a halo of silver seaweed, the hair swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night, while his eyes sleep, it stands up in praise of God.
And in "Love in Blood Time," as the poet and her husband lay in bed, "your lower lip / glazed with light like liquid fire / I looked at you and I tell you I know you were God / and I was God." This intuition is another reason for the jacket illustration. The credit acknowledges Jung's study, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, where the source turns out to be the section entitled "Concerning Mandala Symbolism," in which the plate is described as "an Indian picture of Shiva-bindu, the unextended point," or Shiva in the primordial state, encircled by Shakti, the snake that "signifies extension, the mother of Becoming, the creation of the world of forms." At the moment that Shakti embraces the unextended point, known also as the "golden germ" or "golden egg," creation begins—and as Jung reminds us, Indian thought does not distinguish the divine essence from the human.
Between cosmos and gamete comes another aspect of her gold cell, never explicitly addressed by Olds. "I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism," muses Lewis Thomas in The Lives of a Cell, "but it is no go…. It is too big, too complex, with too many parts lacking visible connections…. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like?… It is most like a single cell." A sense like Thomas's of the kinship and interdependence of things on earth permeates The Gold Cell. Olds is an active member of PEN, and a year ago in an essay in The American Poetry Review she described her first exchange of letters with a Turkish political prisoner. "The day I received his reply," she tells us, "the world became much smaller. I felt how connected we are." Taking a characteristically surprising direction, the poem succinctly entitled "In the Cell" begins as the poet, "Sitting in the car at the end of summer" with her children, notices that "the hairs are sparser on my legs, / thinning out as I approach middle age," then swerves off, by way of the "vigorous hairs" on his skin, to a young man torturing information from a political prisoner: "he is / taking a man's genitals off as / slowly as possible, carefully, so as / not to let him get away." Rather than overt outrage, the poem's response to this man's "undoing" the means by which "he himself was made" is the assertion of likeness, of "the / innocence of his own body, its / goodness and health," which make for relationship—as among the family in the car, or even between the torturer, "the hairs like sweet / molasses pouring from the follicles of his forearm and / cooling in great looping curls," and his victim. In "On the Subway" the white poet and a young black man face each other across an aisle. They are on "opposite sides," but the other figures tell another story:
He is wearing red, like the inside of the body exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the whole skin of an animal taken and used.
These last two poems are in the first section, which has to do mostly with the world as we know it from the newspapers. The next three sections turn to the poet and her family: her childhood, her adolescence and her marriage, and finally her children. These three sections slide into one another like the sections in a collapsible telescope, and the first fits as well when one considers the poet's representation of her father. Her love for him is never in doubt, but neither is her early terror of him, and she makes his cruelties touchingly clear. In "San Francisco" she recounts her father's wicked glee in driving her ever more slowly up one of the city's steepest streets and scaring her so that finally "I would break, weeping and peeing, the fluids of my / body bursting out like people from the / windows of a burning high-rise." The home situation is powerfully mythologized in "Saturn," where he, as usual passed out and snoring on the couch, is understood to be "eating his children." The family's own lives, Olds puts it in a phrase that combines the unstoppered bottle and the open mouth, "slowly / disappeared down the hole of his life."
My brother's arm went in up to the shoulder and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound as one sucks at the sockets of lobster. He took my brother's head between his lips and snapped it off like a cherry off the stem.
Especially compelling when she evokes appetencies and obsessions, Olds tells us that "he knew what he was doing and he could not / stop himself, like orgasm, his / boy's feet crackling like two raw fish / between his teeth."
He is no torturer, to be sure, but he is a guarantee that the torturer is not, alas, utterly alien. Her closest connection with evil, he is a key figure in this volume, whose poems keep asking us to think—as though nothing else could save us—in terms of relation. When Olds brings him and Mussolini together in "History: 13," the odd effect is not so much, as it might be in Plath, to revile the former as it is to rehumanize the latter. "The Chute" recalls that her father would hold one of the children upside down in a laundry chute three stories deep and "pretend to let go—he loved to hear / passionate screaming in a narrow space." He was no torturer—but "how could you trust him?" Olds asks. "And then if you were / his, half him … how could you / trust yourself?… How did the / good know they were good, could they look at their / hand and see, under the skin, the / greenish light?"
Her father never would have dropped one of them, and in the end, "although it's a story with some cruelty in it, / finally it's a story of love / and release"—and even of rebirth, "the way the father pulls you out of nothing / and stands there foolishly grinning." Much the same might be said of the volume as a whole. Tough-minded as Olds is, she has an optimistic streak (as her almost dismayingly frequent use of the word goodness suggests). After he has been cajoled out of his suicide attempt, the man in "Summer Solstice, New York City" is leaned against a wall and given a cigarette by a tall cop: "they all lit cigarettes, and the / red, glowing ends burned like the / tiny campfires we lit at night / back at the beginning of the world." In the essay on Turkish political prisoners she asks—in simple earnestness, I think—"What do you do to a boy that makes him, when he grows up, want to put a man and a woman on hooks on a wall and give them electric shocks in front of their small children?" In "Late Poem to My Father" she moves back beyond what he did to his wife and children and calls up his own difficult molding, "that / child being formed in front of the fire, the / tiny bones inside his soul / twisted in greenstick fractures, the small / tendons that hold the heart in place / snapped." Because of this long view, Olds can respond with love and pity: "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."
So too with her mother. "What if God" is a severe indictment, and it mounts indignantly to the point that it invokes a just and angry God—but then look what happens:
she said that all we did was done in His sight so what was He doing as He saw her weep in my hair and slip my soul from between my ribs like a tiny hotel soap, did He wash His hands of me as I washed my hands of Him? Is there a God in the house? Is there a God in the house? Then reach down and take that woman off that child's body, take that woman by the nape of the neck like a young cat and lift her up and deliver her to me.
The way Olds slips from one question to another on the "tiny hotel soap" is inspired. But this passage's real strength is its concluding sentence, where the voice of wrath curves heartstoppingly into pity, and Olds embraces her mother as her mother once embraced her—or as the serpent on the jacket, the mother of Becoming herself, embraces the gold cell. I have said that Olds subordinates nuance, but what a richly shaded term "deliver" is in this context, with its allusion to giving birth and its root in freedom. I think that this is how we bind ourselves to this world.
SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 12, September, 1987, pp. 6-7.
[Wakoski is an American poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she remarks that Olds's poems exhibit a fascination with destruction, suffering, and bestiality.]
Reading The Gold Cell gives some of the same pleasures you get in the doctor's office reading issues of National Geographic. It makes the news of the world interesting with its award-winning photography and glossy pages filled with articles about esoteric aspects of this earth and our daily lives. Olds' language of physical image and metaphor is never illusory (seldom allusive); it is the perfect self-contained language that the New Critics talked about. Her subject-matter is always family, though it is finally "the family of man" which is her theme.
The boy and I face each other. His feet are huge, in black sneakers laced with white in a complex pattern like a set of intentional scars. We are stuck on opposite sides of the car, a couple of molecules stuck in a rod of light rapidly moving through darkness. ("On the Subway")
What is actually most intriguing about Sharon Olds' poetry is not her excellent grasp of how to translate the magazine and newspaper world into poetry, though that is no small skill. No, what makes me read and admire her poems is that behind the slick facade is an obsession which runs through every poem: destruction. There is not a single poem by Sharon Olds which does not intertwine destruction and creation. In fact, the poetry is often tricky and deceptive on this subject, seeming to affirm life and creation so widely. But it is really the root of death, the root of torture and pain which obsesses Olds. Her involvement with family also disguises a deeper concern: an almost nymphomaniacal obsession with sex. While she's talking about babies and children and conjugal love, she is always really relentlessly noticing the bestial.
In the most traditional sense, this is the poetry of guilt. Guilt for being white, for being alive in America, for being well-off, for being a parent, for being happily married, for being a successful poet. In the poem just quoted, she mediates on how much the young black must hate her simply because she is white and richer than he is. She automatically assumes that his blackness is a hell, and that even if he started with the same human potential as she, he couldn't win:
And he is black and I am white, and without meaning or trying to I must profit from his darkness, the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the nation's heart, as black cotton absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is no way to know how easy this white skin makes my life, this life he could take so easily and break across his knee like a stick the way his own back is being broken, the rod of his soul that at birth was dark and fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling ready to thrust up into available light.
Psychoanalytically speaking, the poems in The Gold Cell are poems displaying an Oedipal fascination for the handsome father, failed and drunken and behaving badly to the martyr mother, and the incredible guilt felt for loving the father so much more than the mother. The sexual energy in the life has been channeled towards creating, loving, towards wholesome sex and parental love, but underneath these poems pulses a Greek tragedy of passions, as tangled and dark as those of Medea. Watch out, readers, you may think you're just opening the pages of a nice middle-class National Geographic in the doctor's—no the pediatrician's—office when you crack this book, but unless you are a stupid or insensitive reader, you are in fact going to come away with infanticide, incest, matricide, rapacious desires for power.
There is a bestiality in the poems which is oddly fascinating. One of the most beautiful examples of this is "Liddy's Orange," a seemingly simple poem about the rind of an orange left on the table by her daughter.
All here speaks of ceremony, the sheen of acrid juice, which is all that is left of the flesh, the pieces lying in profound order like natural order, as if this simply happened, the way her life at 13 looks like something that's just happening, unless you see her standing over it, delicately clawing it open.
These poems are tormented by the guilt of Olds' animal hungers, covered over with a thick veneer of densely packed language and imagery. She represents to me, above all, the civilization we are, which has come so far and yet will probably still obliterate itself.
SOURCE: "Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 262-76.
[In the following excerpt, Harris describes the poems in The Gold Cell as "undeniably gripping," but questions whether the emotional intensity of Olds's verse is merely sensationalistic.]
A would-be suicide on the roof of a city building; a subway encounter between a white person and a black who looks, to the speaker, like a mugger; a newborn child left in a garbage can; a torturer castrating someone; 17th-century Siamese twins, one of whom grows from the other's chest; a man being beaten to death for stealing food in Uganda; a rape victim who ends up being a pom-pom girl; talking penises left over from sex change operations; an apocalyptic fantasy about a "sex center" where customers stand under signs indicating their preferences; the nightly devotions of the Pope's privates; a mother watching the nuclear holocaust with her child, who thinks it beautiful. These are the first eleven poems in The Gold Cell, a volume unmistakably by Sharon Olds, whose poetry incorporates violence, cruelty, broiling sexuality, as well as love. Olds treats both the present and the past with a make-you-squirm explicitness that's buffered only by an ingenuous honesty about her relationship to the events she describes.
Close to two centuries ago, Wordsworth proposed his Lyrical Ballads as a potential antidote to what he saw as the "savage torpor" induced in the common reader by the sensationalism of the melodramatists in the popular press. His aim was to gentle us back to health, to make a rural-seeming space for quiet contemplation, a poet's revolution for the preservation of the psyche. There are vigorous poets still writing in the Wordsworth tradition. But they don't, like Olds, work in New York City, and few have seen the kind of alcohol-induced violence to which Olds apparently was subjected as a child. And most will never sell as many books of poems as Olds, books that share the subject matter, though not the outlook, of the tabloid press. Olds apparently never has had the privilege of believing, with Wordsworth, that nature never betrays the heart that loves her; and though she everywhere affirms the power of love, her affirmation is anything but gentle. She aims to shock us back to consciousness, to speak what Melville calls "the sane madness of vital truth."
People have responded. Both in The Gold Cell and in The Dead and the Living, which won the Lamont Prize and the National Book Award in 1983, Olds' work has excited a shock of recognition among a wide variety of readers, some of whom would ordinarily be strangers to poetry. Her confessional poems often blaze with a fierce and sometimes inexplicable love, even for the villains in her life. And Olds has the voice of a peculiarly exuberant survivor who speaks with gusto, whether relating the details of her present blessings or past deprivations. Many of her poems are undeniably gripping. But is the fact a poem is gripping necessarily a sign of its value?
Olds' work is open to two kinds of criticism—technical and moral. Other poets, when they criticize Olds, often fasten on her weak use of line, which has her ending many lines with "and," or "with," or especially "the," a strategy which lacks the compelling musical or dramatic motives that justify similar choices in the shorter lines of, for example, W. C. Williams or Robert Creely. But it is one thing to acknowledge that Olds' lineation leaves much to be desired and quite another to conclude that her poems lack art. Olds may share her subject matter with the tabloid press, but she's very much a poet. If, in The Gold Cell, the poems too often seem in the same voice, searching for the same kinds of insights with the same rhythm of acceleration as her last book, that should not obscure the fact that she writes with great flair and often shows a resonant dramatic intelligence in searching out the contexts, or the frameworks of implication, in which to lodge and justify her dark witness-bearing.
Olds is gifted, too, with a fertile metaphoric imagination that allows her, when she is going well, to enter completely into her subject matter; her analogical imagination often insightfully graces what otherwise would be raw reportage. A distinguished example of her gift for metaphor occurs in "The Food Thief," a poem describing a Ugandan man being slowly whipped to death for stealing food during a drought. The first, expository half of the poem eschews metaphor, but the rest of the poem is an extended conceit, amplified by a series of similes which compare the thief's body to the once fertile land. The comparison is not merely verbal because, in an elemental sense, the man is an inextricable part of the land, and she makes us see how they are dying together. After she has established that the thief is being driven along and "slowly, slowly" being beaten to death, the poem turns as the thief turns to face his attackers:
with all the eloquence of the body, the wrist turned out and the vein up his forearm running like a root just under the surface, the wounds on his head ripe and wet as a rich furrow cut back and cut back at plough-time to farrow a trench for the seed, his eye pleading, the iris black and gleaming as his skin, the white a dark occluded white like cloud-cover on the morning of a day of heavy rain. His lips are open to his brothers as the body of a woman might be open, as the earth itself was split and folded back and wet and seedy to them once, the lines on his lips fine as the thousand tributaries of a root-hair, a river, he is asking them for life with his whole body, and they are driving his body all the way down the road because they know the life he is asking for— it is their life.
As Olds' extended comparison unfolds, it makes both the food thief's and Uganda's loss increasingly evident, until her concluding lines fix exactly how dire their plight is: at the end of an ecosystem, no one needs to be reminded for whom the bell tolls, though the tribesmen's insight into their mutual plight is more Darwinian than Christian.
In poems as potent as "The Food Thief," Olds' dubious line break strategy seems a relatively minor issue. Not so minor, however, is the objection that Olds relies too heavily on extreme situations, often highly personal and that, at times, her poems verge close to the level of self-dramatizing, melodramatic tattle-tales. What, to some, appear as brave, liberating acts of witness-bearing, to others seem a breach of propriety or the eradication of the virtues of privacy.
Her detractors, as well as her supporters, have good evidence to support their claims. Olds, however, deserves, like all other writers, to be granted her subject matter, though it be marital relations on the rug or a self-confessed fascination with her father's alcoholic nose. It's not the subject matter but the vision it serves that is the proper issue of judgment. For Olds, her violent father, no less than her relationships with her children, are subjects beyond ignoring. And it's true that none of her poems fails to move beyond graphic description to a consideration of the human implications of what has been described. But sometimes the insights seem, at least in part, unconscious excuses for exhibitionism. "It" is an ambiguous case in point. For many readers, the poem's description of sex with her husband makes public what probably should remain private, or at least less explicit. And yet her conscious aim is to affirm the extravagant pleasures to be had through the flesh, an aspiration which, in principle, and in light of the long tradition of erotic verse, is hardly reprehensible. Moreover, Olds hits upon a startling analogy by which to clarify the quality of the speaker's gratitude for fleshly pleasure. She says, "sometimes it is sweet as the children we had / thought were dead being brought to the shore in the / narrow boats, boatload after boatload." We may object that comparing orgasms to the rescue of innocent children betrays a lack of ethical perspective. That is just her point: intense pleasure obliterates distinctions and searches out unruly connections. In an over-rationalized age, and to audiences perhaps overadept at forgetting our animal natures, Olds has a point worth making. But the reader may well ask whether her purpose is best served by taking us into her bedroom.
There are other Olds poems, often those dealing with her father, that seem insufficiently conscious of the damage sustained in the family crucible. The father in the poems is a profound sadist who delights in frightening his children, sometimes to the point of incontinence. For example, one poem explores his habit of holding one of his children upside down in the laundry chute, threatening to drop him or her. That he doesn't drop them seems scant reason to conclude, as Olds' speaker does, that "although it's a story with some cruelty in it, / finally it's a story of love / and release, the way the father pulls you out of nothing / and stand there foolishly grinning." The affirmation rings false. In another poem, Olds' desire to be knowingly dramatic fuses with an apocalyptic despair and yields a declaration of the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, "I wonder now only when it will happen." While nobody can argue with such a feeling, we might well expect a poet who grapples with the nuclear dilemma to refresh our sense of crisis without helping to spread the demoralizing fallout of resignation.
At the same time, it's clear that despair is not characteristic of Olds' overall outlook. Indeed, her work is sinewed with affirmative bravery, and that bravery and resiliency constitute no small part of her appeal. Given her family history and given a world that wastes so much of its creative energies on engines of destruction, The Gold Cell is saner and more full of love than anyone could reasonably expect, which, in itself, argues indirectly against the inevitability of mutual assured destruction.
SOURCE: A review of The Matter of This World: New & Selected Poems, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 74-5.
[Pybus is an English editor, educator, and poet. In the excerpt below, he praises Olds's focus on physicality, autobiography, and parent-child relationships in The Matter of This World.]
The American Sharon Olds has made a very strong selection from her three earlier USA volumes, and added a handful of new poems for her first British publication [The Matter of this World: New Selected Poems]. Her work generates so much physical presence, explores so palpably the relationship between a woman's body, feeling and mind, that the surrender or revelation of intimate details is less embarrassing than an occasion for gratitude. She writes almost exclusively here about her childhood, her troubled relationship with her parents and her father's death from cancer, her love for her own children. Most of all she writes about—it's tempting to say 'through'—the human body, her own, her father's, her mother's. The body informs her tactile, sensuous imagery, her often urgent rhythms, the surprising and delightful turns of thought. This is 'My Father's Breasts' entire:
Their soft surface, the polished silk of the hair running down them delicately like water. I placed my check—once, perhaps—upon their firm shape, my ear pressed against the black charge of the heart within. At most once—yet when I think of my father I think of his breasts, my head resting on his fragrant chest, as if I had spent hours, years, in that smell of black pepper and turned earth.
It nods to Whitman and his 'scented herbage' of the male chest, but the sprightly delicacy of this is all her own. It gains resonance here from other poems which suggest that her father often ill-treated her and her sister. (The poems have such clearly defined biographical lineaments it is impossible to read them except as deeply autobiographical.) 'The polished silk of his hair' belongs to the man whose 'silver hair' she runs her hand through in 'The Moment of my Father's Death', 'The unliving, glistening matter of the world.' She does not overplay her anatomical shock tactics, but she persuades you that even when she imagines herself in 'Last Acts' back pre-natally among her father's sperm this too is (I mean no pun) life-enhancing.
SOURCE: "Talking to Our Father. The Political and Mythical Appropriations of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 6, November-December, 1989, pp. 35-41.
[Matson is a poet and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses Olds's use of metaphor as a means of articulating her painful and ambivalent feelings towards her father and as a strategy for healing and empowering the divided self of the poet/narrator.]
When I first composed the title of this essay, I was unconscious of the grammatical—and hence sematic—blur I had built into my project's announcement. Accustomed to viewing the writers under discussion as powerful originators, I had used the word "of" in the title as belonging to the possessive case: that is, the claims to ownership were Rich's and Olds's. A colleague glanced at my title and saw the slippage immediately: whose appropriations? Uneasily I watched as my agents of appropriation were threatened by the engulfing objective case; claiming and being claimed suddenly seemed dangerously inextricable.
I have grown to appreciate the duplicities of "of" for they seem to be, after all, most to the point in a discussion of the poetry of Rich and Olds. These poets have as a central project scrutiny of the intricacies of belonging, not only in language but in their lives; and not only in their lives but in the cultural givens they live with and would revise. Where, their work asks again and again, does the site of my origination become the predicate of my difference? At what point does the parent, a locus of generation, become a principle of decisive limitation, if not potential danger to the self? Our Father, who art at home as well as in heaven, is yours the only name? And the only power to name?
In Adrienne Rich's volume of poetry, Your Native Land, Your Life, and Sharon Olds's book, The Gold Cell, the Father represents a central figure of opposition, control, and fascination. What initially surprised me about the Father's centrality in these volumes is that both of these poets, each as well established in her career, feel the continuing imperative of dialogue with a controlling male force. It is almost as if these female voices had to come this far in their own development to address Our Father in their own terms, rather than His.
I deliberately blur the distinction between the figure of domestic patriarchy and that of theological/historical/social patriarchy because the poets do. Rich addresses a personal father who then becomes inseparably identified with the ideologies of the religion, class, and politics of the male-controlled group. Olds also addresses a personal father, but his specter becomes so gargantuan in her own memory—the only available medium for re-collecting him—that he becomes mythic.
The dialogic structure is then grotesquely unbalanced. In the poetry of both Olds and Rich the lyric "I" insists on taking a kind of total responsibility for itself: it generates its own identity through a continual probing and analysis of its responses to what it remembers. The Father, on the other hand, remains obdurately silent in the text because he has been magnified by his membership in the political or mythic collective. This serves not so much to un-voice him as to make most of the available voices his. The names, laws, and prophecies are imbedded in his body, his corpus. Within this unbalanced dialogic the poet must seek a strategy that licenses her voice, hence her identity, against this penetrating silence.
As Alicia Ostriker points out in her comprehensive study Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, poets from Anne Bradstreet to Emily Dickinson have exploited the tension between what they felt they could and could not say in address or answer to a male-controlled literary establishment and culture. Like subversives everywhere they developed double voices to encode the realities of their desires, ambitions, and disaffections within a publically acceptable discourse. Bradstreet's penultimate stanza of "The Prologue" is a flagrant example:
Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are; Men have precedency and still excel, It is but vain unjustly to wage war; Men can do best, and women know it well. Preeminence in all and each is yours; Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.
Whether this is read to be as acidly ironic as it seems to a modern audience, or merely as the demurral of a wifely Puritan conscience against the outwardly directed energies of her own talent, the point remains the same: the safety of the female artist-self depends upon disguise and indirection. Ostriker writes: "to be a creative woman in a gender-polarized culture is to be a divided self … both the structure of the split self in women's poems, and the characteristically acerbic voice used by many women poets to articulate their dilemma, compose a reflection and critique of cultural dualism."
Certainly the skillful manipulation of two meanings at once is at the heart of metaphor and so part of the poet's province and power, be the poet male or female. The difference lies, of course, in the nature of the impulse to duplicity—is it a socially determined necessity, or an aesthetic and epistomological testing of language's expressive force? The female poet who is at once constrained by the former necessity and, through her artistry, achieves the latter stage of superability, writes against large odds indeed. She may, thereby, prove genius. But only when she frees herself from the defensive barriers between hidden and social selves, will she be whole. And with a whole self comes the fullest power to act.
This is not the place to trace the large pattern of emergent whole selves in twentieth-century women's poetry. Ostriker argues that the steely control of Marianne Moore and even the sour brilliance of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are still evidence of the problem of divided selfhood. She writes:
To approach the strategy of this style from another angle, we need look no further than Laing's observation that an ontologically uneasy person may adopt, to the point of caricature, the personality of his oppressor. Control, impersonality, and dispassionateness are supposedly normative masculine virtues in any case, and are favored by the contemporary literary climate. The cooler the voice, the warmer the reception, is a good rule of thumb. An intelligent woman poet may have every reason in the world to construct, as her fortress, a perversely exaggerated version of an acceptable style.
What interests me about the recent books of Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds is how little their relationship to their audience—both the audience consisting of the addressee in the poems as well as the wider circle of readers—depends upon the kind of rhetorical fortress Ostriker identifies. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, a crucial area of focus in each of these works remains the dialogic relation to the Father.
Both Rich and Olds seem to have found formal approaches that are no longer dictated by inherited tropes. They have found ways of unleashing poetic energies and freedoms that are no longer purely defensive. They have decided to call some of the shots….
Instead of manipulating prosody, Sharon Olds used dramatically prolific and unapologetic metaphors as a crucial means of empowering the self. She will tell her stories as exactly as she can, and exactitudes of rage, of tyranny, of abuse, and of overwhelming desire demand conferring likenesses that will leap across the distance of repressed memory and pain. When the speaker's soul will slip "from between my ribs like a tiny hotel soap" she is compressing information both about the soul and about the startling apprehension of things in the world. The power of saying, of making connections between the world's things and the life of the soul, fills the speaker with energy and control.
The short, humorous poem "The Pope's Penis," is wholly fueled by metaphor:
It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate clapper at the center of a bell. It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a halo of silver seaweed, the hair swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night, while his eyes sleep, it stands up in praise of God.
The speaker implicitly acknowledges that she is discussing the unmentionable by her metaphorical indirection; at the same time, such indirection allows her to find analogous names that have a demystifying power over the sacred, hidden penis. By making the penis first into "a delicate clapper," she transforms it into the Pope's articulate organ, more central than the tongue and the tongue's abstract power to the world. Next, as the fish that "moves when he moves" she emphasizes the Pope's inescapable physical nature, though the mitigating words "ghostly" and "halo" try unsuccessfully to render the penis insubstantial. The battle that the Pope loses with his physical nature in the last two lines is cleverly couched in religious language, just as the earlier metaphors partook of the iconography of the church. Though the Pope might wish to transcend or deny the body, the poet's metaphors fuse body to spirituality, thus allowing him no sterile separation of the two.
It is interesting to note how baldly unmetaphorical the title is. I think the point here is that the poet will not shirk the direct confrontation with the body; indeed, Olds often names the body and its parts with an explicitness far beyond any decorous concern with the reader's sense of modesty. But by doing so she disarms the words as inherited metaphors themselves, metaphors that have phallocentrically created special "dirty" vocabularies for the private use of men, or just as exclusively, clinical vocabularies for the use of controlling medical figures. Both special languages have to do with the tradition of articulate male power over the mute female body; Olds reclaims both the power to speak for her own body and, with a delightful voluptuous arrogance, usurps the descriptive role as well. She traces bodies slowly and deliberately with her tongue: it is a gesture in which one feels the generosity of a lover, the inner necessity of a mother animal, and the conscious aestheticism of the artist.
The large extension of metaphor is myth, and Olds employs the old stories much as Rich employs the old forms: she will selectively reuse them, but their use is predicated on her transforming powers of narration. In the poem "Saturn," the speaker writes "no one knew / my father was eating his children." It requires the double vision of the poet, the one who sees both pattern and particular, to read the mythic archetype in the picture of her drunken father sprawled and snoring on the couch. "You would have seen / only a large, handsome man / heavily asleep, unconscious," she goes on to say, metaphorically interpreting the devouring of her brother by her father as a series of gourmand snacks ("sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of lobster. He took / my brother's head between his lips and snapped it like a cherry off the stem.") The feeding off his boy is described in almost loving detail, as though there is a kind of sympathy for the paternal appetite, and the poem closes:
[…] This is what he wanted, to take that life into his mouth and show what a man could do—show his son what a man's life was.
This poem magnifies her father and makes him into a kind of primal, irrepressible force, but I do not think it either forgives or condemns him. Rather, it seems to me to expose the self-destructiveness of the father: to eat one's son—one's image, as it were—is to commit a suicide. The "man's life," which comes to nothing at the mercy of its unconscious and uncontrolled drives, is swallowed by itself.
In "Late Poem to My Father" the poet comments on the cruelty her father's parents presumably practiced on him:
[…] And what they did to you you did not do to me. 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.
By collapsing the generations so that the speaker becomes a potential protective force for her own father as a child, she imaginatively short-circuits the violent cycle of abuse and range. Her new configuration involves the forgiveness, compassion, and impulse to protect which are traditional female virtues, and yet this is not the voice of a coerced dependent. Rather it is the artist-voice, one who has taken over the responsibility for examining and defining her relations. In the closing lines of "After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood," the speaker says "I
took you in my arms, I said It's all right,don't cry, it's all right, the air filled with flying glass, I hardly knew what I said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.
In this moment when the pattern of abuser and victim is shattered, the daughter realizes in the moment of saying, that forgiveness implies new responsibilities toward the self. The paradigm that has just been exploded was one that locked both participants into the stasis of a death-grip. Now, the speaker is like the writer with a blank page: it is a precipice of power, fluid possibilities of creation, and frightening autonomy. The writer at this point can face the true and genderless existential crisis of the artist.
Olds dramatically fuses this existential dilemma with her own revisionist mythmaking. In another mother-daughter poem entitled "What if God," she talks about the mother's hot misery rolled over her "like a / tongue of lava from the top of a mountain." She wonders:
what was He doing as He saw her weep in my hair and slip my soul from between my ribs like a tiny hotel soap, did He wash His hands of me as I washed my hands of Him? Is there a God in the house? Is there a God in the house? Then reach down and take that woman off that child's body, take that woman by the nape of the neck like a young cat and lift her up and deliver her over to me …
[Rhetorically, Olds] uses a language reminiscent of Plath or Sexton when she combines the cry to doctor/God in "Is there a God in the house?" But she does not stop at the point of insisting on the God's distorted position of power. Rather, if there is a God, the poet issues both a smart reproof on behalf of the victimized child and a brisk command to turn over the business of vengeance to the speaker, since He has botched the whole affair so badly. Notice that the vengeance itself is couched in the animal figure of a mother cat. Therefore the return of power to the female speaker is an escape from the Old Testament Law of eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, to some corrective of the mother's aggressive drive which will be applied by nature. If there is, on the other hand, no God, as seems likely by the unanswered cry, it really amounts to the same consequence, since the poet has, by virtue of reimagining this scene with herself in final control, usurped his role while redefining it, through the mother-cat image….
In Olds's poem "I Go Back to May 1937," the speaker contemplates a photograph of her parents before they were married. Rather than wish them apart and herself unborn, she ends the poem by reconciling their future guilt with her own rhetorical power to absolve it: "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." This is again a godlike status she ends up claiming for herself, and the Jovian Father who usurped her early imagination with his hugeness, his hairiness, and the mystery of his phallus, must now wrestle with the independent voice, a maker of her own myths.
SOURCE: "Knows Father Best," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 255, No. 20, December 14, 1992, pp. 748-50.
[Lesser is an American poet, translator, critic, and educator. In the following review of The Father, she examines the volume's autobiographical focus.]
Through four volumes of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1987) and now The Father—Sharon Olds has engendered a body of work that speaks largely in a voice that is first-person singular. Natural in form (the cadences feel right, like rhythms of the body), conversational in tone, her poems often embrace matters that are unnatural, horrifying, inhuman.
Subjected, with her siblings, to abuse from both parents (poems that relate this history abound in her second and third books), Olds struggles to define herself within the context of the family into which she was born as well as the family she herself has made. Rarely is the speaker of one of her poems a sexual observer or omniscient narrator; usually her role and perspective are sex-defined, and she identifies herself as daughter, woman, mother, sister. "Prayer," the last poem in Satan Says, can be seen as Olds's credo; the articles of her faith, the "central meanings" she splendidly celebrates, are sex and birth. It is one of many erotic poems in which she convincingly incarnates a sexual consciousness that is male and female at once.
Etymologically speaking, a poet is a maker; this poet adopts several senses of the word—conceiver, creator, shaper, excreter. She knows the shock value of "foul language" and can use it to powerful effect. This was evident from the first. The title poem that opens Satan Says presents a miniaturized speaker. Shut in, she is "trying to write [her] / way out" of childhood's small, satin-lined cedar box, whose gold, heart-shaped lock has no key. Satan tempts her with the power of words, promising to get her out if she will, among other things, say:
My father is a shit….Say your mother is a pimp.
Say shit, say death, say fuck the father….Don't you feel a lot better?
She obliges but is ambivalent:
… I love him too, you know, I say to Satan dark in the locked box. I love them but I'm trying to say what happened to us in the lost past.
Satan suggests the word torture. Finally, he bids her to conjure a primal scene: "Say: the father's cock, the mother's / cunt." The speaker prefers the confines of the box to the hellish vision of her parents "locked in the bed," and to exiting via Satan's mouth ("Come in my mouth, he says, you're there / already"). Satan "sucks himself out the keyhole," seals the lock with "the wax of his tongue." Cold as it is, the cedar construct of the poem—jewel box, house, coffin in one—feels safer than what is outside; moreover, it can contain the mixed emotional state Olds knows best, not hatred pure and simple but hatred mixed with love:
I am warming my cold hands at the dancer's ruby eye— the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love.
Sharon Olds's latest book, The Father, is a more capacious repository for her visions, her new versions of relationship to the main—creator and tormentor of her flesh—she terms "the" father, but it is neither an elegy for nor a tribute to him. Its first poem, "The Waiting," shows her father's head "calm / and dark between the wings" of a wing-back chair; he sits unmoving, spiritless, facing the water ("darkness upon the face of it") of the swimming pool, perhaps less the spit and image of God than of Lucifer fallen.
The book's purgatorial inditement may be the author's purgative attempt to "work magic." As daughter alone, she unremittingly relates fifty-two poems, as if, in recounting in minute detail the course of her father's illness, his death, cremation, burial and her physical longing for him years after these facts, Olds might write herself out of a locked box, one filled with a patrimony of abuse.
There is so much pain in The Father, all of it strictly personal. Some of its sources are cited as overt incidents of abuse. Others conceal themselves, as in "The Want," where the poet, professing to have "stopped / longing for [her father] to address [her] from his heart," blankly recites how her heart's desire has been granted to her stepmother. In writing only of her individual pain, Olds has stripped off a veil of self-dramatization that—in my eyes—made her as much a suspect as a victim in her earlier books. No longer does she ask us to see her father as Mussolini or the Shah of Iran, her sister as Hitler, herself as a survivor of Auschwitz. Here we see her clearly for what she is, a poet not of the body politic but of the body.
The body manufactures its own products, which Olds never fails to inspect. Mixing urine and alcohol in a fluid metaphor of "making," the poet sees her father, watches his "gorgeous name / writ on water in waste" wash away ("To My Father"). The scatological singing in "Waste Sonata" resounds with the strains of fecal incantation heard in "Satan Says," though its slacker phrasings sound like refrains from Songs of Self-Help:
I think at some point I looked at my father and thought He's full of shit….
but I could not live with hating him. I did not see that I had to.
Declaratively coprophilic, it nonetheless discovers a human truth:
… Well it's fun talking about this, I love the terms of foulness. I have learned to get pleasure from speaking of pain. But to die, like this. To grow old and die a child, lying to herself. My father was not a shit. He was a man failing at life.
The poem does not end here. It leaves us gaping at an image of the speaker's mother, siblings and self as little "shits that move through him, / shapely … waste foetuses…." To what end? I wonder.
Her father's daughter in poem after poem, Olds enters into a pact with the physical world ("the body on earth is all we have got"). Having done so empowers her to write poems of cold radiant beauty, like "The Lumens." While another observer might detect a spiritual aura around a dying man who has had a blood transfusion, Olds sees discrete points of light:
we laugh, the nurses come in, and each has a lumen around her folded cap, each particle of air is capped with brightness
for minutes at a time he shines before he dies.
The price may be just her soul. She will sooner turn the full force of her imagination on any given object—a glass of her father's sputum becomes the sun and center of the universe of his death—than expand on any form of human exchange (in word or gesture) that figures in this book. There are further perils. Tedious catalogues of body parts or their emissions (e.g., "His Smell") spawn themselves. Problems with figures of speech arise. In "The Look," rubbing her father's back "as if his body were his soul," the poet
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….
If we take Olds at her word here, the image becomes ghoulish; if we do not, the expression is bathetic.
Racing across a continent to be present at the moment of her father's death; caressing the urn and inspecting its contents; prostrating herself upon the grave a year later; inventing her own dance of death, a flirtatious "cake-walk / of the skeletons" (see "The Race," "The Urn," "His Ashes," "One Year," "The Pull"), Olds gives us dramatic renditions of Death & Co.'s standard repertory that prove her a daughter of Poe. The end of "Beyond Harm" seems a case of ancestral ventriloquism from beyond the grave: "I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always / love me now, and I laughed—he was dead, dead!"
"My Father Speaks to Me From the Dead" brings the book to a stunning conclusion and reminds us that Olds is also a legitimate daughter of Whitman. Breaking the seal of his silence, the father catalogues what he loved in his daughter: feet, knees, legs, sex, buttocks, anus, navel, breasts, shoulders, hair, face, brain ("its halves and silvery / folds, like a woman's labia"), heart, womb. Despite dispersal into the elements, he speaks clearly:
I understand this life, I am matter, your father, I made you, when I say now that I love you I mean look down at your hand, move it, that action is matter's love, for human love go elsewhere.
The Father's beginning figuratively encompassed this ending; the words with which it opens—"No matter"—deny all "the father" stands for.
"I have learned / to get pleasure from speaking of pain," Olds asserts in "Waste Sonata." Do her poems give pleasure? As the forgotten ancestor Wallace Stevens might scold, mustn't they do so in order to achieve their supreme fiction: that the examination of a single personal death can universally move others?
Beautiful, pained, benumbed or repellent, the individual poems of The Father will impress and fascinate, no matter if they succeed or fail. The book as a whole will speak directly to those who have survived abuse; it will not appeal to us all. Ordinary survivors who care to read about losing a human relation should turn elsewhere for now. Only time will tell if the poet's charm has worked, if writing this book has freed her to incorporate the subject matter of human love into the growing body of her work.
SOURCE: "Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 14, 16.
[Zeidner is an American novelist, poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she offers a mixed review of The Father.]
William Butler Yeats declared that "only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood—sex and the dead." Sharon Olds has set out to prove his point, writing with ferocious clarity about the body and "the world / of the nerves," site of all delight and despair. While the message is hardly new, what has catapulted Ms. Olds to the forefront of American poets is her fearless, gritty celebration of a woman's physical nature, not just in lovemaking but in menstruation, childbirth and motherhood. There's refreshingly little mist in her mysticism.
Her fourth collection, The Father, is a series of poems about a daughter's bedside vigil for a father dying of cancer, and her grief after his death. Despite the archetypal sound of the title's pater, we have met this particular man before, in past poems. In previous books, Ms. Olds has written with un-self-conscious candor about the entangled feelings of awe and anger that the tall, strong, cold, cigar-smoking man evoked in her.
But now the tumor had reduced him to his disease, and Ms. Olds observes its progress unflinchingly. Whole poems revolve around the grim mechanics of the intravenous drip, the glass of mucus on the night stand ("my father has to gargle, cough, / spit a mouthful of thick stuff / into the glass every ten minutes or so") and the smell of his sweat, "like wet cement."
Ms. Olds's style is breathless, with simple observations tumbling her forward until she seems almost to collide with insight; most of her best poems thus resist excerpting. In "His Smell," she somehow moves us from the pungent smell of sweat to her father's death and her reaction to it:
After his last breath, he lay there tilted on his side, not moving, not breathing, making no sound, but he smelled the same…. I had thought the last thing between us would be a word, a look, a pressure of touch, not that he would be dead and I would be bending over him smelling him, breathing him in as you would breathe the air, deeply, before going into exile.
For a cycle of poems, The Father is unusually narrow in focus. Though a stepmother is mentioned, we learn nothing about the narrator's feelings toward her. There are no visiting siblings, no nurses, no lore about the man in his prime—no world at all beyond the hospital bed. Like a miner's lamp, Ms. Olds's attention is fixed on one thing, the man's wasted body. Several poems in sequence will approach one moment from almost identical angles, as if the poet were an action photographer desperately clicking away.
The deliberate tunnel vision is the book's originality and its liability. Ms. Olds has written more polished poems about both death and her father in past collections. Those poems have a different kind of power when juxtaposed with explorations of her tenderness for her children or her unbridled pleasure in sex. Here, without that context, Ms. Olds often seems to be reprising her own themes and images too doggedly.
Yet the poems allow her to examine grief with new depth and surprising delicacy. Pointedly, there is no grand moment of release. Rather, we see the painstaking process of letting go, as the world beyond illness creeps back and the narrator confronts the impossibility of understanding her father's fate—any man's fate—in any definitive way:
I think of you daily but it isn't even you, a dead man of ground bone, it wasn't you even alive.
SOURCE: "That Which Is Towards," in Poetry Flash, No. 247, October-November, 1993, pp. 1, 4-5, 14-15.
[Keelan is an editor and poet. In the following excerpt, she offers a favorable assessment of The Father.]
Though I have attempted to discard much of the dogma of my childhood Catholicism, I have never tried, or even desired, to expatriate myself from either the living or crucified image of Christ. I've been looking today at the colored pictures of the Stations of the Cross in an old St. Joseph's Missal I found in the garage. I never realized before how beyond morality the prayers for the Stations of the Cross are. By entering the ritual, one has already agreed on a fixed end, Station # 14, to be exact, where Christ is finally laid in the tomb. It's only three days later when he is resurrected that any real judgment occurs, and his later ascension leaves us alone to find him in ourselves. It's hard to love that God, the one who leaves, who has no body. But before he becomes simply an idea, he's entirely body, bearing his cross, falling, holding his mother, allowing himself to be helped, falling again, giving his image away, etc. It's only after he resurrects that He earns the capital 'H'. In my missal, he's watching as the nails go into his hand. It is probably the way in which we already understand the end that accounts for the visceral truth of the Stations of the Cross.
Partner in vigilance and scrutiny to the Stations dedicated to the dying God, Sharon Olds's collection The Father is a sequence of poems chronicling a father's illness and death. Unflinchingly unable to turn her eye away from the body of the dying father, Olds narrates, with an astonishing humility born from such scrutiny, each moment of his passage from the temporal world, constructing a vision of lasting humanity which does not fade when you turn the last page. [She writes in "The Pulling":]
Every hour, now, he is changing, shedding some old ability. Knees up, body tin-colored, hair black and grey, thick with grease like ritual unguent, my father moves, hour by hour, head-first, toward death, I sense every inch of him moving through me toward it, the way each child moved, slowly, down through my body, as if I were God feeling the rivers pulling steadily through me, and the earth pressing through, the universe itself hauled through me heavily and easily, drawn through my body like a napkin through a ring—as if my father could live and die safely inside me.
The father's impending death is almost a physical birth for the poet who sees, in her own father's demise, a model for the creatíon myth:
I would be there all day, watch him nap, be there when he woke, sit with him until the day ended, and he could get back into bed with his wife. Not until the next dawn would he be alone again, 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. (from "The Waiting")
Olds's father / god figure is silent, a man "lying as if dead on the flowered couch" of her childhood, a man whose "silence had mauled me …" ("I Wanted To Be There When My Father Died"). Though they both feel his inaccessibility, unlike [Louise] Gluck, the love Olds feels for her admittedly flawed father does not cripple her. Rather, his flaws link him to her: "He knows he will live in me after he is dead …" ("Nullipara"); "my father could live and die safely inside me …" ("The Pulling"); "at the end of his life his life began / to wake in me …" ("His Stillness"). Like the God who has resurrected and is no longer physically present, the father remains accessible only through his childrens' faith. In the way that prayer honors the literal body of Christ in the Stations of the Cross, Olds's ultimate acceptance of her father's life, comes from her reverent attention to his dying body.
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 his 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. But now I can still see the tiny snowflakes, white and night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it rises the way we were promised at death it would rise, the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything. (from "The Lifting")
The intensity of her need to know him as he dies accounts for the fervent, liturgical movement of the earlier poems in The Father. The poems that are written after his death, however urgent, are struggling with pastness, with memory, and as such, struggle with the filtering effect of time's passage. As she had learned to accept her father's life through the long elaboration of his death, the poet now struggles with the world disembodied from him.
As the flu goes on, I get thinner and thinner, all winter, till my weight dips to my college weight, and then drops below it, drifts down through high school, and then down into junior high, down through the first blood, heading for my childhood weight, birth weight, conception. When I see myself naked in the mirror, I see I am flirting with my father, his cadaver the only body this thin I have seen … (from "The Pull")
Bereft of reason, of first model, the speaker's first impulse is towards death, towards the reunification of father and daughter. But the answer comes clearly in the final poem that the point of resemblance is to instruct here, in the living world:
… when I touched your little anus I crossed wires with God for a moment. I never hated your shit—that was your mother. I love your navel, thistle seed fossil, even though it's her print on you. Of course I love your breasts—did you see me looking up from within your daughter's face, as she nursed? I love your bony shoulders and you know I love your hair, thick and live as earth. And I never hated your face. I hated its eruptions. You know what I love? I love your brain, its halves and silvery folds, like a woman's labia. I love in you even what comes from deep in your mother—your heart, that hard worker, and your womb, it is a heaven to me, I lie on its soft hills and gaze up at its rosy vault. I have been in a body without breath, I have been in the morgue, in fire, in the slagged chimney, in the air over the earth, and buried in the earth, and pulled down into the ocean—where I have been I understand this life, I am matter, your father, I made you, when I say now that I love you I mean look down at your hand, move it, that action is matter's love, for human love go elsewhere. (from "My Father Speaks to Me from the Dead")
Here is our task. This is our body.