The Trajectory of Sharon Olds – a look at five poems

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By Ray Greenblatt
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         Leafing through the most popular poems by Sharon Olds, I discerned the development of a mid-twentieth century woman. I am not interested in whether this is the poet’s actual life revealed; what I did see was the representative life of many American women, vivified by these highly emotional and uniquely rendered poems.

 

          The poems I will be investigating are: her parents in The Victims; dating in After Making Love in Winter; marriage in The Wedding Vow; her daughter in The Month of June: 13 ½; and finally divorce in Unspeakable.

                                                               I – THE VICTIMS

          This poem opens with rather prosaic lines explaining how the mother and her children battled against what must have been the abusive treatment perpetrated by the alcoholic father.

          We don’t begin to know the essence of the father until we encounter striking imagery. His suits were “those dark carcasses hung in your closet.” “Carcasses” were once living things that the father no longer is figuratively, having lost his living as well as being kicked out of his home.

          Likewise, that image is intensified by “the black noses of your shoes with their large pores.” Even the shoes were alive, if leather, especially if they had “noses.” “Their large pores” added a distasteful element to the human comparison that will be touched on later with the use of several other images.

          It seems as though the mother, with her own limitations, had to teach the children to hate, because love for parents can be a powerful, instinctive quality without the leaven of reason. So “we pricked with her for your annihilation” employs a strange verb in that context; the children had to be pushed. The excessive word “annihilation” underscores how their hate had reached extremes.

          Then the poem serves to view down-and-out street people. They are strongly described in ugly terms: “The white slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their suits of compressed silt” and “stained flippers of their hands.” It is as if these people inhabit an aqueous lower world.

          The final telling image continues the sea reference: “The underwater fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the lanterns lit.” These people are still alive—“fire of their eyes” and “lanterns lit” and we are led to wonder if the woman who has spoken throughout this poem has come to feel pity for people who have lost everything– including her father.

                                        II – AFTER MAKING LOVE IN WINTER

          This is a very sensual, passionate poem. After making love the woman feels “a plate of iron laid down on my nerves” and “our bodies touch like blooms of fire.”

          This experience has intensified all of her senses so that she sees “the light from the hall burns in straight lines and casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a figure throwing up its arms for joy.” “The angle itself is blessed, and the dark globes of the chandeliers.”

          A very unique comparison is “the silvery bulbs” cause her to “feel my ovaries deep in my body.” The intensity of this sexual experience reverberates throughout her body to its very core.

          For her, intercourse has made her a complete human being; before, she was a child. “Like God putting the finishing touches on, before sending me down to be born.”

          And with the line “we have come to the end of questions” the woman and man no longer wonder if they can relate fully; they now feel that they have formed a deep indissoluble union.

                                                     III – THE WEDDING VOW

          The couple legalizes their relationship in a simple church, not an ornate high church. Although they have already made a laypersons’ pact between them, they desire a religious benediction.

          And religious imagery is significantly used. “God’s stable perfectly cleaned” while outside is “a moat of mud.” This stresses the plainness of the church, even employing a reference to where Jesus was born.
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          The poet uses what I may call a unique “delay technique.” For instance:
          In truth, we had married
          that first night, in bed, we had been
          married by our bodies, but now we stood
          in history—what our bodies had said,
          mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,
          gathered together, death.
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The word “death” holds considerable power coming at the very end of the sentence. It sums up a total relationship between two people that inevitably ends in old age and death.
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          Again: “We stood
          holding each other by the hand, yet I also
          stood as if alone, for a moment,
          just before the vow, though taken
          years before, took.
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“Took” shows that it involved a long time to develop a relationship before the woman personally could feel secure in it.
          Finally, early in the poem “flies” are wiped off the Bible the minister holds. Later in the poem they appear again to refer to the woman’s parents in a comparison of the two marriages:
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           I felt
           the silent, dry, crying ghost of my
           parents’ marriage there, somewhere
          in the bright space—perhaps one of the
          plummeting flies, bouncing silently
          as it hit forsaking all others
          then was brushed away.
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                                                  IV – THE MONTH OF JUNE: 13 ½

          Years later the couple now has a teenage daughter. They love her very much and applaud each of her growing stages. The poet capsulizes each stage by using school years. Kindergarten is defined as “a strip of thumb-suck blanket.” 1st grade is “a dim cocoon . . . back there somewhere on the path.” 4th grade was a “hard jacket . . . when she had so much pain.”  This reference is cleverly slurred over, as many youngsters encounter difficult times for myriad reasons. “Magenta rind of 5th grade” could mean the daughter graduated from one school, shedding one for another.

          And now 8th grade is “a chrysalis cracking”; she is outgrowing another school, but also as a person she is growing up. “The whole school is coming off her shoulders like a cloak unclasped.” “Her jerky sexy child joke dance is self, self.”  She can “jazz out her hands” and “chant I’m great! I’m great!”  She is not conceited, only realizing her worth.
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          The parents are watching:
          Like a good mother and a
          good father who looked down and
          love everything their baby does, the way she
          lives their love.
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The parents take joy in their daughter maturing into a feeling, expressive adult; so far they have succeeded in raising their child.

                                                           V – UNSPEAKABLE

          After thirty years of marriage the wife is involved in divorce. It is “unspeakable” because it is a tragedy to her; it might also be that she has not come to terms with it using reason. Her mate is “my almost-no-longer husband.”
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          She is still full of questions:  “What was it like, to love me—when you looked at me, what did you see?”
         She muses sadly: “When he loved me, I looked out at the world as if from inside a profound dwelling.”
          She thought:
          We were joined not just for breath’s time,
          but for the long continuance,
          the hard candies of femur and stone,
          the fastnesses.
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          She tries to show no anger, sometimes employs even humor. “All is courtesy and horror.”

          We don’t know the complete story. Is someone to blame? We don’t know his side—except hints of another woman—and never will. In life we often don’t learn all sides of a situation. A poem can explore just so much.  The ending is an enigma: “When I say, is this about her, and he says, No, it’s about you, we do not speak of her.”

I see these five poems as a five-act play about a woman’s life. A woman lives through a difficult childhood. She falls in love. She marries. She and her husband have a child who fulfills them. However, after considerable time their marriage bonds do not hold. The woman cannot say she is reliving her parents’ marriage; hers is different. Also, her child has received a firm foundation to live a healthy life. As all adults, the woman must meet new challenges and continue her life. With power, humanity, and keen poetic skills, Sharon Olds allows us to view all of these vicissitudes in life.
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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.
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