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The dead and the living.

Abrutalized childhood is the storm center around which the poems in Sharon Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living (the 1983 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets), furiously revolve. The actors in the drama are indelibly drawn. First the grandfather:

Every night, as my grandfather sat

in the darkened room in front of the fire,

the liquor like fire in his hand, his eye

glittering meaninglessly in the light

from the flames, his glass eye baleful and stony,

a young man sat with him

in silence and darkness. . . .

The young man, "the apprentice/who would pass his master in cruelty and oblivion,/drinking steadily by the flames in the blackness,/that young man my father" is pictured in these poems, convincingly and repellently, as a drunker bully who terrorized his family:

We played dolls in that house where Father staggered with the

Thanksgiving knife, where Mother wept at

noon into her one ounce of

cottage cheese, praying for the strength not to

kill herself.

Even the sister has a role to play in this horrific household:

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. . . .

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

Then you were fired, and we grinned inside, the way people grinned when

Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South

Lawn for the last time.

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

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

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

My da on his elegant vegetrian ankles

drank his supper. Like the other dinosaurs

Massive, meaty, made of raw steak,

he nibbled and guzzled, his jaw dripping weeds and bourbon,

super sleazy extinct beast my heart drug for.

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

She must have sensed as much herself, because this book moves--perhaps a bit too schematically--through sections titled "The Dead," "The living" and "The Children," from the past into the present. Olds is a keen and accurate observer of people. Still bearing the scars if not the wounds of childhood, she is not prone to sentimentality: "It's an old/story--the oldest we have on our planet--/the story of replacement," whereby as the daughter grows up, she replaces her mother. Sharon Olds is a tough, clear-eyed survivor.
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Author:Tillinghast, Richard
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 13, 1984
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