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 effec. 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
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 man--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 sh it.... 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, tike :a woman's labia"), heart, womb. Despite dispersal into the elements, bespeaks 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 Wailace 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.