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Critical Essay by Stephen Yenser
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:
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
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
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.
This section contains 2,848 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)