Sharon Olds: The Regret of the Body

by Anthony Lawrence

Sharon_OldsPhoto of Sharon Olds by Matt Valentine

Sometime in 1990 I was at home in Geraldton, WA. I was at the kitchen table, writing. It was late morning. I heard a car pull up. The front gate creaked open, there were footsteps, a thump, and then a woman shouted: “Arsehole!” When I reached the screen door, I saw her striding away. She had dark hair and was wearing a white shirt and black pants. She got into her car and drove away. I looked around. Near the door was a cardboard box. I picked it up and carried it into the kitchen. I shook it. Then I opened it, carefully. Inside were some books, one of which was The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds. The box had been sent from my friend Judy Beveridge, and the woman was a postal contractor, who had shouted “Parcel!” In the accompanying letter, Judy described her delight at having found Sharon Olds, and thought I might also find her poetry worth reading. Judith was right. I took The Gold Cell into the living room, sat down, and read every poem. That day I read the book a few times. The poems did what fine poetry can often do. They made me want to write.

Sharon Olds’ first book of poems, Satan Says, won the San Francisco Poetry Centre Award in 1981. Many of the poems are confronting and visceral in their exploration of child abuse, motherhood and sex, and they set a linguistic and thematic precedent for much of what would follow in subsequent collections. The book opens with the title poem. In “Satan Says”, Olds creates a claustrophobic scene set within a child’s music box. The way she aligns a child’s innocence with adult sexuality and responsibility is both brilliant and horrifying. Satan comes to the one inside the box and makes demands: in order for her to gain freedom, she must say things about her parents – My father is a shit, my mother is a pimp… She says the words, but then Satan takes things to a darker level. Say shit, say death, say fuck the father. She says the words and the box begins to open. But there’s more. Say: the father’s cock, the mother’s cunt… She speaks the words. Having said these things, Satan leaves her there and seals the keyhole with wax. It’s your coffin now, he says. The poem’s last line: “the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love” is the first time Olds lays open and begins to explore, in poetry, her complex issues of confrontation and forgiveness. As a child she was sexually abused by both her mother and father. This is dealt with, in varying degrees of intensity (and success), in her first four books. In this brief discussion of her poetry, I’d like to focus on the books: Satan Says,The Gold Cell and The Wellspring. 

Many poets have written out of personal experience, defining emotional and physical trauma. Unless the subject matter is dealt with in ways that don’t diminish or undermine narrative or lyrical control, it can become nothing more than catharsis, a 12-Step Program in verse. The so-called Confessional poets made misery and pain legitimate subjects for poetry. Anne Sexton, in particular, gave voice to sexuality, the workings of the body and mental illness, and paved the way for other writers to explore these issues, where previously it had been more or less taboo territory. Sharon Olds writes from a similar perspective to Sexton, but I’d like to suggest her control over the details and her ability to know when to end a poem make her a better poet. Olds takes the raw, unfiltered sides of our sexual and familial lives and shocks them into new perspectives. These lines from “The Sisters of Sexual Treasure” (Satan Says) are classic early Olds:

As soon as my sister and I got out of our
mother’s house, all we wanted to
do was fuck…


The men’s bodies
were like our father’s body! The massive
hocks, flank, thighs, elegant
knees, long tapered calves  (24)

There is an urgency here that is perfectly matched to the subject-matter. And the comparison to the father’s body is an example of deliberate, confronting detail Olds would use again and again – an uneasy dovetailing of intimate personal detail with parental interference, illness and death. I’ll focus more on why her confrontational subject matter is (mostly) successful as poetry, but for now I want to share some thoughts on Olds’ line-breaks – they are a curious, idiosyncratic aspect of her technical arsenal, and demand close scrutiny.

Olds frequently uses enjambment to delay or hasten the delivery of information. Her use of this (much misunderstood and misused) line-ending technique can be tricky to negotiate at first. It’s quite possible that she uses some line-breaks to conceal an emotional reaction to having exposed her intensely personal experiences. The paradox is a potent one: the need to write from direct experience, and the desire to construct ways to calibrate this exposure. It’s an aspect of Olds’ poetry that has intrigued me from the outset. Years ago I had an ongoing, good-natured argument with the poet Bronwyn Lea about the way Olds breaks her lines. Bronwyn’s take on it was that Olds knows exactly what’s she’s doing, and that it’s all in the name and nature of finding the best possible rhythm for each sentence, even if it seems at odds with our perceived notions of interrupting syntax. I think she may have added that Olds tries to negate reader expectation, not only with her enjambment, but her choice of odd words with which to sign off on a line. I agreed with the last part of Bronwyn’s argument, but in general I was almost dismissive, saying that Olds might have been tyrannized by where to end a line, and so let them end where they fell, as some vague notion of an aural or visual signature. I was hard to convince. The content of her poems, and the way she dealt with it, impressed me hugely, but her technical acuity was uneven to say the least. Bronwyn was right. Olds’ line-breaks might not be subtle, but there’s a strange desire to subvert our thinking of how to parse or annotate syntax, and I was stubbornly refusing to acknowledge this possibility. This curious way of negotiating a line’s-end can be best seen towards the end of the poem “Summer Solstice, New York City,” from The Gold Cell, in which a man who has come to the top of a building to commit suicide is rescued by the police.

…they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost might scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up, and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then 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. (3)

To end lines with words like “and” and “the”, and to repeat them, in quick succession, seems to go against the tide of what is expected, in terms of predictable syntax. It also creates a visual oddity – the eye and tongue want another word to fill the space left by these articles and conjunctions, and this expectancy prompts a concentrated focus on what follows: “beat him up,” “lost might scream,” “leaned him,” “tall cop lit,” “then they all lit,” “red glowing ends,” “tiny campfires we lit”… Olds begins most lines with an emphatic action, or potent sense of impending action. By beginning a line this way, the poem’s momentum is driven sharply towards its resolution. Olds does this when a poem deals with human drama, i.e. most of the time.

Imagery in a Sharon Olds poem is rarely passive, and at its best is some of the most indelible, original in contemporary poetry. It is especially good when Olds is describing sex, either within the immediacy of specific sexual acts, or in poems of reflection about dating and sex. Sometimes her poems explore the kind of territory most would either consign to an edgy memory or abandon altogether. Take “First,” from her collection The Wellspring. The poem describes a fifteen or sixteen year old (sophomore) performing fellatio on a man (“a writer, married, a father, widowed…”), she met in the hot sulphur springs by the ocean:

                              …I felt I knew
what his body wanted me to do, like rubbing
my mother’s back, receiving directions
from her want into the nerves of my hands.
In the smell of the trees of seaweed rooted in
ocean trenches just offshore,
and the mineral liquid from inside the mountain,
I gave over to flesh like church music
until he drew out and held himself and
something flew past me like a fresh ghost. (27)

This is classic Olds: personal sexual details that include a reference to a parent; the rich evocation of land or seascape; the contrast between the spiritual and intensely physical. “The mineral liquid from inside the mountain…” suggests the semen that “…flew past me like a fresh ghost.”

Another poem from The Wellspring that showcases Olds’ brilliant imagery is “Necking,” a poem that precedes “First.” The details are less visceral, yet no less arresting:

                              The interiors
of the cars were shaped like soft flanks,
the cloth front seats plump as some mothers’
laps. (25)

Again, the need to align intimacy with a parental reference. And then:

                            Berkeley, below,
without my glasses, was like a bottom
drawer of smeared light. (25)

The motifs of subdued, altered or enhanced light are common in Olds’ poems. They are often used to define varying degrees of emotional involvement in a scene or situation. This is showcased beautifully in these three lines, the first two towards the end of the poem, the third closing it:

                            The rape
and murder of our classmate had happened in these hills,
so the fragrance of the dirt, porous and mineral,
– eucalyptus and redwood humus –
that had buried her body, was there with sex,
and one gleam down there was the donut shop
where he had picked her up… (25)

                            …the rivets in boys’ jeans,
their soldered clothes, the way they carried
the longing of the species, you could not help but pity them
as they set you on stunned fire.(25)

                             …we drove down the
hill, the porch lamp blazed, I would enter
below its blurred gem, it seemed
endless then, the apprenticeship to the mortal.(26)

I have chosen these three sections as they exemplify so much of what I admire about Olds’ poems. The language is rich, yet never overextends its intentions; the images, mined from metaphor, seem both organically connected to the fabric of the lines around them, and invite close attention: “one gleam down there,” “set you on stunned fire,” “below its blurred gem…”.

“After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood” from The Gold Cell seems totemic to Olds’ overall style, and voice. Line-breaks, imagery, tone, subject-matter, rhythm, the variousness of emotion… Here is the poem:

When you tilted toward me, arms out
like someone trying to walk through a fire,
when you swayed toward me, crying out you were
sorry for what you had done to me, your
eyes filling with terrible liquid like
balls of mercury from a broken thermometer
skidding on the floor, when you quietly screamed
Where else could I turn? Who else did I have?, the
chopped crockery of your hands swinging toward me, the
water cracking from your eyes like moisture from
stones under heavy pressure, I could not
see what I would do with the rest of my life.
The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window
someone is bursting into or out of, your
tiny face glittered as if with
shattered crystal, with true regret, the
regret of the body. I could not see what my
days would be with you sorry, with
you wishing you had not done it, the
sky falling around me, its shards
glistening in my eyes, your old, soft
body fallen against me in horror I
took you in my arms, I said It’s alright,
don’t cry, it’s alright, the air filled with
flying glass, I hardly knew what I
said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you. (43)

The emotional impact this poem unleashes on the reader is unrelenting. The poem begins with a heightened sense of personal trauma and unfolding conflict, and doesn’t really ease off. And yet, despite the drama and almost palpable sense of grief shared by mother and daughter, there is a great tenderness at work here. Amid the images of splintering and flying glass, water under pressure, shattered crystal, and the horrific image of “the / chopped crockery of your hands swinging toward me…” Olds is able to simultaneously create a scene where compassion and forgiveness ebb and flow as the destruction rages. It is her true gift: to work through personal conflict with craft and a striking vision, invoking tenderness and compassion from the awful details.


2 thoughts on “Sharon Olds: The Regret of the Body

  1. Thank you for this – I do feel Sharon Olds is so underappreciated! I suspect she is too much about feelings that Australians are too embarrassed to talk about. That said, I’ve been disappointed by the books that came after The Dead and the Living. But then Stag’s Leap, which she recently got the Pulitzer for, is an amazing return to form.

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